Thursday, December 31, 2009

Red Fox

Nature Watch
By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Have I mentioned lately how much fun it is to live in the northwoods? I continue to be amazed by what we can see in the natural world in one or two days. On my own property, in the last week, I’ve seen wolf tracks; a bobcat, whose tracks I searched for the next day; two red squirrels chasing each other around a tree, for what seemed like a dizzying amount of time; white-tail deer tracks, everywhere; and what appears to be a red fox bed site. In a few days’ time I had the content for several weeks Nature Watch articles.

I was exploring the forest behind my house. I found the beds on a small hill, four disc-shaped beds with fox tracks leading up to them. I smiled with such pride at having found them in the forest, probably one hundred yards away from my house. I had to find out more. Was it mostly likely a red fox or gray fox? Was it one fox returning for several nights, or two? I had to know the answers.

Was it mostly likely a red fox or gray fox? Gray fox are not as common in the northern third of the state, as Wisconsin is the northern part of its range. Therefore, I assume that the bed sites were made by a red fox.

Was it one fox or two? In December, males and females have paired up in preparation of the breeding season, which means the bedding sites I viewed are possibly from two animals. Foxes sleep while curling their long bushy tails around their body and over their nose and foot pads to keep warm. Red foxes are nocturnal, with most of their hunting taking place two hours before sunset until a few hours after sunrise. Able to run up to thirty miles per hour, they can travel up to nine miles in one night in search of food.

In the winter, red fox eat mostly meadow voles, mice, snowshoe hare, and cottontail rabbits. During other seasons they will eat squirrels, songbirds, eggs, insects, snails, crayfish, berries, fruit, acorns, corn, or grass. The red fox is a solitary hunter that searches field edges or forest while search for their prey. They have excellent eyesight, as the slight movement of an ear may be all that is needed to locate a rabbit or squirrel. They can smell eggs or young rabbits in their nests. Their large ears allow them to locate a sound within one degree of its actual location. Additionally, fox can hear mouse squeals from 150 feet away, or hear movement underground, dig, and capture their prey. From a distance, they creep low to the ground, slowly towards the correct location. Once they are close enough, they will often launch themselves up at an almost forty-five degree angle, pouncing down on the site of their prey. They can jump up to fifteen feet away! They will sometimes kill more than they can eat, and will bury food for future use.

Fox families have their own marked territories that they defend from intruders, a space that is from 150-400 acres. Scenting is an important form of staking territory, as they mark rocks and trees with their urine. When facing another fox, they may participate in a group chase or will charge and growl. They wave their tail to communicate their presence. Red foxes also have a wide range of vocalizations that peak during winter during the dispersal of juveniles as they stake out new ranges, and during the mating season. They have barks used as internal family communication, as a warning, or to convey information. They have “shrieks,” “staccato barks,” and “whines” to interact with others and establish contact. They have “wow-wow” barks for friendly communication. “Coughs” warn cubs of potential danger, and “growls” and “screams” are used in defensive positions.

If you seem me on the street, please do not be surprised if I give you a “wow-wow” bark as my hello. Also please know, if I cough, it is probably due to a cold, not a warning! Be sure to spend some of your own holiday season outdoors! Who knows what you will discover in your own back yard. Be sure to include a night listening session as well. For listening to potential fox sounds, choose cold, clear winter nights when fox prefer auditory communication. If you have your own red or gray fox story to share, please email the Museum at, or post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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