Hi, friends — here we are at week #5 of my newsletter about animal encounters. If you’ve seen anything wild this week, I’d love to hear. Today I’ve got eyes and ears on the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Please send me your small stories, or add them to the comments on the website. Thanks! Amy Jean
Sometimes I see their yellow eyes in the underbrush, a slip of orange fur, a pointy snout. The red fox is, in fact, swift, like an arrow. In the bright light of day, a red fox’s white-tipped tail looks like a lit candle. Red foxes are beautiful and poetic and conjure strong emotions of wonder and awe. I also once saw a fox with its head in a pizza box. They are an opportunistic, pragmatic bunch, too.
We’re surrounded by foxes. They’re on the ground, along the edges, under our noses, in our storybooks. Red foxes are widely distributed around the globe; they are clever and adaptable and have a long history with humans. A few years back when we kept chickens, a red fox ran off with a favorite. After the chicken incident, I more clearly understood why foxes make easy villains in fables like the Gingerbread Man and Pinocchio. When my neighbor sent a video of a fat fox crossing her yard, I thought well, touché Mr. Fox, you are a healthy-looking creature. I imagine that fox had a pretty good handle on our comings and goings.
Red foxes are related to wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs, and they seem to fit somewhere between coyotes and dogs in our imagination and experience of them. They are familiar and we don’t fear them, but they aren’t exactly our best friends either. They are, in many respects, neighbors. Coyotes—as the larger predator—tend to push foxes closer to us (in that foxes steer clear of coyotes and end up in our backyards). Foxes establish territories, which can be flexible, and stay in their home ranges for life (about 3 to 5 years in the wild), raising their kits in dens, so you could in fact have foxes for neighbors.
Red foxes have a fascinating and complex system of communication, including more than 20 known vocalizations (they whine, yelp, growl, and bark in various ways). As with other creatures on the nighttime animal network, they communicate heavily with scent, marking their territories with a pungent foxy odor. They also use complex and sometimes subtle body-language cues and facial expressions. I like this description (link below): "The play face, for example, involves opening the mouth by between two and five degrees and pulling the lips back horizontally ... " Like domestic dogs, their tails have a lot to say: a downturned tail (like a puffy Cheeto) is submissive or playful, while a flagpole tail is dominant.
All of this communication allows them to establish territories and relationships within familial groups and among neighboring foxes without hurting each other. If two male foxes (aka dog foxes) encounter each other, they can test each other through ritualized display—they talk it through, in a sense—and so fights rarely lead to any real bloodshed (though they look and sound insane).
Red foxes tend to work at night, though at times I've seen them out and about during the day (particularly in winter). They have a keen sense of hearing, including low-frequency sounds, which means they can sense small animals digging under the snow. They are sneak-and-pounce hunters, not unlike cats. Red foxes hunt alone, for small animals, rather than in packs. They are omnivores and have a fairly wide-ranging diet including berries, crickets, caterpillars, earthworms (slurp ’em up), fruits and grasses (and pizza, I guess). If they are able to acquire extra food, they will hide it for later.
Amazingly, red foxes have adapted to true city life and there are somewhere around 10,000 foxes in London. They’ve also been seen in the outer boroughs of New York City and Long Island. Red foxes are great nighttime scavengers and hide during the day, though city life tends to be difficult and dangerous for them.
When I was in London a couple of years ago, I saw a red fox at midnight down an alleyway. We both paused to look at each other, ears up. It was like stepping into a storybook scene from Beatrix Potter. But it wasn’t fiction or fable, it was true—just like all the millions of foxes out there right now whining, yelping, growling with each other, watching through the hedges or from behind a garbage can, pouncing on mice, navigating complex environments, and, at the end of a long night, curling up under their candlelit tails.
Red fox links—
“Foxes don’t snarl. Wolves do. Dogs do. But not foxes." More about the "play face," plus a great image of a downturned puffy Cheeto tail combined with a gaping mouth display (all to say "let's play!”) at Wildlife Online, a wonderful rabbit hole of a website about foxes; scroll down this next page to listen to a few vocalizations, and to watch a house cat and fox eating peaceably side-by-side, until Blamo! (don’t worry, no one gets hurt)
I could watch red foxes diving into the snow for hours; here’s a good one from Smithsonian Magazine. I like how the fox tilts its heads in the same way that dogs do when you try to talk to them.
The silver fox domestication experiment in Russia has received a lot of attention over the years, and more recently some pushback. But I like how this article in Science News ends: “looking at how species are changing to adapt to our presence would be … a more intriguing way to think about the problem.”
Thank you for sending in your possum stories! Reporting from DC, South Carolina, Nashville, Indianapolis—they love the warmth under your homes, and the avocado pits in your compost.
Next week: I’m going to try something different and honor the uncommon but seasonally favorite reindeer (aka caribou).
My fox drawings are for sale; please give a shout if you’re interested.
Thanks so much for joining me on this adventure. Please share with your fox-loving friends and family. The newsletter is free and comes out on Fridays.