Canines or canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals and foxes) belong to the order Carnivora, which consists of the land-dwelling, meat-eating mammals. They are mainly carnivorous, eating all types of meat as well as insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Some, notably jackals, will eat carrion and some, especially jackals and foxes, consume a good deal of vegetable matter. All are doglike in general appearance, with lithe, muscular, deep chested bodies and long, slender legs. The tail is typically bushy, the ears usually large and erect, the muzzle long and slender. Canids are digitigrade, meaning they travel on their toes. Most canids have five toes on the front feet (including a vestigial dewclaw) and four on the hind feet, with straight, blunt, nonretractile claws. (The domestic dog has vestigial dew claws on all four feet, while the African hunting dog has no dewclaws.) All canids (except the bat-eared fox of Africa, the bush dog of South America and the dhole of Asia) have a total of 42 teeth. The canines are long and powerful and the carnassials (last upper premolar and first lower molar) are well-developed for shearing meat. Males have a well-developed penis bone or baculum. All canids have a scent gland at the base of the tail on top.
Canids are intelligent, cunning and alert. They are opportunistic and adaptable, with a flexible social organization. Some capture prey by open chase, others by stalking and pouncing. Some hunt alone, others in packs. Those hunting in packs frequently migrate along with their principal prey. Canids have amazing endurance but are not capable of short bursts of extreme speed. They rely mostly on hearing and smell, less so on sight; however, all senses are acute. Most species have a distinctive howl or bark. Oddly, the two species of gray fox often climb trees.
There are about 36 species of canids, varying in size from the large gray wolf to the small fennec fox. Canids probably originated in North America during the Eocene Epoch some 38 million to 54 million years ago. They occur naturally throughout the world except the West Indies, Madagascar, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo and some other East Indian islands, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and most oceanic islands. Additionally, the domestic dog has been introduced virtually everywhere and has become feral in many parts of the world. Nine species of wild canids occur in North America, of which one is the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) and seven are smaller varieties, including the coyote (C. latrans), red fox (Vulpes Vulpes), swift fox (V. velox), kit fox (V. macrotis), gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), island gray fox (U. littoralis), and arctic fox (Alopex lagopus). Six of these are open to hunting.
See the listings below and follow the links for more information on each subspecies or variety and for information on hunting techniques and what you should expect when pursuing this quarry.
Lobo (Sp), Wolf (G), Loup (F). Also called wolf, common wolf, timber wolf, or tundra wolf. We use the name gray wolf (instead of just "wolf") in order to differentiate this animal from the red wolf of North America, which is a different species, and the maned wolf of South America and the extinct Falkland Island wolf, which are not actually wolves.
DESCRIPTION (male) Head and body length 40-60 inches (100-150 cm). Tail length 14-22 inches (35-56 cm). Shoulder height 26-32 inches (66-81 cm). Weight 80-120 pounds (35-55 kg), occasionally much more. Females are about 20 percent smaller. Chromosome count is 78.
The gray wolf is the largest wild member of the dog family and is considered by scientists to be the ancestor of the domestic dog. (It has been generally accepted that the domestic dog was tamed about 14,000 years ago; however, a recent study indicates that it may have been as long as 135,000 years ago.) The gray wolf resembles a large German shepherd dog (only much larger) with its heavy frame, long legs, large feet and thick, bushy tail. The skull is especially large, with powerful jaws and large, well-developed meat-eating teeth. The fur is moderately long and thick, being almost luxurious. Coat color ranges from nearly white through shades of gray and brown to black, with the grays most common. Color phases are not geographically separable, and variations are often found in the same pack; however, lighter colors (and larger wolves) predominate in northern areas.
