Belonging to the Canidae family, including dogs, coyotes, wolves, and jackals, the fox has a legendary reputation. Known for being sneaky, cunning, mean, and intelligent, the fox learns its way from an early age.
While they can be found in every part of the world except Antarctica, foxes are common in North America. From the southern United States to Alaska and from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the red fox can be found almost everywhere. This is because they have learned to adapt to almost every situation and environment.
A fox cub will learn by copying the behavior of adult foxes. A cub will study how to hunt before it begins to fend for itself. At a young age, young foxes are very observant and attentive and behave the same way as adults. Young foxes learn to communicate by screaming and barking.
Adapting to various situations and using their intelligence is also crucial in their learning process.
In this article, I look at some fascinating behaviors of this cunning and intelligent animal.
Family Structure and Social Groups
The widespread belief is that adult foxes live alone except during mating season. This is, however, not strictly true. While each fox travels and hunts on its own, they all live in social groups and maintain separate territories.
Different family groups control these territories. The red fox, which is the most common fox species in North America, is particularly social and territorial.
The Role Of The Vixen
A particular social or family group is led by a dominant male and a dominant female known as a vixen. A fox family is based on a strict hierarchical structure where only the dominant foxes will reproduce. Each group has only one vixen that is tasked with producing kits.
The Role Of The Dominant Male
While a family will protect its territory from other foxes and would-be enemies, the dominant male fox is tasked with mating and protecting the group.
When the vixen is preparing to give birth, the male fox has to hunt and bringing her food. During this period and for a few months after giving birth, the male fox cannot enter the den. They will leave any food they bring to the entrance for the vixen and the cub.
Expansion Of The Family Group
In addition to developing a particular social group through birth, the group can also expand by including other adults from previous litters. These foxes are mostly young females. They become helpers and are submissive to the dominant male and vixen.
Depending on food availability, a single-family group may have about seven adult foxes and several young foxes and kits.
A young fox in the group will naturally observe the group structure and activities. Given their high level of intelligence, the young fox will grow up following and upholding this family structure.
Whether this young fox becomes a dominant male, vixen, or a subordinate will depend on their role in the group.
The strict hierarchical structure is often established long before the kits leave the den. There will be vicious fights between siblings to prove dominance, and about one in five may die.
As a result of these fights, a hierarchy will be established when the kits are about 8 weeks old. After this time, serious fights will be uncommon.
Foxes normally mate in January and February and will give birth somewhere between March and May. The vixen usually gives birth to around one to ten kits. She will make a den, which will become home to her cubs until they become mature enough and learn to fend for themselves.
Young kits are fully dependent upon their mother for food, warmth, and protection. They are born deaf and blind, and the female vixen will rarely leave them on their own for the first few weeks. During this period, the adult vixen and her kits will depend on the male fox or other family members for food.
When Do Foxes First Leave The Den?
The young stay deaf and blind for up to 14 days. They depend on their mother for warmth since they cannot regulate their own body warmth. As soon as their eyes open, the cubs will be driven by the animal’s general curiosity to start exploring the den.
At about four weeks, the kits will start venturing out but will remain close to the den where their mother can closely monitor them. The mother will observe to see if they are all healthy.
Instinctively, young foxes observe how the vixen and other adult foxes take care of them. The cubs will master the process and will be able to do the same when they become adults.
The vixen plays a crucial role at this stage. At about 3 weeks, the vixen will start watching them from afar and observe their behaviors and actions. At this time, they will begin transitioning from milk to solid food. The vixen eats solid food and regurgitates it for the cubs. This is how they learn to eat other foods without solely depending on their mother’s milk.
Who Looks after the Fox Cubs?
The vixen will stay with her cubs until they are old enough to look after themselves. For the first few weeks, the vixen looks after them and will rely on the male fox to hunt and bring food. This routine will continue until the cubs can venture out at about four weeks.
Learning How to Look after the Young Ones
When the young cubs start exploring, the adult foxes will secretly stay nearby. Normally, foxes venture out at night and will return to their hideouts at dawn. Darkness provides a great cover for the young to learn from adults. The young foxes will learn how to look after their siblings and how to fend for themselves
What Does a Fox Cub Eat?
A fox cub learns a lot from its mother. The vixen will sustain them through her milk for the first four weeks. She will then gradually wean the cubs off milk and onto solid food through regurgitation, although suckling may still occur until the cubs are seven weeks old.
After the first four weeks, fox cubs will learn from their parents how to hunt earthworms and insects. While this is a tiny percentage of their diet, it is a crucial part of the hunting process.
The cubs also depend on larger mammals and birds brought back by their mother and other adult members of the group. As predators, they must learn how to eat mammals such as rabbits and other smaller prey such as voles and mice.
Foxes are omnivorous and will feed on plants as well as meat. Fox cubs feed on small mammals, eggs, insects, birds, reptiles, worms, fish, berries, fruits, carrion, fungi, and seeds.
The type of food that they eat will depend on the season and availability of such meals. Foxes will generally feed on mammals and birds during winter, eggs, and earthworms during spring, fruits and vegetables in autumn, and insects during summer.
