How do Red Foxes Survive in Winter?


I see red foxes at all times of the year around my house, which got me to wondering just how they survive during the harsh winters.  

Red foxes have several adaptations to help them survive winter. These include growing thicker fur, extra fat on their bodies, and decreasing their activity.

I wanted to find out some further information on how these beautiful animals survive in the long, harsh winters and I have put some of these unique adaptations below.

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Long coats

During winter, red foxes are seen to grow long coats that cover them up to their footpads to aid them in keeping warm.

Unlike their pups, the adult foxes do not stay in their dens to keep warm. Instead, they curl into a ball in the open and even sometimes blanketed in snow. 

They keep warm by covering themselves with the fur that has already grown. The coat is usually shed off on the onset of spring weather as at this time it is generally warmer.

Low surface area to volume ratio

Red foxes have small body parts which include their legs, necks, and ears in comparison to the rest of the fox family.

This means less body surface is exposed to the atmosphere, allowing them to keep more heat conserved in the body. This, in turn, helps the fox stay warm in the winter season.

Camouflaged seasonal fur

The foxes are usually covered with a very thick warm coat that aids in heat insulation. 

The foxes have two color variations for the different seasons of the year. During summer they possess a dark grey thin coat that blends well with the dark vegetation when the ice and snow are no more. 

The arctic fox survives in its own special way. If you would like to find out how, I have written an article which you can find here.

In the winter the coat changes color to a luxurious white coat to blend in with the frozen habitat. The coat is thicker with more rounded hairs to insulate the heat and keep the foxes warm.

Thick fur on the tail

The red fox grows a thick fur on their tail.  This fur is to provide more insulation in the cold season. The fox keeps the tail in an inactive form when asleep or in cold seasons and wraps the tail around the body to help insulate heat. This is unlike in summer, where the tail is active and generates heat. The fur also varies as in the winter season it’s thicker than in summer.

Thick fur on the paws

The foxes grow thick fur on their paws.  The fur helps to insulate them from the snow.  The hair also helps them grip on the slippery surfaces when icy. 

The insulation keeps the cold away from the paws, keeping the heat in the body.

Body fat

Fat content is well known as a good insulator of heat beneath the skin. The body fat works the same for the foxes as the thick layer helps in insulation. This also allows the fox to conserve food storage, especially when their food supply is limited in the winter weather.

If you have wondered how red foxes navigate, you can find out here in an article I have written.

Countercurrent heat exchange mechanism

Foxes have a mechanism that is very powerful, and also found in dogs. The paws are kept at a temperature lower than the body.  The lower temperature minimizes heat loss via the body part that is in contact with the ground surfaces. 

The blood flowing back from the paws is usually heated by the blood, which is currently flowing into the legs. 

This has the effect of not cooling the core by loss of heat with parts that are in contact with the surface. A similar mechanism is seen to be exhibited by ducks in the feet and some other birds.

Sheltering in Burrows

Red foxes dig burrows in the snow to evade the harsh temperatures. They hide inside to get extra insulation from the snow. Temperatures inside the snow hole are considerably higher than outside the hole.

Decreased activity

During winter, red foxes are less active as this helps to insulate heat around the body. By conserving their energy, less heat is exposed to the atmosphere. 

This changes in summer where they are seen to play to help loose heat and be cool. The foxes are however active at dusk and dawn, but during winter, their activity is relatively the same throughout the day. This activity usually increases as the mating season approaches.

Hibernation

Red foxes usually don’t hibernate during the winter season. They instead use their long coats and also dig tunnels in the snow just to hide their pups from predators and keep them warm. 

The adult foxes rarely stay in their dens to hide but instead are seen to the outside and keeping warm with their paws and long coats.

If you would like to know where red foxes live, I have written an article you may find interesting. You can find it here.

Related topics

Feeding habits for red foxes during winter

Red foxes have super-sharp hearing due to their ears which are pointed outward. Every snack during the winter season is worth the struggle for red foxes. They can track a squealing mouse as far as a football length and leap after it in the snow by tracing off the footsteps they leave behind in the snow. 

Their diet varies according to the season. During summer, they feed on corn, berries, apples, grasses, acorns, and cherries. 

In winter they feed on small mammals such as mice, squirrels and also rabbits. They even feed on insects to help their dietary supplements. Their surplus food is hidden in unique places called a cache for use in winter seasons as there is limited food supply at this time.

How the red fox survives predators in winter 

Human beings are the biggest predators of foxes due to their coats. However, eagles, coyotes, gray wolves, bears and mountain lions are also predators of red foxes.

The red foxes build small dens or burrows in grassland during summer and in the snow during winter to protect themselves and their pups from predators. 

They use their excellent sense of smell and exceptional patience to catch their prey by pouncing on them. Their burrows are also considered as excellent storage for their food as food is scarce in winter.

Mating during winter

Red foxes primarily form monogamous pairs each winter. Red foxes usually have a mating season which is generally from December to February. This is when they are most heard at night screaming. These pairs stay together as parents to raise the newborn cubs after their gestation period of 51-53 days. 

The pairs also nurse the cubs and shield them from predators until they are mature. The female foxes remain in some dens known as ‘earths’ as the male foxes feed the cubs for about two weeks.

By the time it is late winter, the cubs are already grown and ready to start a family of their own. The cubs reach maturity during the tenth month and have a lifespan of 12-18 years in urban areas but only three years in the wild. 

Red foxes are resourceful creatures that can cope in any weather conditions, either sub-tropical regions or in icy tundras. They are excellent hunters, provide significant support to their cubs, and also have surprising ways of keeping warm as discussed above.

They are known to inhabit all environments from cliffs, high mountains, woodlands, and even icy tundras.

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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