BEHAVIOR An intelligent, social animal, living in family groups or packs that sometimes include more than one family, or other individuals besides the family. There is a dominant pair, with the male the pack leader. Pack members hunt together, cooperating to run down and kill prey animals that are typically larger than themselves. Principal prey includes deer, elk, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, bison and muskox, domestic sheep and cattle, and also beaver, rabbit and various rodents. The size of a wolf pack often relates to the size of prey animals in the area, as more wolves are required to bring down larger animals. Packs are territorial, with their boundaries marked and defended against other packs. Size of home range depends on the amount of prey available. Packs that depend on migrating caribou will migrate along with them. A wolf can run 25 mph (40 km/h) for a mile or two, but can lope 10-12 mph (16-19 km/h) more or less indefinitely when chasing prey. Swims well. Eyesight is excellent, hearing good, sense of smell superb. Has several vocalizations, each with a particular significance. Mating season is late winter or early spring, with the pups (range is 1-11, but usually six) born two months later in an underground den. Wolves mate for life. Life expectancy is 10-16 years in the wild, up to 20 years in captivity.
HABITAT Forest, tundra, plains and mountains.
DISTRIBUTION Originally all of Alaska and Canada, including most of the arctic islands; parts of Greenland and Newfoundland; most of the United States; and the interior plateau in Mexico. At present, its distribution is mainly from the Canadian border northward; however, there are isolated populations in the states of Washington, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and possibly also in a small area in northern Mexico.
Besides North America, the gray wolf is also found in Europe and Asia.
REMARKS Hunting the intelligent, wary wolf is difficult, and most are taken by chance encounter, though a person spending enough days in good wolf country will see wolves eventually and may get a shot. On a wilderness hunt for other species, it sometimes is productive to sit in a blind within rifle range of a fresh gut pile.
TAXONOMIC NOTES Some 24 subspecies of gray wolf are listed in North America, but differences are minor. All unendangered forms are combined here for record-keeping purposes.
STATUS The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) lists as endangered the gray wolf from the eastern United States (1967), northern Rocky Mountains (1973), Mexico (1976), Texas (1976), and the rest of the conterminous United States, except Minnesota (1978). Limited hunting is now legal in Wisconsin, Michigan, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Wolf numbers are estimated at 4,000-7,000 in Alaska and at more than 30,000 in Canada; overall populations do not appear to have declined since the 1950s. There are about 1,200 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Montana. As of 2011 report there is an increasing number of packs in Idaho and they have huntable population. There are regular reports of wolves from the northwestern conterminous U.S. (Nowak, 1991).
Native to North America, coyotes are a close relation to the gray wolf. Once known as an animal of the American West, the extirpation of the wolf in many areas has allowed coyotes to expand their range throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico. They are found as far north as 70°N in Northern Alaska and as far south as 8°N in Panama.
Coyotes are smaller than wolves, coming to about two feet (.6 m) at the shoulder and measuring 3.5 - 4.5 feet (1.1 - 1.4 m) in body length. Depending on their environment and diet, coyotes can weigh anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds (9 - 23 kg). Northern coyotes are typically larger, averaging 40 pounds (18 kg), while southern coyotes in Mexico average 25 pounds (11.5 kg). Females are typically smaller. The largest recorded coyote was killed in Wyoming in 1937, weighed 75 pounds (34 kg) and measured almost 5 feet (1.52 m).
The coloring, thickness and texture of a coyote’s coat also vary by geography. The topcoat, consisting of course guard hairs, is typically grizzled or reddish gray, sometimes a butterscotch color, interspersed with white and black. Its softer undercoat is buff, while the legs are often rusty-yellow, sometimes with a black strip on the foreleg. The tail is bushy, ending in a black tip. Coyotes living in desert areas are more reddish-yellow or whitish-gray, while those found at high elevations tend to be more black and gray. Northern coyotes also have longer and denser fur than those in Mexico and Central America. The coat of southern coyotes can also be bristly. Like foxes, wolves and domestic dogs, coyotes have a bluish-black supracaudal gland on the upper side of the base of the tail.
Coyotes range long distances and have been known to travel up to 400 miles (654 km) or more. They can run for extended periods at speeds of 25 to 30 mph (40 to 48 kph) and for short bursts up to 40 mph (65 kph). Coyotes mate from February to April, with pups born from April through May.
