We have enjoyed for many years occasional glimpses of adult red foxes and periodically have seen young foxes, termed kits, during early morning spring walks along the road near our cottage at White Lake. The red fox is a member of the canid or dog family which includes wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs, and many other species of fox. Adult red foxes measure 90 to 150 centimeters and typically sport reddish-brown fur with a bushy white-tipped tail, which makes up almost half the length of the fox, and black legs. The coat of some individuals may be black, tawny or pale silver. The red fox is solitary except during breeding season. Nocturnal hunters, they feed on small rodents, other small mammals, birds, and eggs.
You can imagine how excited we were this year to discover that a pair of foxes was raising their family in a den on the ridge that marks the southern edge of our cottage property. We had our first hint of this in March when we checked our cottage to see how it had weathered the winter. Just as we crested the ridge on the cottage lane we spotted a red fox trotting east on the lake ice just a few feet out from our frozen shore, … a first for us.
Once lockdown was lifted and we moved to the cottage for the summer we heard barks, yips, and growls from the ridge behind the cottage both in the morning and around dusk, and soon realized we had a resident fox family.
Foxes mate in late winter and the kits are born in spring. The female, termed a vixen, establishes a den in which to raise the kits which she does with the assistance of her mate, termed a dog, which brings food to the den. Since foxes are not great diggers, except when it comes to excavating roadside nests of turtle eggs, they usually take over the burrow of another animal. We discovered ‘our’ fox family’s den, after they had dispersed, to be a groundhog hole which the vixen had renovated, enlarging it to accommodate and provide shelter for her and the kits.
The young are born seven and a half weeks following mating. Litters can range from four to 10 kits. The newborn kits are helpless bundles of brownish-grey fur, weighing in at about 100 grams. The kits’ eyes open nine days after birth and they are weaned from their mother’s milk at about a month old. The vixen does not leave the den and resume hunting until the kits are mobile, relying entirely on her mate to provide food for her and the kits. The parents first feed the young kits dead prey animals. Pictured below is an attentive kit racing towards the dog which has dropped a dead vole between his front feet.
Eventually the parents provide live, but crippled prey to teach their young how to kill. One quiet morning while we were having coffee on our deck, we were startled by the quacking of an injured duckling running across our yard towards the shore. It plunged into the lake while being pursued by two enthusiastic but unskilled and hapless kits. As the kits mature they accompany one of the parents on short expeditions to learn hunting skills.
Unfortunately early in the summer, one kit, presumably from ‘our’ fox family, was found dead on the road near the cottage. The good news is that four of its siblings survived and provided us with hours of enjoyment as they frolicked, building up their strength, stamina, and hunting skills, on our lane, in our yard and along our shoreline. We only ever managed to get three of the five together in a photograph.
Raising a large family is a demanding task even for two fox parents. A pair’s hunting territory can cover up to 10 square kilometers and with so many mouths to feed hunting is a non-stop job from May to July. One cool morning in mid-July the vixen stretched out on the sun-warmed stone of the parking area right next to our cottage. We concluded she was exhausted.
The young disperse at three to four months of age and the adults go their separate ways as well. We stopped being entertained by our fox family late in July. A fox pair typically reunites during subsequent mating seasons and might return to the same den year after year. We hope ‘our’ pair of foxes will reuse the den on our ridge next year and once again entertain us with their frolicking fox family.
We relied on two sources when preparing this article: Tamara Eder’s Mammals of Ontario; and, Jen Green’s Red Fox which is a children’s book we found to be very informative.