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Living Sanibel: Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

By Staff | Feb 9, 2011

Other names: silver fox, cross fox / Status: FL = expanding its range, IUCN = LC / Length: not including the tail, 19-35 in. (49-90 cm) / Height at shoulder: 14-20 in. (35-50 cm) / Weight: 5-22 lb (2.2-10 kg) / Life span: to 15 years / Breeds: in the winter months, with kits born in the spring / Found: All Counties, near coast, mainland / Months found: JFMAMJJASOND.

The red fox is the most widely distributed and successful carnivore on earth. It has 45 recognized subspecies and is found on every continent except Antarctica. It even inhabits the High Arctic where it often out-competes the smaller white Arctic fox. Although the red fox was historically found along the northern tier of Florida where the eastern deciduous forest ends, it has recently expanded its range southward and can now be found everywhere in the state except the Keys.

The red fox is similar in size to the gray fox, and the two animals coexist fairly well. True to the adage, “cunning as a fox,” this small canid is a brilliant survivor. There is no doubt that its expansion into Southwest Florida has been on the coattails of our own expansion in the same environment. The red fox eats just about everything, including carrion and flotsam. It also preys on fawns, rabbits, squirrels, moles, mice, birds, raccoons, opossums, reptiles, earthworms, and insects. Although considered a carnivore, the red fox is actually an omnivore; during certain times of the year, its diet may consist entirely of plant matter, berries, fruits, and tubers. This ability to alter its diet to whatever foodstuff is readily available is key to the fox’s success.

The red fox is still trapped extensively for its fur. In the U.S., the Alaskan red fox has the best fur, with silky guard hairs that make it extremely desirable on the fur market. More than 2 million red fox pelts are harvested in the wild worldwide, particularly in Canada and Alaska. Despite this continued trapping, the red fox is not threatened or endangered anywhere in North America, and only two of the 45 subspecies in the world are listed as endangered.

The female, which is called a vixen, has one litter a year with up to 12 kits in a litter. Like its cousin, the coyote, the fox was once common prey for wolves and pumas. With these two top predators gone, many more kits survive, and the fox’s numbers are steady to increasing in every state in the Union. In Australia and New Zealand, where the red fox was introduced for the British sport of fox hunting, it is considered an invasive species and has caused serious declines in many indigenous species such as bettongs, bilbies, numbats, kiwis, and wallabies.

The red fox is too small to seriously injure a human, and though it has been known to attack infants, no reported attack has been fatal. Like the coyote, the red fox will take outdoor house pets such as cats and small dogs and has been known to decimate entire flocks of chickens in a single night. The red fox will sometimes resort to an unusual behavior more commonly found in man — it will overkill prey beyond its immediate needs. Panthers and lions are also known to kill more than they can eat, ‘though no one can explain the biological mechanism behind overkilling.

The red fox is prone to rabies and a number of other potentially lethal human diseases such as tularemia and encephalitis.

Although the red fox is increasing in number, your chance of seeing one of these small secretive animals in the wild is extremely rare. It tends to hunt at dawn and dusk, and its keen sense of hearing keeps it at a safe distance from noise-making humans. The fox is a surprisingly fast animal, disappearing into the understory in a heartbeat.