Red Fox Family
This week’s focus is on a group of animals that are not currently patients or residents at Peace River Wildlife Center. A family of red foxes is living a healthy and happy life in the wild and hopefully they can remain that way. PRWC recently asked the editors of the newspaper not to report the location when they print pictures submitted by their photojournalists or citizen photographers of wildlife. Quite often when the location of an eagle’s nest or a baby barred owl is disclosed, everyone wants to see it for themselves. While it is gratifying that so many people care about wildlife, it is disruptive to the animals when groups of people gather in such close proximity to their homes, especially if they are raising young and cannot easily move. So I will not say where this particular fox family’s den is. Suffice it to say it is, or could be, in a neighborhood near you.
While there is some dissention as to whether the red fox is a native species in North America or it was introduced by the European settlers, recent studies have supported genetic proof of the former. There is no question that red foxes were brought to the US from Europe because the colonists favoured the red fox as a hunted quarry. The native grey foxes would often outfox the hunting dogs by adeptly climbing trees, while the red fox is a much more terrestrial creature. Red fox populations did exist in the northwestern regions of the country and appear to have expanded east and south, judging by DNA studies done in 2012 and reported in an article in Journal of Mammalogy 93(1):52-65, entitled The Origin of Recently Established Red Fox Populations in the United States: Translocations or Natural Range Expansions? By Statham, M.J., B.N.Sacks, K.B. Aubrey, J.D. Perrine, and S.M. Wisely. (http://www.mammalsociety.org/articles/origin-recently-established-red-fox-populations-united-states-translocations-or-natural-ran)
The Florida native grey fox has a lot of red fur also, but the red fox is easily distinguishable by its tail—the bushy red tail has a black ring at the end with a prominent white tip. The red fox is genetically similar to the dog, but has some unique characteristics. The red fox is approximately the size of a small dog, weighs about 10-15 pounds and is about two feet long, plus another foot of tail. The weight is deceptively low for its size; being half of what a similarly sized dog would weigh. Its bones are much more narrow and lightweight than other canines allowing it to run faster and leap higher. It is also quite adept at swimming. It has semi-retractable claws, similar to a cat, which keeps the nails sharp by reducing contact with the ground as it walks and runs.
The red fox’s stomach is half the size of a dog’s, further reducing its body weight, but necessitating frequent feeding. To assist with that requirement, the red fox has very acute senses. Its eyes are especially adapted to finding prey in low light situations. It has elliptical pupils, more rods (for increased ability to detect movement in low light) than cones (the dominant structure in human eyes which help us see colour and vivid images), and a tapetum lucidum, a layer at the back of the eye that reflects what little light there is back onto the retina. The red fox’s senses of smell and hearing are also keen and help with hunting. It has long whiskers, or vibrissae, on its snout and wrists which further assist in finding food in dim light.
All of these adaptations help the red fox find prey. It primarily eats mice, rabbits, squirrels, and rats. This true omnivore will also eat small birds, reptiles, amphibians and fruit. When food is plentiful, the red fox will even store a cache. It will not attack pets like dogs and cats, especially if the owner is close by. The red fox is an elusive creature and prefers to slink away or hide in its den as soon as it hears or sees a person or dog.
The red fox breeds in late winter or early spring, giving birth to 1-10 kits, average litter size being five. The family will usually stay in the area of the den until the kits are six months old, at which time the juveniles will head out on their own. The parents mate for life and will often return to the same den the following year. The den is almost always found within a few hundred yards of water and usually has multiple openings.
The family in these pictures took over a large gopher tortoise burrow. The kits have been exiting the den slowly over the past few days. First one brave baby ventured out, and then two were seen. Now at least five kits can be seen romping about at dawn, jockeying for position in the pack and learning to hunt. It is rewarding to watch wildlife in a natural setting; a sight that is getting all too rare these days.
Help PRWC keep wildlife wild, safe and abundant. Use native or Florida friendly plants in your garden. Tread lightly when you visit a natural area—take only pictures and leave only footprints. Intervene only when an animal is in need of assistance. Learn everything possible about the species that interest you and pass it along. In the immortal words of Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM