Portrait of a Predator

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 23, 2010

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is considered the most widely distributed carnivore in the world, and is found throughout Missouri. Readily identified by its golden-red coat, black “socks” and white-tipped tail, this sprightly member of the dog family rewards careful observers in both urban and rural locales with a glimpse into the wildness of our state.

An important furbearer and game species, the red fox is sought by trappers, predator callers and hunters. Farmers also benefit from the fox’s diet of crop-damaging species, such as rodents, rabbits and grasshoppers. However, few animals prey on the red fox. Known to sometimes pursue smaller domestic stock and game birds, and able to adapt to almost any habitat, it can become a nuisance.

Managing the size of Missouri’s red fox population helps magnify the positive role of this mid-sized predator, while minimizing its nuisance potential. The Department of Conservation monitors red fox populations closely in order to set hunting and trapping seasons, track outbreaks of disease, and develop control programs for communities and private landowners.

COAT OF MANY COLORS

Not all red foxes are red. Members of this species may be red, white, silver (black frosted with white) or cross (reddish brown with a black band down the back and across the shoulders). The color “morph” that shows up depends on location and genetics. All share the distinctive white-tipped tail, and usually a patch of white under the chin.

Nearly all red foxes in Missouri have red coats, but cross foxes have occasionally been found. Males and females are colored similarly and young foxes are gray and brown.

STANDARD STATISTICS

Red foxes generally weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, with males slightly heavier than females. Their thick coats, especially in winter, can give the impression of greater size.

Home ranges are 50 to 1,500 acres, depending on habitat. Fox territories do not overlap and are defended aggressively.

Though red foxes may live 6 to 10 years in the wild, most have significantly shorter life spans. However, some individuals have lived as long as 15 years in captivity.

DINNER’S WHAT YOU MAKE IT

Primarily a carnivore, the red fox pursues rabbits, rodents and other small mammals, which helps regulate those populations. Excellent sight, hearing and sense of smell allow it to track the smallest burrowing prey. It will also hunt ground-nesting birds—including ducks, grouse and quail. Poultry and smaller livestock are occasionally taken.

Mainly nocturnal, but often active at dawn and dusk, the red fox is a solitary hunter. It quietly stalks its prey and then pounces on it—behavior more familiar in cats than dogs. Up to a pound of meat is eaten at each feeding.

Red foxes also consume reptiles, fish, insects, earthworms, eggs, plant material, pet food, carrion, human garbage and other items when available. This flexibility of diet makes life in the city an easy transition.

COUNTRY FOX, CITY FOX

Forest edges, fields and cropland are some of the traditional habitats of the red fox. Urban areas, such as golf courses, parks and lawns offer similar amenities—with the additional benefit of fewer coyotes and bobcats. Foxes compete with these two predators for habitat and prey in the wild, and they may become their prey.

Dens are only used for rearing young, so the red fox is very mobile. It simply curls up in a convenient location to rest, tucking nose and feet under its tail in cooler weather.

The red fox population has declined in Missouri over the last three decades. However, as habitats are fragmented into smaller parcels and cities edge closer to natural areas, more foxes will probably head for town.

FAMILY TIME

Red foxes yap, bark, yell, yowl or screech throughout the year, but they use a particular pattern from January through February, when they search for mates. Females give a shrill squall, which is answered by the males with two or three short barks.

Though solitary throughout fall and early winter, the pair will live together while raising their young. They will take turns at hunting and protecting the pups.

The female modifies an existing den—from a woodchuck or other animal—for her own, or she builds anew. The site might be a sunny hillside, the edge of a forest or field, a rock crevice, or under an old building.

Den layout includes multiple entrances and a long burrow up to 75 feet, which contains one or more chambers. One of these will be grass-lined for the pups. Alternate, less elaborate dens are built nearby, in case the pups must be moved to avoid danger.

Gestation takes an average of 53 days, and a single annual litter, usually 4–7 pups, is born in March or April. The young are helpless and remain in the den until they are 4 or 5 weeks old. By 20 weeks of age, they can hunt for themselves but remain within a half-mile of the den site.

The pups disperse in the fall, traveling an average of 6–14 miles. They are capable of reproducing in the spring following their birth.

The red fox is a notoriously elusive species, but it is well-established here in Missouri. With careful management, it will continue to satisfy the curiosity of naturalists, provide plentiful sporting opportunities and fulfill a beneficial role in our natural communities.

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