Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… today appears drastically different from a few days ago. We had an accumulation of about three feet of snow, and now after several days of 40 to 50-degree weather, it has disappeared from almost everywhere. Only the meadow has several inches of snow cover, and a few patches still linger in the woods. While we had the snow cover I was able to see what different animals were visiting just by looking at the multitude of different tracks.
The red fox tracks are easy to identify because their footprints occur in a single line. As they walk their left hind foot goes into the right front print, and then right hind foot goes into left front footprint. From experiencing and perhaps from one of my past columns, you probably remember that the disgusting smell wafting in the early winter breeze was probably not made by a skunk. It is more likely that the odor was created by a male fox spraying his scent to entice a female fox. The male will spray his musky urine onto rocks, stumps, bushes, and snow in the hopes of luring a mate. If a female seems interested and then another male fox makes an appearance, they will fight to see which one can claim her. Their fighting is actually quite civilized, and neither will be physically harmed. The males stand on their hind legs and place their front paws on each other’s shoulders. Then they scream with their mouths wide open and push each other. The screaming and pushing may last for as long as fifteen minutes. When one finally gives up, the other is the winner.
Neither the male nor female fox will hibernate for the winter. They will sleep on the ground under the shelter of a large tree. They wrap their bushy tails around themselves for warmth. Fox dens are only used by the females to give birth and raise her kits. The kits will be born sometime between March and May. A fox den may be found in a field, the woods, within an elevated bank of a stream, or even in a culvert, or occasionally a den may be an unused woodchuck den. The gestation for a fox female is about fifty-two days, and she will only give birth to one litter a year. Five kits is the average number, but she could have as many as ten. The kits are born with their eyes closed and are covered with a fine layer of fur. Within eight to twelve days, their eyes will be open. They begin walking at three weeks and can leave the den at four to six weeks. The female will nurse them and groom them, and the male will bring food to the den for the first couple of weeks.
The kits will begin to establish dominance within about twenty-five days. The largest kit, either male or female, is the “top dog.” After the hierarchy is established, they begin to play, explore and hunt. At five weeks, their fur is sandy reddish brown, and at fourteen weeks, they resemble adults and are fully grown at six months. An immature fox can breed at ten months old. A fox is basically nocturnal and has truly amazing eyes. Their eyes are similar to domestic cats. Their eyes have a vertical oval pupil and a green reflective layer, which enhances both night and day vision.
Red foxes are easily identified by their coloring and bushy red tails with white tips. Their fur makes them appear much larger than they really are. They measure twenty-two to twenty-five inches from nose to the tip of their tails. They have reddish fur, a white belly, and black lower legs and feet. What may be surprising is their weight is only between ten to fifteen pounds. They are members of the Canidae family, which includes domestic dogs, foxes, coyotes, and wolves but their appearance and skills somewhat resemble those of the Felidae family, which includes domestic cats, bobcats, lynxes, and mountain lions.
Red fox stalk and pounce on their prey, similar to the hunting practices of cats. Like cats, they have excellent balance and can remain motionless for long periods of time when stalking. Cats have retractable claws, and red foxes have semi-retractable nails, which is unlike dogs, coyotes, or wolves. Foxes also have whiskers that are long and sensitive and may assist in hunting at night. Their acute hearing of low-frequency sounds, such as gnawing, digging, and scurrying in leaves or under several feet of snow, lets them capture small rodents. Red foxes have long strongly muscled hind legs which exert maximum push-off force. This allows a red fox, from a couching position, to catch a frog, mouse, or vole at a distance of fifteen feet. Their stomachs are small and can hold only about one ounce of meat at a time, therefore, they must eat frequently. When prey is too large to consume all at once, they will cache the food, which is also similar to cats. Red foxes are omnivores, and the seasons and what is available determine what they will eat. Fruits such as grapes, apples, plums, and berries are part of their diet.
Red foxes may be found in many areas, from rural to suburban. The territory or home range is generally one to five miles depending on habitat, food, and whether it is a male or female. How can you tell if a fox has been in your area? The evidence may be a single line of footprints, or it might be fox scat which can be found on objects such as logs, rocks, or in the middle of a trail. The scat is small and pointed at each end. If it is older scat it will turn gray or whitish because of the consumed mammal bones. They are crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hunters, so those are probably the best time of day to see them.
More about the gray fox in a future column; one big difference between the two is that a gray fox can climb trees.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.