A highly adaptable species, coyotes have learned to live in a wide variety of habitats, even on the fringes of large cities, such as Los Angeles and Phoenix. In Florida, coyotes have been seen in the wetland ecosystem of the Everglades. They have thrived from the tropics of Guatemala to the northern slopes of Alaska, in grasslands, semiarid sagebrush flats, cactus-filled deserts, alpine regions, open plains and mountainous areas. They can be found across most of North America.
Highly opportunistic, coyotes hunt or scavenge for whatever they can catch or find. They will eat everything from rodents and rabbits to larger animals such as deer when hunting in packs. They will kill and eat rattlesnakes, fish and crustaceans. They have also been known to steal the prey of other small predators and will eat fruit, such as prickly pears and berries, or carrion when nothing else is available. According to a report by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, coyotes are the number one livestock predator in western North America, accounting for more than 60% of sheep and lambs lost to predation. In areas close to human habitation, coyotes have been known to kill and eat small pet dogs and cats. Strong swimmers, they will pursue prey even in water.
Coyotes are probably best known for their iconic yips and howls. In fact, the species was named for its vocal tendencies, as Canis latrans means “barking dog.” With at least 11 known calls, the coyote is described as the most vocal of North American mammals. Like all canids, coyotes are intelligent and wary.
Foxes are small to medium-sized canids found on every continent except Antarctica. There are six different genera, with a total of 37 species. Of those only the 12 species of the Vulpes genus are considered “true foxes” with one common ancestor. Regardless, they share many common traits. Foxes are smaller than most of the other canids, such as coyotes and wolves. They have a small flat skull, triangular face with pointed ears that are always upright, a long sharp snout turned slightly upwards, and a long bushy tail quintessential to foxes. Foxes are digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes. They also have partially retractable claws, which is different from most other canids. Foxes have whiskers (vibrissae) on the muzzle, head and forelimbs. They have the same dental formation as other canids with a total of 42 teeth (except for bat-eared foxes, which have six extra molars for a total of 48 teeth). Although foxes are omnivorous, they have the typically pronounced carnassial teeth of a carnivore, designed to shear flesh, and the pronounced canines for gripping prey. Foxes eat mainly insects and small vertebrates, such as mice, birds and reptiles, as well as bird eggs. They also eat berries and some plants.
The red fox (Vulpus Vulpus) is the largest fox species, with males weighing between 9 - 19.2 pounds (4.1 - 8.7 kg). The smallest species is the fennec fox, weighing 1.5 - 3.5 pounds (.7 to 1.6 kg). Male foxes are called dogs, tods or reynards; females are vixens. Foxes tend to live in small family groups, except for Arctic foxes, which are solitary animals.
North America is home to species from two of the fox genera. The species from the Vulpus genus that are native to North America are the Arctic fox (V. lagopus), kit fox (V. macrotis), and swift fox (V. velox), and the red fox (Vulpes Vulpes), which is the most common and widespread species of fox in the world.
The species from the Urocyon genus that are native to North America are the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) and the island fox (Urocyon littoralis). The gray fox, like the red fox, is prolific throughout much of North America. The island fox is a federally protected endangered species found only on the Channel Islands of California.
Methods of hunting
There are several methods of hunting foxes and traditions of running foxes with hounds in North America.
One hunting method is to track a fox on fresh snowfall with several hounds. Beginning in early morning, hunters look for fresh tracks. When a track is found, the hounds are released to follow the scent. The hunters attempt to intercept the fox. This is not an easy task, even with hounds, as foxes are wily and adept at escape. They have excellent scent and vision and will run in such a way to confuse and evade predators. Among its defensive counter measures, the fox will take to thick cover that is difficult for dogs and hunters to penetrate. It then zigzags its way through that cover, sometimes circling back, throwing the hunters off its track and the hounds off its scent.
While both red and gray foxes have been clocked at speeds of 26 – 30 miles per hour (41.8 – 48.2 kph), neither can maintain it for long periods. The gray fox is considered a poor runner, played out in about an hour. Adept at climbing trees, the gray fox will not hesitate to do so, especially when pressured by hounds. It will hide in the boughs much like a squirrel but tends to lose its confidence when the hunters arrive and may jump its perch.
