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 from an early age.
While they can be found in every continent except Antarctica, foxes are common in North America. The red fox can be found almost everywhere, from the southern United States to Alaska and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. They have learned to adapt to virtually any 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, but this is not true. While each fox travels and hunts independently, they live in social groups but maintain separate territories.
Different family groups control these territories. The red fox, the most common fox species in North America, is very social and territorial.
The Role Of The Vixen
A dominant male and a dominant female lead a particular social or family group. 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 predators, the dominant male fox is tasked with mating and protecting the group.
When the vixen prepares to give birth, the male fox has to hunt and bring her food. During this period and for a few months after giving birth, the male fox is not allowed to 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 primarily 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 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 subordinate will depend on their role in the group.
The 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 eight weeks old. After this time, serious disputes will be uncommon.
Foxes typically 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 are mature enough and learn to fend for themselves.
Young kits depend entirely on their mother for food, warmth, and protection. They are born deaf and blind, and the female vixen rarely leaves them alone for the first few weeks. During this period, the adult vixen and her kits depend on the male fox or other family members for food.
When Do Foxes First Leave The Den?
The young are born deaf and blind and stay this way for up to 14 days. They depend on their mother for warmth since they cannot regulate their body’s heat. As soon as their eyes open, the cubs will be driven by curiosity to explore the den.
At about four weeks, the kits will start venturing out but remain close to the den where their mother can closely monitor them. The mother will observe them to see if they are all healthy.
Young foxes observe how the vixen and other adult foxes take care of them. The cubs will master the process and be able to do the same when they become adults.
The vixen plays a crucial role at this stage. At about three 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, and they learn to eat other food without 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. The vixen looks after them for the first few weeks and will rely on the male fox to hunt and bring food. This routine continues until the cubs can venture out at about four weeks.
Learning How to Look after the Young Cubs
The adult foxes will secretly stay nearby when the young cubs start exploring. Typically, foxes venture out at night and return to their hideouts at dawn. Darkness provides excellent cover for the young to learn from adults. The young foxes will learn to look after their siblings and 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 and learning process.
The cubs also depend on larger mammals and birds brought back by their mother and other adult group members. As predators, they eat mammals such as rabbits and 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 they eat will depend on the season and availability of such meals. Foxes will feed on mammals and birds during winter, eggs, and earthworms during spring, fruits and vegetables in autumn, and insects in summer.
How Do Fox Cubs Learn To Hunt?
The cubs will learn about different 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 adults hunt. At this time, the adults will become thin while the kits grow strong and energetic. The adults give their young priority over meals at this time.
Sibling rivalry is a real thing for the young foxes. They will fight for access to food, and dominant cubs will get more food, leaving others hungry and thinner.
Dominant cubs will also receive preferential treatment from adult foxes and grow faster and stronger.
In addition to having more access to food, the dominant cubs also receive social grooming. As the cubs get older, the dominant cubs will be integrated into the group and remain there, while the less dominant ones disperse in autumn.
Fox cubs will stay with their parents and learn to hunt until they are mature enough to hunt alone. The 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 stalk their prey. 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 bright is their ability to sneak and kill their prey in many cunning ways. Foxes are solitary hunters, unlike other animals, such as wolves and coyotes, that hunt in packs.
The kits will learn how to hunt by watching the adults. They 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 occasionally accompanies 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’s body posture indicates aggressiveness, fear, or friendliness. A friendly fox will wag its tail, while a gaping posture may show 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 many sounds to call out to cubs or group members. The tiny 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 send warnings.
Senses – Unlike humans, who heavily rely on their eyes, foxes depend a lot on their feelings of sound and smell.
Foxes have excellent hearing. A fox can detect the sound of small prey from a mile away. They also use their 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 quickly locate any food. Foxes have several scent glands on various body parts, including the tail, face, saliva, footpads, and around the anus.
Fights – Besides sibling rivalry, arguments can be shared 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 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 a scent to help it find 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 bark. Foxes are fantastic at adapting to various conditions and situations. A fox can stay extremely quiet, remaining unnoticed while analyzing a problem and the best course of action to keep safe.
Whatever the situation, a fox will always use its intelligence to achieve its goals and enhance its survival chances.
References and Further Reading
“The Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation of Foxes” by David W. Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett
“The Fox: The Animal World of Foxes” by Michel Lipkes
“Foxes, Wolves and Wild Dogs of the World” by David Alderton
The Red Fox: Ecology and Management” by David W. Macdonald and Brian Sillero-Zubiri
The Fox in the City: Urban Ecology of the Red Fox” by David Macdonald and Lesley J. G. Lawson
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.