You may have heard a fox screaming and wondered what could make that sound, but this is not the only type of communication that foxes use. Foxes are social animals and use various ways to communicate.
Communication is vital within the social group and outside it. Foxes use sounds, smells, and gestures to communicate. Foxes have about thirty groups of sounds that they use and a complex body language system. Foxes also use feces and urine to communicate, marking their territory and conveying fertility information.
In this article, I look at the different ways that foxes communicate.
Foxes use many different methods to communicate with each other. Foxes are social animals, and when they meet members of their own family or even foxes they don’t know, they use different body postures and facial expressions. Foxes are members of the Canid family, and many of the ways they communicate are similar to domestic dogs.
As with dogs, foxes can use aggressive postures to show their intent to others. Gestures such as snarling their lips, making their hair stand up on end, appearing larger, or arching their back are all used. Standing upright with their tail erect and ears pricked can indicate dominance.
Foxes often fight with each other, especially when defending their territory and often slam the other fox to the ground, similar to how dogs fight. The submissive fox can often be seen crouching low to the ground, just like a dog when scolded.
Vixens can be seen rolling on their back, showing that they are ready to mate with a dominant male. Other signs that she is ready to mate include licking his nose and mouth and thrashing her tail.
When a member of the same family group approaches another member, they will wag their tail from side to side while running forward. Their ears press against their head, and a huge grin can be seen. They often crouch down to show they are submissive to the family group. Family members can be seen playing with each other, with an arched tail and flattened ears being an indication of their intent.
Facial expressions are also used to communicate. Staring shows a sign of dominance while looking away shows submission, while an open mouth can indicate playfulness.
Foxes can be noisy and can often be heard squeaking and panting in the same way an excited dog does. They often try to nuzzle the other fox, pulling at its fur playfully.
Fox cubs often welcome back their mother from a hunting trip in the same way, pulling at her fur or biting at her mouth. This is especially seen when the cubs are young, which triggers the mother to regurgitate food.
As the young grow up, food becomes scarce as the colder months draw in. Foxes try to avoid fights but these cannot always be avoided. If two foxes cannot back down, they will stand next to each other with their back and tails arched. If neither still doesn’t back down, they will start to push each other
Male foxes usually bite when fighting, with vicious strikes to the neck and head. Vixens usually fight on their hind legs, using their forelegs to push and paw at the chests and ears of their opponent. Many people think that this is why you hear them scream, but the fights almost occur in silence, with just a clicking noise from the back of the throat.
One of the most important methods of communication among foxes is calling. There are almost thirty different groups of sounds based on over forty forms of sound production. Foxes can recognize individuals from their calls.
Foxes can communicate over short distances and long distances using vocalizations. They learn to make these from a young age, with cubs making a whining sound while still underground, especially when cold or hungry. The sound attracts the mother, who will give them the attention they need.
As they get older, the cubs will develop the sounds they make into a rhythmic call with three or four yelps or barks. This call is created when the cubs are isolated from each other or their mother. It is thought that vixens can call individual cubs with their voice, using a combination of huffs, clucks, and coughs to call them.
At the age of four weeks, cubs will start fighting with each other while still in their dens, spitting through open mouths. As the young emerge from their dens at this time, the vixen will bark a distinctive warning to warn them of any danger. If the vixen is far from their shelter, this will be louder than if close.
The sound made to warn the cubs is almost like a quiet cough when close to the den. The mother will often bark continuously to frighten off the intruder, giving the cubs time to return to the safety of their underground tunnels.
Most fox vocalizations are quiet, but a loud ow-wow-wow-wow is used to mark their territory. They can also be heard bark-yapping to contact group members over long distances.
If you live in an urban area, you will probably have heard a fox screaming. The first time you hear a fox scream, it will probably scare you. It sounds like a woman being attacked, and many people have phoned the police after hearing a fox scream.
Foxes can often be heard screaming during the night, and this generally happens in the winter months. Foxes scream to attract a mate and often make them while mating. The scream is usually made by the vixen, signifying that she is ready to mate. A bark from a male can often be heard shortly afterward.
Males do sometimes scream, but this is used for a different reason. Males use a short, explosive scream to warn their rivals to stay away from their mate.
If you want to know more about why foxes scream, I have written this article.
When fighting, foxes often use a high-pitched chattering with howls and yelps called gekkering. Fox cubs often make this sound while play-fighting.
Foxes have a great sense of smell and communicate using a range of scents, including urine and feces. They use these to mark out their home range and can often be seen and smelled around people’s houses.
Feces are left in areas where other foxes can see them and can often be spotted on fence posts, gates, garden paths, and around ponds and rockeries. If they find a new object that interests them, then they may also mark these as well. These often include toys or boots left in the garden, so make sure you check any toys left out overnight.
Foxes use their noses to smell urine deposited by others. These can be strongest on cold, autumn days when the whole garden can smell ‘foxy.’ A fox’s sense of smell is much better than our own, and they can smell urine some distance away.
Urine contains a lot of information for foxes, and they can recognize which individual left it. This helps them know who is in their territory and if it has been left by an intruder or a family member. Urine also contains hormones. These help males find a female ready to reproduce as the urine contains information about their reproductive state. Male foxes lift their legs like male dogs, while vixens will crouch when urinating.
Foxes use scent glands to mark territories. These are contained in different parts of their bodies. Foxes use their tails to communicate, and they also contain scent glands on the upper surface near the root of the tail. Their feet also have scent glands that leave their scent while walking.
The most important scent glands for foxes are inside the anus. These scent glands are used to mark objects or used on their droppings to increase the odor.
Foxes will often mark each other with their scent glands while playing, especially during the mating season. They can also be seen rolling on objects, much the same as a dog, to add the smell to their odor. Foxes are smelly animals, and if you have one in your garden, you will often be able to smell it after it has gone.