Another hunting method is to glass snow-covered hillsides for foxes sunning themselves, which may be easier than still hunting. Still hunting, walking slowly and silently through the woods, requires soft snow and a fresh track, plus lots of patience to find and follow fox tracks in hopes of getting a shot at one. Foxes typically bed down by day. The red fox will lie in the open on a rock or shelf at an elevation. The gray fox prefers more cover, in a hole or among some tree roots. Foxes will often backtrack to watch their trail before bedding down, so the hunter must follow the track noiselessly, scanning ahead and to each side. Shooting opportunities can be fast, often occurring when the fox is jumped from its bed. Foxes jumped even several hours before dusk will not bed down again until the next day. And if pursued immediately, they will run a long distance before stopping again.
The gray fox prefers swampy or brushy lowlands where it has the option to run up a tree. Look for areas or habitats with game trails, dry sand ditches, clear cuts, old dirt roads, ditches, or terraces in cultivated fields and meadows. Both gray and red foxes will use one or a combination of these for runways. Unlike wolves and coyotes, that follow runways in a counterclockwise regularity, the fox likes to mix things up. It will follow a path for a short distance then cross over to a ditch, a dirt road or trail. After a while, it will zigzag back across to the original trail. Fox scat will mark its runway, as gray and red foxes tend to defecate and urinate at specific spots along their runways. When tracking, foot pads generally show distinctly as do also the claws.
Sometimes a drive conducted by a group of hunters can flush a fox. Two or more hunters take up positions downwind along a fence line or wooded ridge where a fox is likely to cross. The others track and drive the animal towards them. Ideally, there would be enough drivers to flank the area as well, preventing the fox from moving out the sides and forcing him to sneak past the standers. The success of this method is determined by teamwork and a lot of luck.
Gray foxes can also be lured with a varmint call imitating the squeal of an injured rabbit. Red foxes do not respond as well to this method.
In the eastern United States, the traditional English style of fox hunting, or chasing, with foxhounds from horseback is still practiced. This is mostly seen in the Atlantic seaboard states from the Carolinas to Virginia. This form of hunting was imported from England during the colonial period. This is a highly structured affair, with numerous protocols and a formal dress code, including the iconic red jacket, called a “pink.” Today, there are more than 160 registered foxhound packs in the US and Canada. Several associations dedicated to this form of hunting also exist, including the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America and the American Foxhunters Association. About 20,000 people participate in this form of foxhunting. The red fox is the preferred quarry on these hunts, as it has more endurance and is more evasive than the gray fox. Some of these hunt clubs, however, do not actually chase a live fox but rather an artificial scent trail laid for the dogs to follow.
In the South, the horseback-style fox hunt mostly disappeared after the Civil War, but the love of foxhounds chasing foxes endured. A southern tradition among many rural people is to release a pack of hounds at night, allowing them to find and chase foxes while the dog owners sit around a campfire socializing and listening to the “hound music.” It is a practice among those with a deep appreciation for hounds and the specific sounds they make when striking a scent, chasing and then baying the fox. Dedicated houndsmen can identify their dogs by their “voices.”
The fox is not typically killed in either of these two forms of fox hunting, although the dogs will kill it if they catch it. The activity is more about the excitement and experience of hearing and seeing the dogs work the scent trail, and riding after them through the countryside.
The arctic fox (white fox, polar fox, snow fox) is a small fox native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In North America it is found from the Arctic Ocean islands of northern Canada southward through northern and eastern Northwest Territories, northeast Alberta, northern Manitoba, northern Quebec around Hudson Bay and northern Labrador. It is also found in northern and western Alaska. The arctic lives mostly in tundra but can be found at elevations up to 9,800 feet (3,000 m) above sea level and also on pack ice. They have even been spotted on sea ice near the North Pole. In its southern reaches, arctic foxes are found in the Canadian boreal forests of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador. In Alaska it is also found in the forests of the Kenai Peninsula.
