Have you ever seen a red fox walking through our Northwoods, or even your yard? Unless you are very lucky, or spend a lot of time looking for wildlife, you are just as apt to see a fox on a television nature program than in the wild. That is because a fox is mostly active at night, while wildlife programs may be filmed during the daytime with tame foxes.
When there is snow on the ground, the wild fox leaves its tracks where they can be easily followed by the daytime observer. Since their prey is more difficult to catch during the winter, they may extend their hunting activities into the daylight hours.
The tracks of the red fox look like those of a small dog, except that they are usually all in a straight line. The patterns of tracks left by the two different animals show their contrasting behaviors. A dog that is being walked by its owner and is out for exercise is likely to leave sloppy wandering tracks as it romps and plays in the woods. The fox’s trail is much more direct, as it is in the business of hunting for food or covering different parts of its territory by the shortest route possible.
Beside the tracks of foxes, one may find their droppings, called scats, along with urine marks. These are odor messages between foxes as are those between dogs. Unlike those of dogs, fox scats usually contain hair or berries, and are pointed at the ends. They may be left regularly in a certain area. When the snow is fairly deep, one may also see food caches, which are patches of disturbed snow up to a foot wide where a fox has stored its dinner leftovers. The food caches may be marked with urine spots.
Winter life for a fox is hard work, as it is for any wild carnivore. There is no bowl of dog food waiting for it in a warm house as there is for the fox’s domestic cousin. Plant food is limited to occasional crab-apples, wild grapes and berries, which are mostly gone by the time the snow covers the ground.
An animal that lives on green leaves like the woodchuck, or worms, like the garter snake, can hibernate during the winter, but not the fox. Mice and rabbits are its chief food, and to catch them, the fox must hunt all the time, only sleeping during mid-day. The fox’s reputation for slyness and cunning is well-earned by its need for survival.
Foxes generally form pairs in mid-December as a prelude to breeding. Their trails may then be seen in pairs, running parallel up to 200 yards apart, or sometimes following in the same prints. In January or February, mating occurs, and then the pair looks for a den to raise their young.
Although a fox may dig its own den, he usually enlarges one from the previous year, which may be an old woodchuck burrow. The den opening is usually a hole 10 inches wide and 15 inches high, with a mound of earth and sometimes the remains of small mammals scattered around. The den may have more than one entrance. The young are born between mid-February and mid-March, and average four to six per litter.
Like any other wild mammal, a fox has what is called a home range, the area where the individual animal travels through its life. Home range varies from hundreds of square miles for grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions to about a couple of hundred square feet for the house mouse. A fox with a mate has a home range of about 11/2 square miles, while a solitary fox may wander much farther. Frequently the home ranges of foxes overlap, so that dens of different pairs can be close together .
So far we have been talking about the red fox, but the gray fox is also found in the Northwoods, its track is smaller and more delicate than the red fox, for the gray fox is little bigger than a house cat. Less common than the red fox, the gray has the habit of climbing into low trees to escape danger.
The red fox is one of the most beautiful and interesting mammals of the Northwoods, yet it still suffers from the prejudice that the public has toward predators. Many people have an attitude instilled in them by children’s fairy tales, that nature is divided into “good” animals like rabbits, squirrels and deer, and “bad” animals like wolves, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. In my opinion, there is no justification for such a division of animals, especially in our Northwoods. With a shortage of native predators like foxes, the woodchuck, mouse and squirrel populations in some of our areas has greatly increased, threatening our native wildflowers.
So the next time you take a walk in our winter woods, look for a line of dog-like tracks in the snow. If you actually see a fox out hunting its food, consider yourself very lucky, for you will have seen a sight which most people rarely see.
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to starjournal@jcp group.com.