No matter where you live, in the United States or even in the world, chances are there is a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) relatively nearby.  My apologies to the people who live in the southwestern part of the country, you are out of luck on this one.  That said, this species is amongst the most widely dispersed mammals on the planet.  

No wonder they often appear in folktales and children’s stories. Some times they are lovable characters, but sometimes they are the villain.

You may be wondering if they are so ubiquitous, why haven’t I seen one, or why don’t we see them more often?

Let’s try to increase the odds of you seeing these beautiful creatures.

  • First, let’s start with habitat:  Foxes often traverse transitional areas.  Think of the edges of open brushy fields and woodlands or wetlands.  

What you may not realize is that whether you live in an urban area, a suburb, or out in the country, if there are fields and a food source, you may be able to spot a fox.  They will need to be out foraging food, either for themselves or for their offspring. 

  • What kind of food do they eat:  Red foxes are omnivores.  In less populated areas, they may eat rodents such as voles, crayfish, insects, and wild berries.   In towns and cities, they will not only help to control vermin but they also eat food scraps (trash) left behind by humans.  

While foxes often get a bad rap for eating chickens on farms, which can happen, foxes can be more of a help to farmers than a hindrance by helping to control the other pests that would impact field crops.  

Note that foxes generally do their hunting and foraging at night and twilight.   Although, it’s not unusual to see a fox during the day, especially if they feel safe.  In fact, I’ve occasionally seen a fox enjoying a stretch on an exposed rock ledge on a sunny summer day. 

  • Tracking:  Now that you know where to look, let’s see if you can find a sign that one (or more) is around.   First, consider that a red fox is part of the canid family, so you should be looking for something that resembles a dog’s print.  This means that it will be roughly oval in shape with four toes and respective claw marks, as well as that triangular pad.  The claw marks may not be distinct, however, because their feet are quite furry.  

The tracks are about 1.75-2.5 inches long and about 1.5-2 inches wide.  Notice if it looks like the rare foot is stepping into the front footprints.   This type of walking is called a direct register gait.  This is particularly evident in tracks left on the snow.  

  • Identifying a possible fox den (also known as a burrow or earth, in the UK):  You may have followed some tracks to a location where there is dense vegetation.  There may be boulders or a large tree.  The ground seems to have a hole about a foot in diameter, with some loose soil around it.   (Think of how a dog would have dug a hole to bury a bone.)  There may seem to be a lot of “foot traffic” here.  You may have found a fox den.

Keep in mind that foxes keep multiple dens.  These are generally only used to raise their young and store food.   They often don’t sleep in the den.  

Are there feathers or bones nearby?  These would be the discards from recent meals.

Is there a water source nearby?  Even a small one?

Do you catch the scent of urine?  Foxes mark their territory just like the dogs. 

Do you see any scat (poop) nearby?  Foxes often have a “latrine” fairly close to their den.

  • Scat:  Fox droppings are twisted on one end and sort of long.   They often have hair, and seeds or grasses in them.  It is usually very dark in color.   These droppings are sometimes used to “mark” territory and in my neighborhood, the local fox makes frequent deposits in my driveway.   

Now, let’s assume you found the den.   PLEASE do not linger or disturb the foxes.   They have an excellent sense of smell and hearing and will know that you are there.  They may ten abandon that location, which is not what you want at all!

If you want to take photos of the fox, consider doing the following.  Be sure that you are downwind of the den and use your longest lens (like a 400mm).  Otherwise, you are unlikely to ever get the shot.

  • Other things you should know about foxes:
    • Males are called dogs and females are known as vixens.
    • Their territorial range can be 3-7 miles square but this is a rough estimate because environmental and population pressures can impact this. 
    • Their mating period is between late December and the end of March, depending on the geography.
    • Therefore, litters are delivered in late March through May.
    • A study presented in the Northeastern Naturalist in 2013 showed some indications that red foxes may play a role in lowering the abundance of rodents that contribute to the spread of Lyme disease.  More work needs to be done on this to understand the actual impact. 
    • Red foxes have a typical lifespan of 4-6 years in the wild.  

Equipped with a better understanding of when and where foxes are most likely to be in transit, I’ll bet you’ll be seeing one soon!

If so, tell me about it.  I’d love to see any photos you snap.

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