How Do Foxes Navigate?

The red fox is a common sight in North America and I wanted to find out how they navigate.

How do foxes navigate? Foxes have excellent eyesight and night vision which allows them to navigate at night.  Foxes have a really good sense of smell and hearing which they use to detect prey even in the darkest conditions. 

A foxes territory can range from 0.2 square kilometers in urban areas and up to 40 square kilometers in the hill country.  I wanted to find out how they navigate their way around the territory and what makes them so good at this.

If you would like to know where red foxes live, I have written an article here.

Do Foxes Have Good Eyesight?

Foxes have vertical pupils, typical for creatures that are active at night.  Foxes see well in dim light and have a wider field of view than humans.  The fox has a viewing angle of 200 degrees compared to humans at 180 degrees.

Their eyes have six to eight more times rod cells, which are more sensitive to lower light than humans.  They have eyes that are similar to cats eyes with larger cornea and tapetum.  This helps to reflect light to the retina, helping to gather more light.  This makes prey that is silhouetted more prominent.  The extra rods also allow the fox to sense motion in the dark better than ourselves.  The foxes vision is mainly based on movement, and they have been known to walk past crouching rabbits.

The fox has good visual acuity at short range.  This can be seen by how quick they move through woodland, under fences, and through gates, through scrub and forests when disturbed.

Tests indicate that foxes see the same color range as dogs.  This means they cannot see green, not being able to tell it from red or yellow.

Do Foxes Have Good Hearing?

The ears of a fox can be moved independently to pick up the source of a sound.  The ears rotate to pick up sounds from the side and behind them.

The hearing is sensitive to low-frequency sounds such as the rustling noises made by prey.  The fox has a chamber at the base of each ear which they use as an echo chamber to detect these vibrations.

Large ears help the fox hear its prey

Foxes in long grass are usually attracted to the vegetation by the sound, rotating their ears to find the animal before they see it.

Foxes also use their hearing to communicate with other foxes over long and short distances.

Do Foxes Have A Good Sense Of Smell?

Foxes have a very keen sense of smell which they use to their advantage.  Because of this, foxes have been known to find carcasses of deceased livestock buried under deep snow or buried several inches below the surface.

The fox also can tell strangers from people it sees regularly.  A fox in an urban area was seen to freeze when it smelt a stranger to the area.

Foxes have wet noses.  This allows them to help scent detection by dissolving the chemicals in the air but also in telling them the direction of the wind.

If you or someone you know loves foxes then check out these great gifts on Amazon.

Do Foxes Use Their Fur To Navigate?

Although a function of the fur is to help maintain body temperature, they also have a tactile function.  This allows the fox to be able to feel their way around.   The fox has whiskers (vibrissae) on their forelegs and muzzles.  These are associated with nerve cells that are sensitive to contact.  As a result, the whiskers provide information on its body position while hunting.

The whiskers are embedded deeper into the skin than other hairs.  When the prey is too close for the fox to focus on, the whiskers are moved around the prey, so they know where to strike.

If you would like to know how red foxes survive the winter, I have written an article here.

How Do Foxes Use The Earth’s Magnetic Force?

Foxes perform a move called ‘mousing’ where they jump into the air landing a strike from above.  It has been noted in a study that foxes tend to prefer to jump in a north-easterly direction, 20 degrees off from magnetic North.  Due to this, it is thought that the red fox can use the magnetic field as a rangefinder to estimate the distance to the prey to make the pounce more accurate. 

The fox, along with birds, bees and some other animals use the earths magnetic force to its advantage. 

The fox will listen to the sound of its prey.  As it finds the angle of the sound hitting its ears matching the slope of the Earth’s magnetic field, the fox will pounce.  This makes the red fox unique in that it uses the magnetic fields to estimate distance and not just position or direction.

It is thought that cryptochrome in the eye allows the fox to see a ring of shadow on its retina.  This is then superimposed on its surroundings and always fixed towards magnetic North.  The fox lines up the shadow with where it hears the prey, always being at a fixed distance away when it launces an attack.

How Do Foxes Communicate?

The most commonly heard fox vocalisations are a quick series of barks and a scream like howl.  Fox sounds are higher pitched than dogs as they are much smaller.  The bark is sometimes mistaken for an owl hooting, however. 

The barking sequence, ow-wow-wow-wow, is high pitched and is thought to be an identifications system.  Foxes can tell each other apart by this call.

The scream or howl is generally heard during the mating season in Spring.  The call is made by vixens to male foxes to call them for mating.  Males have occasionally been seen to make this call also.

Another sound is called gekkering.  This is mostly heard in aggressive encounters between adults or between kits playing.  The sound is guttural with occasional howls ack-ack-ack-ackawoooo-ack-ack-ack.

A growl is used from an adult to a kit telling them to feed or head to their location.

The alarm bark which sounds like a short bark is most used by fox parents to alert their kits to any danger.  Up close, the alarm bark sounds like a cough.

 A whine is made by kits shortly after birth when they are hungry and when their body temperature is low. 

Yelping occurs when the kits play from 19 days onwards, and an explosive call can be made by the kits as a high pitch howl to be threatening to intruders or other cubs.

How Do Foxes Use Their Scent?

Foxes leave scent marks with urine and scat.  These signs advertise the foxes presence, and most importantly, also includes its dominance and sexual status to other foxes. 

Foxes leave scent marks around their territory as well as within it.  Rocks, stumps, vegetation, fences, trees, and even garden gnomes can be used to mark their territory.  They will also leave scent at the intersection of two paths.  It is rare for an elevated object in the foxes view not to be visited to scent.

It is thought that when foxes are looking for food, they can mark their territory up to seventy times an hour.  When hunting, they do not mark as frequently.  During the breeding season, the male fox urine smells similar to a skunk like odor.

If you would like to know how the Arctic fox survives the winter, I have written an article here.


The fox has many special ways of navigating its territory, ranging from its excellent hearing, sight and smell.  In addition, they also uses vocalizations to communicate as well as using scent to mark its territory.

If you or someone you know loves foxes then check out these great gifts on Amazon.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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