May 31, 2023
We have a Red Fox family at the end of our short street. She denned under the deck of a summer home and it’s a very quiet, wooded lot without much human impact. Foxes easily adapt to human presence. It is not unusual, then, for fox to den in a neighborhood with humans, under decks or sheds. They will raise kits (or pups) here and use these dens as shelter from severe weather.
Young foxes are called pups, or kits and when they’re first born, they are tiny! They weigh about ¼-pound, about 4 inches long with short black fur. They’re also completely dependent on mom and dad. Pups nurse mom for the first 4 weeks. Once kits can open their eyes, they’ll start to explore the den. Then, they’ll start eating scraps of solid food brought back to the den by the male.
Pups become familiar with their surroundings in the den, and then they will become curious about the things that lie outside of their cozy home. However, they won’t start to leave the den until they’re more than a month old. Even still, they won’t stray far, staying very close to the safety of the den. This is where our local fox family is right now. It has been delightful watching the kits romp around with each other and antagonize mom as she mostly rests close to the pups trying to catch up after keeping those kits fed and safe.
Once the kits are 12-15 weeks of age, they have to start foraging for themselves. At first, they follow the adults to learn the ropes. Many pups don’t make it through this stage. But by 3-4 months, the surviving kits are fit enough to feed themselves. They still stay relatively close to the den for safety. It will be several months before they start exploring the entire area and venturing away from home.
After one year these young fox leave and begin a life of their own. When winter rolls around, they are mature and ready to breed. They will mate during the winter months, and then find a suitable den in which to birth a new litter of cubs. Then, the cycle starts all over again with new young, which will follow the same patterns as mom and dad.
If you find a fox family in an inconvenient spot, consider allowing them to stay until the young are old enough to begin accompanying their parents on foraging outings. At this point they are nearly ready to say goodbye to the den site and move on for good. At nine weeks, they will begin to hunt with their parent; at this time, it’s a good time to encourage them to leave. It’s really tempting to want to provide treats or nourishment for any cute critters around home. Please don’t succumb to that idea. Feeding wild animals ultimately will create a situation that is not it in their best interest. If they become habituated and are looking for food, or aren’t wary of people, they probably won’t survive their lives in the wild.
Keep it as wild as possible!
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What do Fox eat…? They are omnivores, so anything! They will eat eggs, insects, vegetation, fruit and scavenge on dead stuff. But the typical prey would be voles, mice, rabbits, birds, amphibians, other small animals. It’s interesting to watch a fox on the hunt. They may be prancing along and suddenly, slowly, start to creep across the meadow with its ears erect and turning in many directions. If it senses a tasty morsel, it stops, the back arches head is focused AND BAMB, there’s the canine pounce when the fox leaps into the air with an arched back and comes back to the ground exactly where its radar led it. Sometimes the butt end sticks into the air (especially in snow) and when it emerges, it may or may not walk away with a meal!
Just as wolves and coyotes don’t much like each other, the same is true of foxes and coyotes. Competition for food is the rub. In Yellowstone the over-abundant elk population was one of the motives to restore wolves to the mix of species that live here. Wolves like to take down something big. Once the wolves were back, the balance of predator/prey species started to return.
After a hunt, wolves gorge themselves, and then pass out. While they sleep, the coyote steals the leftovers. While awake, wolves and coyotes are always wary of each other.. So the wolves chase, harass and sometimes kill coyotes. It’s much the same between coyotes and foxes. Coyotes see foxes as competition and an irritation, and so they chase and kill foxes. Wolves and foxes, though, have less in common, food-wise. What they do have in common is a dislike of the coyotes that try to rob them of their respective lunches. More than one study after wolves came back to Yellowstone in the mid-90s showed a decrease in Coyote populations in the habitats with new wolf families and an increase in fox numbers!
From the Yellowstone NPS website:
Below is an image of all 3 “wild dogs”
(if you see each one of these species on one day we say you’ve had a “3 dog day”)
Wolves have LONG legs, a stout nose and blocky head, and their ears are much smaller than the coyote and fox relative to that blocky head. Coyotes are, of course smaller, but relative to the size of their bodies, the tail is larger as are the ears. Coyotes have a more pointy nose. Fox have an even bushier tail, pointier nose and very large ears. Size and color are very difficult to use to identify these canids, other than the black colored wolves in the population of Yellowstone.
Speaking of babies, tis the season…last week I was with a group in the park and we saw many hundreds of bison calves ( some call them “red dogs”). They are small, cinnamon red in color and I think of them doing 3 things; nursing, sacked out on the ground, surrounded by adults and nursing or jumping around like wind up toys. They are born and within just a few hours they are steady on their feet and active.
We did see a calf that was born with in the hour that was still struggling to get up and nurse. Mom still had some afterbirth visible. This is a rare site to experience new life as it arrives!
Bison calves tend to arrive in the month of May and elk calves in the month of June. This is a big generalization as we did see ONE very young elk calf as well.
One last thing I want to share with you is a wonderful walk yesterday on one of our winter ski trails. With a friend, Carol, we started off with a few snow patches still visible, and some puddles of water. In several of those puddles we saw huge clusters of Springtails (snow fleas) Do you remember Nature News #48 when I wrote about these small crustaceans on the snow? Below is link for a video of their activity after snowmelt….
As we walked around a bend a huge Sandhill Crane was standing on the trail and took off when it sensed us. Watching that I heard the comment “oh, my, I feel like I just watched a young flying dinosaur”.
Glacier Lilies and other flowers abound…..it is truly a time of new life in Greater Yellowstone.
As we approach the summer solstice this first day of June, be sure and make some time to be outside.
Best to you, Leslie firstname.lastname@example.org
PS, The Wild Wind board just awarded 2 Kid for the Wild Scholarships! To read more about that program, check out https://walkinjim.com/kid-for-the-wild-scholarship/
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Mary Oliver