I once read that spring is the best time for fox watching. Catching a glimpse of rambunctious young cavorting amidst fresh spring growth, is certainly special. But winter is still a superb time for observing fox. The rusty orange coat is beautiful against the subdued, seasonal whites and grays. The snowscape comes to life with tracks and sign of this clever creature, providing a glimpse into its quiet, secret life.
Tracking during this season of leanness is an excellent way to develop empathy for Vulpes vulpes, and an appreciation for its intelligence, persistence, and adaptability. A little bit of insight like that can soothe the psyche. Next time a fox makes off with a hen, you might find that vengeful impulse has given way to creative problem solving. You change your management in some way, and suddenly you can live amicably among your wild neighbors. You never know.
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If you live close enough to Central Massachusetts, and you’re interested in tracking red fox in winter (and other species in winter), you might want to join me in one of my Wildlife Tracking Walks. Wherever you live, you should invest in one or two tracking field guides, plus a field guide to mammals. I regularly use the following four books:
Tracking Red Fox in Winter
The first step in tracking an animal is to learn a little about it’s behavior, ecology, anatomy, and physiology, and begin asking questions. How does it cope with winter conditions? What does it eat? Where does it take shelter? How does it move across the landscape? What animals predate upon it? Does it live in groups or singly? When does it breed? Answering these sorts of questions will help you determine where you are likely to find the animal, where you are unlikely to find it, what its tracks look like, what kinds of trail patterns it leaves behind, what its scat might look like, etc. For tracking red fox in winter, let’s start with the winter adaptations of this species.
Winter adaptations of red fox
Like many other members of the dog family, foxes can adapt to a variety of environmental challenges. For Vulpes vulpes, this includes the extreme cold. In fact, it ranges from the mid-western and eastern United States, up through northern Canada, as you can see in its range map here.
While individuals of the north tend to be larger than their southern counterparts, the red fox’s physique is extremely slender throughout its range. The Arctic fox, with its rounder body, denser coat, and superior winter camouflage, replaces it in the tundra, but I would not expect the slim red fox to thrive even in the boreal forest of Canada. Yet it does. A number of adaptations allow it to do so:
- The winter coat is much denser than its summer coat.
- They use their long bushy tails as warm cover during sleep.
- Fur covers the bottom of the feet, keeping the most distal extremities warm.
- They expand their home range in winter, to compensate for the sparse distribution of food during winter.
- They can shift their diet from fruit and berries in summer, to meat in winter, and they take carrion readily.
- They can shift habitat and hunting strategy to exploit prey that is easier to catch in deep snow conditions. For example, voles are a favorite menu item, but deep or crusty snow makes it difficult to hunt these subnivean dwellers. Under such conditions, red foxes switch to above snow creatures, such as rabbits or hares.
- They prepare for hard times by caching food in times of abundance. They even spritz retrieved cache locations with urine, to avoid wasting energy during future retrieval efforts.
Where to find tracks and sign of red fox
As adaptable and opportunistic omnivores, red foxes are found in a variety of habitats. They are especially fond of edge habitat, where different cover types, such as field and forest, meet. In fact, they seem to enjoy a veritable mosaic of habitats, which maximizes the edges. This is probably because small prey are abundant in edge habitat.
Knowing to search at the edges is a great start, and an awareness of the red fox’s dietary preferences can guide you more specifically to their tracks. In my region (Massachusetts), foxes eat a lot of cottontail rabbits in winter, especially in deep or crusty snow conditions. Where cottontails are abundant, you are likely to find red fox, not to mention other predators which dine on rabbit. Scan the shrubby edges between field and forest, in search of rabbit tracks and sign. When you find them, look for predator tracks and sign.
All of that said, red foxes are quite catholic in their habitat preferences, and you might find them traversing the forest, making use of human trails, or crossing open fields.
Red fox tracks
As members of the canid family, foxes leave tracks that look similar to dog tracks, in that they usually:
- Appear oval in shape
- Show 4 toe pads and a heel pad
- Show claw marks
But fox tracks and dog tracks differ in several ways:
- The pads of fox tracks, especially the heel pad, are less distinct, because the fox has a lot of fur on the bottom of the foot (an important cold weather adaptation, as described above).
- The heel pad of the front fox track often appears as a bar or chevron.
- The heel pad of the hind fox track often appears as a small dot.
- The heel pads of dog tracks often appear as prominent triangles.
- The toe prints of fox tracks point straight ahead, while the toe prints of dog tracks sometimes point slightly out to the side.
- The claw marks of fox tracks tend to be small and fine, while the claw marks of many dog tracks appear large and blunt.
Use a wildlife tracking field guide to look up the expected measurements of the animal’s track size, but it’s a good idea to commit to memory a few measurements that you’ll need frequently. The size of the red fox’s front track is a good one to know. The width ranges from just under 1.5 inches to just over 2 inches. Knowing this will help you distinguish red fox from coyote and from gray fox.
Tracking would be easy if you always found perfect tracks, like the red fox tracks in the photo above. But you almost never find perfect tracks. Most of the time you find poor tracks which don’t reveal detailed foot morphology. That’s why you often need to know trail patterns to determine species.
Red fox trail patterns
People can choose from various gaits, such as walking, running, skipping, and hopping. Likewise, many animals can choose from multiple gaits when they move about. Foxes are no exception. They walk and trot in the alternating gait common to many animals with 4 long legs, such as dogs, cats, and deer. But the red fox also uses a side trot quite regularly. You’ve probably seen dogs trot in a sort of sideways fashion, with the rear end over to one side. That’s a side trot. The trail pattern it produces is shown in the photo.