Well adapted to living in cold environments, Arctic foxes must eat voraciously in the summer and autumn, even when not hungry, in order to store fat for the winter. They can increase their body weight by more than 50%. They also store food, especially snow goose eggs, to consume in the winter, hiding them in holes in the ground or under rocks. If food becomes scarce, arctic foxes migrate southward.
The Arctic fox is omnivorous, eating berries and even seaweed, but it’s main prey is lemmings and voles (field mice). Foxes near goose nesting areas will eat mostly goose eggs and goslings. But it will also kill and eat ringed seal pups, fish, waterfowl, rabbits and hares, and seabirds. The artic fox also eats carrion and has been known to follow polar bears in order to eat the leftovers from a kill.
Best known for its thick white fur, the artic fox’s pelage actually changes with the arctic conditions. In the summer, its fur is gray or bluish brown with white undersides, matching its surrounds. In the winter, it comes pure white, blending with the snow and ice and camouflaging against predators. There is also a blue phase, that is pale blue-gray in the winter and darker in the summer.
Similar to gray and red foxes in many ways, the arctic fox as short legs, smaller ears and a rounded body shape to reduce heat loss. Fur on the foot pads not only insulates against the cold but provides traction when traveling on ice. Artic foxes are about 12 inches (.3m) high at the shoulder. Males range from 18 - 27 inches (46 - 68 cm) in body length, while females measure 16 - 22 inches (41 - 55 cm). The tail is about 12 inches (30 cm) long. Males can weigh up to 20 pounds (9.4 kg) but average about 7.5 pounds (3.5 kg).
On average, Arctic foxes only live 3–4 years in the wild. Litters are delivered from April to June and can include up to 25 pups but typically have around six. They are weaned and on their own by sometime in August.
Arctic fox numbers fluctuate with the populations of their main diet, namely lemmings and voles. These rodents seem to be on a 3- to 4-year cycle of boom and crash. Fox populations are very vulnerable during the years when the prey population crashes.
The gray fox is a distant relative of the red fox, which is from another genus of foxes. Native to North America, the gray fox is found in the eastern US and on westward through most of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Utah and Nevada, most of California and western Oregon. In Canada it ranges from southern Manitoba through southeastern Quebec. It is also found in northern South America (Venezuela and Columbia), making the gray fox the only North American canid with a natural range that includes both North and South America. There are 16 recognized subspecies of gray fox, all related to geographical location.
Once the most common fox in the eastern United States, the clearing of dense brush and forests preferred by the gray fox has allowed red fox populations to dominate in this region. The gray fox remains the dominant fox in the Pacific States. Its habitat is a mixture of timbered and brushy forest broken up by small clearings and mixed with rocky outcroppings, canyons and dry arroyos or washes. In warmer regions, the gray fox does well in swampy areas.
The uneducated often mistake the gray fox for the red fox due to the red fur on the upperpart of the body. The gray fox, whose name cinereoargenteus means ashy silver, is grizzled or ashy gray over most of its upper body. The reddish fur on the throat, legs and top of the head is what confuses casual observers. At the higher elevations of gray fox range, the buffy bricklike red can become a cinnamon. The gray fox does not have the black stockings on its legs that the red fox has, but it does have a strip of black fur along the top of its tail, ending in a dark gray or black tip. The gray fox also has a white throat patch, and the inside of its ears and its underparts are white to ashy gray.
Other features differentiating the gray from the red fox are more obvious at close examination. The gray fox’s tail has a series of guard hairs that produce a mane-like appearance and lack almost any soft underfur. Another difference is the skull, which has a different and more pronounced muscle ridge forming a U-shape; the contour of the lower jaw is also different. These differences are obvious when comparing the bare skulls of the two animals. Also, the gray fox has a much shorter muzzle, and its pupils are ovals instead of the slit-like pupils of the red fox and the arctic fox.
