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Nature Notes: Fox

Ed Robinson
April 28, 2013
Rob Bryan photo
Rob Bryan photo

Watch these creatures in the wild, or spend time working and playing with them as I did long ago, and you will gain an appreciation for these ultimate survivors.

There are 12 species of true foxes around the world, ranging from the common red fox, the more elusive gray fox, to the pure white Arctic fox. In Harpswell, you are most likely to encounter a red fox, probably crossing the road at night in your headlights. These small canids are characterized by long narrow snouts, and their distinctive bushy tails. A mature fox in his full winter coat, highlighted against the snow at dawn, is one of the most beautiful creatures in Nature.

The fox is an omnivore, meaning it will eat a wide variety of foods from mice and moles; to birds, reptiles and grasshoppers; to seasonal fruit and berries. He is armed with fine vision, a good nose, and amazing hearing. Being a clever predator, a fox is quite happy to raid the chicken coop if the chance presents itself, earning him a reputation for being a thief. But I think the fox is a great pragmatist, taking whatever food is closest at paw in a harsh, competitive world. Thank them for playing a key role in keeping rodent and rabbit populations in check.

Like many predators, foxes are territorial, marking their ranges by urinating on rocks and trees to announce their presence. They mate during winter, and the vixen (female) gives birth in her den about seven weeks later to an average of four to five kits. The kits open their eyes after two weeks, and are fully weaned at 10 weeks. If you are lucky, you might see the adorable kits chasing insects, or each other, as they learn the hunting skills they will need to survive. A childhood friend of mine had a pet kit fox and it was the most delightful playmate you can imagine, inquisitive as heck and with very sharp teeth!

A mature red fox can grow to as large as 30 pounds, but most are well under that. They look bigger, especially in the winter, thanks to a lush coat that protects them from harsh winter weather. That long, bushy tail helps keep the fox warm when he curls up for a snooze. The fox is a fine athlete, able to walk or swim long distances, to dig for his dinner and to jump obstacles up to 6 feet high. When pressed, a fox can run up to 30 miles per hour in bursts, very useful for a small animal that has long been hunted by dogs and his mortal enemy, the coyote.

Foxes are most active at night, thanks to efficient photoreceptor cells on their retina that gather limited light. If you see a fox during the daylight hours of Spring, it is probably a vixen trying to feed her hungry litter. Foxes are generally wary of humans, so if you are approached by a fox, or see one acting strangely, keep your distance. In areas where rabies is present, foxes can carry the disease and in rare circumstances have passed the disease to humans.

We are lucky to have these opportunistic creatures among us, both for their role in maintaining Nature’s balance, and for their great beauty. When walking early or late in the day, especially along hedgerows or old stone walls, keep your eyes open for one of the most glamorous animals you can see.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.