Meet the Incredible Mr. (and Miss) Fox

Red foxes are awesome! They can run up to 30 miles per hour for short distances. They leave toys out for their young. And they are the only mammal in Illinois with a rusty-colored coat. Read on to find out more about these animals that are equally at home in the forest and your backyard.

A red fox. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Red foxes belong to the canine family like dogs, wolves and coyotes. You can see the relationship in the way they look. They are small, only about 3 feet long including their tails, and weigh between 7 pounds and 18 pounds. Their coats are mostly red, but they also have dark brown or black fur on their outer ears, legs and feet. Their cheeks, throats, undersides and tail tips are white.

Although they are related to dogs, they sometimes remind people of cats. They have whiskers and are nocturnal with great night vision. You might see them in the early morning or late evening when they are hunting. They have five toes in the front and four in the back.

Range and habitat


They are very common in the Northern Hemisphere. This is their natural range. They are the most widespread meat-eating mammals on the planet. We see them throughout Illinois, especially our part of the state.

 

Words to know

Burrow: A hole or tunnel dug by a small animal.

Canid: A mammal in the dog family.

Forage: To search for food.

Longevity: A long life.

Nocturnal: Active at night.

Pounce: To spring up or swoop in to catch prey.

 

Look for them along forest edges, grasslands, farm fields, neighborhoods, parks and cities. They don’t get along with coyotes — the larger canids take all their food or even eat them! To escape coyotes, red foxes have moved into urban areas.

They often sleep aboveground, but they will use a den to raise their pups or to shelter in bad weather. Sometimes they dig their own den, but most often they use an abandoned woodchuck burrow.

Life cycle


Female foxes are called vixens and male foxes are called dog foxes. They mostly stay together for life. They mate in wintertime. Around March or April, the vixen gives birth to a littler of about two to 12 pups, which are also called kits.

A red fox and her kits. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Mom and Dad help raise the kits together throughout the summer. They leave out bones or bits of garbage for the kits to play with. Siblings might also play flight and work on their pouncing skills. Both parents are attentive and will often play with their pups. By the fall, the young are mostly ready to venture out on their own.

Red foxes live about three to seven years. In addition to coyotes, the biggest threats to their longevity are vehicles and diseases, like mites.

Diet


A balanced diet for red foxes includes foods they hunt like rodents, rabbits, birds and other small game. They are built for the hunt. Not only do they have great night vision, but they can also hear a mole digging miles away underground.

They are generalists, and they also gorge on berries and other fruits, vegetables, fish, frogs, grasshoppers and even worms. When around people they might seek out garbage and pet food. For this reason, you should bring Fido’s kibble inside. Otherwise red foxes (and other neighborhood critters) might become reliant on humans and forget how to take care of themselves. Don’t forget to cover your garbage cans, too. Please don’t intentionally feed them. Let’s keep wild animals wild!

Communication


Red foxes talk with growls, yelps and short yapping barks. They even have a “wow, wow, wow” call that might sound more like a bird than a mammal! Researchers have recorded more than 20 different sounds red foxes make. Kits even have their own special calls like murmurs and whines.

They also signal in quieter ways. Sometimes it is with poop or urine. During foraging, they can make up to 70 urine markings per hour. Other times they use their big bushy tails to communicate with other red foxes. (Their tail is their utility tool. In addition to communicating, they use tails to help balance and as a cozy blanket on freezing days.)

This doesn’t even cover all the great things about the red fox. They can jump over 6 feet in the air. Their tail is more than half their body length. They can hear a crow flying from one-third of a mile away. Armed with all this great information, go out and enjoy red foxes. From a distance, of course.

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