Females are slightly smaller than the males. Gray foxes are just over 12 inches (30.48 cm) at the shoulder and 29.9 - 44.3 inches (76 - 112.5 cm) in total length. The tail measures 10.8 - 17.4 inches (27.5 - 44.3 cm). Gray foxes usually weigh from 7.9 - 15.4 pounds (3.6 - 7 kg), although they can weigh as much as 20 pounds (9 kg).
Gray foxes mostly hunt at twilight and night time but are often spotted in daytime. Like other foxes, they are omnivorous, eating insects and small mammals (rabbits, rodents, woodchucks and moles), but also apples, persimmons, grapes, cherries, wild berries and grasses, plus field corn, nuts and melons. They will also kill domestic fowl and newborn lambs. As the only American canid able to climb trees, the gray fox will eat any birds it can catch as well as eggs and chicks. In some parts of the western US the gray fox eats primarily insects, plants and fruit.
The breeding period varies geographically, but ranges from February in the south to March in the north. Kits are born from March to April. Litters usually have two to four kits but can have up to seven. The kits are weaned and hunting on their own by four months of age.
In winter, the gray fox will hole-up in a den, usually in small caves, rockpiles, or in hollow logs or trees (oaks are a favorite). While it can also dig a den, the gray fox is more likely to enlarge an abandoned woodchuck burrow. It prefers rocky habitat for denning, often among big boulders forming rugged rocky slopes at the base of crags, cliffs or valley shoulders (talus slopes).
The kit fox is a North American species of fox with its range primarily in the deserts and arid regions of the Southwestern United States and northern and central Mexico. In the US it is found in Nevada, Utah, southeastern California, southern Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and into western Texas. Its northernmost range is the arid interior of southern Oregon and the eastern limit is southwestern Colorado. In Mexico the kit fox is found in Coahuila, Baja California, Baja California Sur, northern Sonora and Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, western Nuevo León, Durango and northern Zacatecas.
Mostly gray to yellowish it has rusty highlights on its upper body, much like the gray fox. Its back is typically darker, while the underside and ears are light-colored. The kit fox has the quintessential bushy fox tail, which ends in a black tip. But it lacks the black stripe that runs atop the gray fox’s tail. The kit fox has two distinct features: dark patches around its nose and very large and closely set ears. A denizen of extremely hot regions, the kit fox regulates its body temperature by dissipating heat through its ears. Not surprisingly, it also has exceptional hearing.
The kit fox is the smallest of all the North American canids. Males are slightly larger than vixens, averaging 3.5 – 6 pounds (1.6 – 2.17 kg) and 17.9 – 21.1 inches (455 – 535 mm) in body length. The tail is another 9.8 - 13.4 inches (250 – 340 mm) long.
Its habitat is desert scrub, chaparral and grasslands at elevations of 1,300 – 6,200 feet (4,000 – 1,900 meters). It can also live around urban and agricultural areas if food is available. The kit fox is primarily carnivorous, eating mostly small mammals (kangaroo rats, rabbits, voles, prairie dogs), insects, reptiles, fish and ground birds. It will also eat fruit from the saguaro cactus and tomatoes in agricultural areas. Like other foxes, it will also eat carrion.
Mostly nocturnal, this fox usually spends the hot hours of the day in its den, leaving after sundown to hunt. Kit foxes prefer areas of loose soils to dig their dens but will readily take over the dens of prairie dogs, badgers and other rodents. Entrances are usually covered by thick brush. They use dens year-round, rotating between several in their territory. Home ranges are from about 1 - 7 square miles (2.4 to 11.6 square km). Males range about two miles (3.22 km) and may overlap with others.
Kit foxes are mostly monogamous and mate for life. Breeding is from December to February, with litters of 1-7 kits born March – April. They are independent at 5 – 6 months. Like red foxes, the young will sometimes stay with the parents to help raise the next litter of kits.
More than 75% of predation on kit foxes is by coyotes. Other predators include bobcats, red foxes, badgers, feral dogs and large raptors. The kit fox’s greatest threat is loss of habitat from development and agriculture. It has also been impacted by eradication programs targeting coyotes and red foxes.