Red foxes live singly, except during the breeding season, so don’t expect to see trails of multiple individuals traveling together, as you will see when tracking coyotes.
Trail patterns are harder to learn than track recognition. You’re not likely to get it down in one sitting. Try to identify some trail patterns every time you track, photograph them, and study the photos with a field guide at hand. Over time, you’ll develop a good eye for trail patterns. You will need a good tracking field guide so you can look up stride and straddle measurements of the different trail patterns for each species.
Fox scat varies in appearance depending on the animal’s diet. Foxes are omnivores, and you may see evidence of both plant and animal matter in their scats. In late summer and fall, when berries are in season, you might see fox scats full of berries. In winter, when foxes eat a lot of rodents, you might find fox scats that look like twisted hair.
Fox scats might contain small bones from the small animals they eat. Foxes scavenge from large animal carcasses, but you won’t find large bone fragments in fox scat, because their jaws are not large or strong enough to chew large bones. Scats are less than 5/8 inch in diameter, and foxes tend to deposit them in prominent locations, such as at trail crossings, on logs, stones, and anything else that stands out visually.
Ever notice an odor as you walk through the woods, that’s kind of skunky, yet doesn’t knock you over the way skunk spray does? It’s probably red fox pee, which has sulfur containing compounds similar to those in skunk spray. Foxes frequently deposit small amounts of that smelly urine as they move along, presumably to mark their territory. They’ll leave it on the vertical wall of a stump or stone, or on a small sapling. In the photo, the stone covered with fallen leaves smelled strongly of fox urine. Notice the fox tracks all around it, and imagine the fox pausing to spritz.
You won’t find dens with young in winter, but it’s easier to find the dens in winter, after concealing leaves have dropped. Some of these might have been used as natal dens, and others just for cover. Red fox dens are said to have openings typically 8-9 inches in diameter; larger dens might belong to coyotes. Foxes sometimes dig their own dens, but more often use dens excavated by other species, such as ground hogs.
A preferred den location is on a south facing slope, in well-drained, loose soil, with good cover. The photo below shows one such ideally located den. If you look carefully, you can even see tracks approaching the entry. This one was a bit larger than the average fox den, and might have housed coyotes. Quite possibly, it has been used by both species, since neither species occupies any one den for very long.
Humans and foxes
As I’ve said, a wonderful thing about tracking is that it allows you to peek into the private lives of wild animals, revealing their true nature as sentient beings struggling for survival along side us. What makes that so wonderful is that people who empathize with wild animals are more likely to find ways to coexist with them, even when they conflict. I would be remiss, therefore, if I didn’t touch on human-fox conflict.
Red foxes have benefited from anthropogenic landscape changes, and are now common in many suburban and rural areas. They do enjoy the fragmented forests and backyards of suburbia, bringing them into close proximity to people. Their penchant for poultry makes them an inconvenience for many of us. The knee jerk, short-term solution is to kill them. Most people don’t enjoy killing animals, but they don’t feel as badly about it if they can justify it in some way.
An “invasive” species?
Labeling the red fox as an “invasive” species has been one way to justify lethal control. And for a long time, it was thought that the red fox in the eastern United States derived from European red foxes introduced by colonists for sport hunting. That combination of “non-native” and “common” earned it the “invasive” label.
However, a 2012 study of red fox mitochondrial DNA shows that eastern red foxes derive from native red foxes of northern boreal forests, which naturally increased their range in response to climate change and anthropogenic habitat changes. In fact, no descendants of European red foxes were found anywhere in North America in that study (Statham et al., 2012). They are native, or, at the very least, predominately so.
Red fox as a carrier of rabies
Most red foxes don’t contribute much to the spread of rabies because they quickly die from it. Nonetheless: “Just kill them, they all have rabies anyway”, I’ve been told. However, studies have shown that trapping and killing does not effectively reduce the fox population, because the remaining foxes reproduce more quickly to fill the vacant niches. Further, trapping disrupts their natural travel routes, leading to wider dispersal, potentially accelerating the spread of rabies.
The most effective method of curbing the spread of rabies is lacing bait with an oral rabies vaccine. This is done in some areas of the US and UK to prevent spread beyond certain regions. But you as an individual can do something very simple to reduce the risk of rabies: Vaccinate your pets. Dogs and cats are the rabies bridge between wildlife and people.
What do you think: Foxes are wild animals to be respected and enjoyed, or terrible nuisances to be controlled? A little of both? What kind of experiences have you had with foxes?
- Ables, E.D. 1971. Ecology of the red fox in North America. In: Fox, M.W., ed. The Wild Canids. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co: 216-235.
- Halpin, A.H. et al. 1988. Influence of snow depth on prey availability and habitat use by red fox. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 66(3): 587-592.
- Maurel, D., et al. 1986. Seasonal moulting patterns in three fur bearing mammals: Eurpean badger (Meles meles L.) the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and the mink (Mustela vison). A morphologic and histologic study. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(8): 1757-1764.
- Statham, M.J. et al. 2012. The origin of recently established red fox populations in the United States: translocations or natural range expansions? Journal of Mammology, 93(1):52-65.
- Wilson, S.R. et al. 1978. Delta. 3-Isopentenyl methyl sulfide. A new terpenoid in the scent mark of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). J. Org. Chem., 43(24): 4675-4676.
- Rabies Bulletin Europe
- Oral Rabies Vaccine Program