How Do Fox Cubs Learn To Hunt?
The cubs will learn about these types of foods from the adults as they grow up. Even though the young are active and energetic, they remain cautious and cannot start foraging themselves straight away.
Cubs will hide behind shrubs to watch and learn as the adult foxes hunt. At this time, the adult foxes will become thin while the kits grow strong and energetic. This is because the adult foxes will give their young priority when it comes to meals.
There can be no doubt that sibling rivalry is a real thing for the young foxes. They will fight for access to the food, and the dominant ones will get more food, leaving others hungry and thinner.
Dominant cubs will also receive many preferential treatments from the adult foxes and will grow much faster and stronger.
In addition to having more access to food, the dominant cubs will also receive more social grooming. As the kits get older, the dominant foxes will be integrated into the social group and will remain within the group as the less dominant ones disperse in autumn.
When it comes to hunting, a fox cub will stay with their parents and learn how to hunt until they are mature enough to forage alone. The first and most important lesson they learn from their parents is that it is safer to hunt at night between dawn and dusk.
Another important lesson is to learn how to hunt through stalking. A fox will stalk live prey, pouncing on it before killing it as quickly as possible.
Despite its small size, the fox is fast and can run at 37 km/h. This gives them the ability to chase after prey if necessary, but they will generally use their intelligence to outsmart their prey.
One of the reasons why foxes are depicted as smart is their ability to sneak and kill their prey in many cunning ways. Unlike other animals such as wolves and coyotes that hunt in packs, foxes are solitary hunters. This is the reason the vixen rarely goes hunting in the company of her young.
Instead, the kits will learn how to hunt by watching the adults. Kits will catch small prey like mice, grasshoppers, and mice, and their mother will teach them how to kill.
To sharpen their hunting skills, the vixen will occasionally accompany them during their hunting trips but will hide and watch from afar, although they may intervene when necessary.
The fox is also uniquely connected to the Earth and can use the Earth’s magnetic fields for hunting. This is why you may see a fox jumping high into the air before diving headfirst into the brush or snow and emerging with a small animal.
How Do Foxes Learn To Communicate?
Foxes usually communicate through sounds and have learned and mastered various ways of communicating with each other. Red foxes generally communicate through vocalizations, body language, and scent.
Posture – A fox uses its body posture to indicate aggressiveness, fear, or friendliness. A friendly fox will wag its tail while a gaping posture may indicate aggression.
A curious fox will rotate its ears while sniffing around, whereas a fearful fox will curve its body, arch it back, point its ears backward, and swing its tail back and forth while grinning in submission. This submissive fox also maintains a lower posture when approaching a dominant one.
Sound – Contrary to the widespread misconception that foxes are loud and make unnecessary sounds, they are generally quiet animals. They will only make a sound to communicate when necessary or when mating.
Foxes can use a wide range of sounds to call out to cubs or group members. The small cubs will also bark or whine when seeking their mother’s attention.
A fox can also scream to locate its mate or family member and also to send warnings.
Senses – Unlike humans who heavily rely on their eyes, foxes depend a lot on their senses of sound and smell.
Foxes have excellent hearing. A fox can detect the sound of small prey from a mile away. They also use its strong sense of smell, not just to locate food but also to communicate. Foxes use urine to mark their territories, telling them whether a particular female is fertile for mating.
Their strong sense of smell enables urban foxes to sneak into your yard and easily locate any food. Foxes have several scent glands on various parts of the body, including the tail, face, saliva, footpads, and around the anus.
Fights – In addition to sibling rivalry, fights can be common and deadly among foxes, especially during mating seasons.
While a submissive fox is likely to remain obedient to a dominant fox, the same cannot be said when two foxes are evenly matched. They will square off and approach each other sideways while displaying both fearful and aggressive postures.
Caches – Food caching is a common practice that red foxes learn from an early age. When food is in surplus, a fox will use its possessive nature to store and safeguard surplus food for future consumption.
Foxes do not want to go through the practical difficulties of watching over the surplus food. They will dig up an area and store the food there. To reduce the chance of forgetting where the cache is, the fox will leave some form of scent to help it when tracking it.
How Does a Fox Learn to Camouflage?
Even though foxes are predators, they are also prey to several animals such as coyotes and hawks. Foxes have learned to outsmart predators in different ways. Foxes are known to carefully assess any situation to avoid errors or making rushed decisions that may be critical to their survival.
Foxes can camouflage by blending into trees, grass, bushes, and tree bark. Foxes are amazing at adapting to various conditions and situations. A fox also has the capability of staying extremely quiet. They can remain unnoticed while analyzing a situation and the best course of action.
Whatever the situation, a fox will always use its intelligence to achieve its goals and enhance its survival chances.
For centuries, stories and legends have portrayed the fox as a cunning, smart, and intelligent animal. From an early age, a fox will learn how to fend for itself and get out of difficult situations.
The fox is an animal that has featured strongly in American folklore and myths as they are one of the smartest, most cunning, and clever animals that you’ll come across in North America.