The red fox is the largest of the true foxes and the most widely distributed. It is found across the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, across North America and in Eurasia. The red fox is the only native fox to Western Europe, but it is a descendant of a smaller canid from Eurasia. When colonists introduced red foxes from England to the American colonies on the east coast, they did not realize that the red fox already had been a resident of the continent for about 11,000 years. Today it has one of the widest ranges of all North American mammals: found in Alaska, throughout Canada and most of the United States.
They are highly adaptable to new environments, including suburban and even urban areas. Introduced to Australia in the 1830s, it is considered an insidious invasive species there, credited with the extinction and decline of several native Australian species. In New Zealand it is prohibited for importation.
There are 45 recognized subspecies, which are divided into two categories: large northern foxes, and the smaller foxes of Asia and North Africa.
Named for the rusty red coloration on most its body, the red fox has a white underside and white tip on the end of its long bushy tail. The fur on the back of its ears is black, as well as on the lower legs and feet. In some parts of its habitat it has a more reddish hue. There are also black and silver color phases. The tip of the tale is white in all phases. In its southern habitats the tail is smaller than on red foxes in the northern reaches.
The American red fox is smaller than its English counterpart, coming to 15 – 16 inches (38.1 – 40.6 cm) at the shoulder. It is about 36 – 39 inches (91.4 – 99 cm) long and weighs 7.5 – 15 pounds (3.4 – 7 kg).
Red foxes prefer fairly open country with cover that is not too dense, as opposed to the gray fox found in heavy forest and brush. As long as there is sufficient food, they will range only 5 – 6 miles, increasing their wanderings if food is scare.
Although they may go to a den to escape bad weather, red foxes don’t typically retire to their burrows in winter nor do they migrate. A red fox is more apt to curl up in the snow on cold, windy days, retreating underground only if the snow is very heavy. They typically dig burrows in well-drained areas on a slight rise with a view of the surrounding area. Ground cover is usually sparse. Dens may be among tree roots, on a hill or mountain slope, in rock clefts, ravines or bluffs. Foxes also favor steep banks, ditches, depressions, gutters and neglected human structures. They have been known to share dens with badgers. A noted field runner, the red fox seldom holes up when chased unless he is played out and otherwise unable to escape.
Red foxes breed once a year from January to March with litters born March through May. They usually have 4 – 6 kits, although they can have up to 10. They typically return to the same dens each year to raise young. During this period the opening of a fox den is often littered with pieces of prey left for their young. At four months, kits can take care of themselves and leave the den.
Red foxes are often in family groups of a mated pair with offspring or a male with several related females. The young often stay with parents to help care for new kits. The adults split up in August and remain solitary until early winter when they find mates.
As with other foxes, the red fox is omnivorous, eating whatever it can catch or find. A shy and nervous animal, the red fox hunts mostly at night and preys primarily on small mammals such as mice, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, rabbits, raccoons and opossums. Secondary prey species include birds (songbirds, ground birds and waterfowl), reptiles, insects and other invertebrates, fish and crayfish. They will sometimes attack very young ungulates. While a fox’s sense of smell is good, its vision may be more important when it is hunting.
Red foxes also eat a variety of fruit and plant materials, including apples, cherries, corn, berries, acorns, grasses, grapes, figs, dates, cherries and tubers. In some areas, fruit can account for all their diet in the autumn. Foxes also store surplus food in the snow in winter and in leaves or dirt during summer.
Red foxes typically dominate other species of foxes and will kill them and smaller predators. The arctic fox’s southern range, for example, is often where food becomes too scarce to support the larger red fox. Otherwise, the red fox outcompetes the arctic. Both will kill each other’s kits if given the opportunity. Grey foxes seem to be the exception, able to not only hold their own but dominate red foxes where their ranges meet. Deforestation has opened much of what was previously gray fox habitat in the east, allowing more interaction between the two species. Red foxes actively avoid coyotes and wolves and are preyed upon by golden eagles and wild cats (bobcats, lynxes and cougars).