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Red Fox is The Ghost of The Forest

This winter, I spent several days skiing in Vermont. Several large snow storms created a canvas of fresh snow on the mountainside, and every morning a new scene played out in the fresh tracks that were revealed. The chairlift to the summit was the perfect vantage point to easily identify the wanderings of coyote, wild turkey, squirrel, cottontail rabbit and snowshoe hare.

One track I recognized was left by my old friend, red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Fox paw prints are smaller and the gait shorter in length than the larger coyote. Like the coyote, when walking the tracks are “direct-registering” with the hind foot track landing directly on top of the front, representing two tracks in the same print.

The tracks of this red fox came out of the woods and then uphill directly under the chairlift. From our perch in the moving chair we followed the tracks below and they went in a direct line for several hundred feet. The tracks became shorter in stride and stopped. A few feet from where the fox stopped, we saw more paw prints in a circle, and then they continued uphill — again in a straight line. A spot of red on the snow betrayed the life and death struggle of a small rodent, perhaps a field mouse or vole.

I have seen a red fox on several occasions and have followed the tracks of a red fox in the snow several times. Primarily nocturnal, red fox are usually seen at dusk or early morning light darting across roads or though fields and yards. Each morning, as we ascended the mountain in the chairlift, we would scan the snow-covered ground below us for fresh tracks.

The red fox is common in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. They range over most of North America and throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They can be found in grasslands, deserts, mountains, forest and even in suburban areas. Highly adaptable to different environments, they do prefer a mixture of forest and open fields and use the transition zone or “edge” habitats between forest and field as hunting areas. Our region, being predominately forests and fields, is perfect habitat for red fox.

An adult red fox will be about 3 feet to 3.5 feet in length, including 1 foot or more of thick and beautiful tail. The red fox is about 15 inches tall at the shoulders and averages 10-12 pounds, with the male being larger than the female.

Identified by its reddish coat, the red fox has black legs and ears, a long, white tipped bushy tail, a long muzzle, pointed ears and a white underside. The tail is proportionally longer than the tail of the coyote and is held horizontal behind the fox when running.

They are not the only fox species in our region and are sometimes confused with the less common gray fox, with its rusty red ears and neck. The gray fox, as its name indicates, has a gray coat with a white colored tail and chest. The gray fox also has the unique ability to climb trees.

During the winter months, the female red fox (vixen) prepares a nursery den. The den may be one used the previous year or a former woodchuck burrow in a sandy hillside. She will then send out a scent “invitation” and choose a mate from among the male red fox (dogs) who are attracted to the scent. The pair will remain together until the following autumn. The next breeding season they may get together again, or she may choose another mate.

Seven to eight weeks after mating the female will give birth, usually in late March or early April, to an average of six pups. The pups are a quarter of a pound in weight and resemble fuzzy lumps of dark coal at birth. They are both deaf and blind at birth and are fully dependent on the mother and the protection of the den for the first few weeks of life.

Until the pups are old enough to be left alone, it falls to the male to bring food to both the female and the pups. Within a month, the pups fur fades to a sandy-gray color and they will begin coming out of the nursery den for brief and tentative forays. These forays are most hazardous since they can fall prey to coyotes, great horned owls, eagles and cats.

Weaning begins around 40 days from birth when solid food is introduced. By 10 weeks the pups will join the parents on nightly jaunts. By autumn they will have their adult coloration and, though not fully grown, are able to fend for themselves. Soon, they will wander away to claim their own territory. Unfortunately, about 50 percent of the young of every litter will succumb to predators or disease. If they make it to adulthood, their natural life span is between three and seven years.

The fox will scent mark its territory boundaries with urine and the female will scent its den to attract a male. They also communicate vocally and have a variety of sounds well beyond those of the barks, yips and howls of coyotes and dogs. The scream emitted by a little red fox is startling and almost unearthly and sinister.

Unlike other canines, such as coyote and wolf, the fox prefers to hunt and live in solitude and not in packs. The exception for this is during the spring and summer months when rearing pups. There is a simple reason for the preferred solitude. The red fox, while omnivorous, dines mostly on small rodents such as mice and voles. It is easier to sneak up and pounce on a rodent hidden in the grass or under the snow when working alone. Another reason for their solo hunting is the impracticality of sharing such small morsels among a pack of hungry hunters.

The fox uses catlike stealth and a sharp sense of eyesight and hearing to stalk close to the prey, then it will crouch and recoil like a spring straight up in the air and down on the unwary rodent with their front paws pinning it to the ground.

They will hunt ground birds and larger rodents, such as squirrels or rabbits, by stealth and gradually moving forward when the prey looks away. It will then rush forward to chase and grab with its mouth. They will also eat insects and berries as well as apple drops in the fall. Ever the opportunist they will dine on barnyard chickens, rabbits, young lambs and ducks.

Former Hampton resident Edwin Way Teale is among my favorite nature writers. He perfectly describes the wily red fox in his book “A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.”

“So, the fox roams through the night, so quick, so aware, so free and independent, so self-reliant, a predator but not a parasite, living by its wits, a freebooter among the wildlife. The fox’s character, like its face, is whittled to a point. All its faculties are brought to bear on the problems of survival. Its bright eyes and slender face are filled, if not with a kindly or philosophical expression, with awareness and intelligence. It is through beauty of form and intensity of life that the fox stands out among our visitors from the winter woods.”

Beauty of form and intensity of life captures the nature of the red fox perfectly. These beautiful animals, like so many others who reside in The Last Green Valley inspire me to work every day to ensure they will have a home here. I hope you’ll join me and many others to care for, enjoy, and pass on the abundant natural and cultural resources that make this region unique and special.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.