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Foxes live all over the world, and Iowa is home to two of those species. How well do you know them?
They’re (Nearly) Everywhere Although there are more than 20 species of foxes, the red fox is decidedly the most common. They’re widespread across Europe, Asia, North America and even Australia, in part because they were introduced for hunting in various locations by Europeans. Red foxes are generally successful in many different environments because of their intelligence, and some species like artic and fennec foxes have evolved with specific morphological adaptations to help them survive extreme climates. Antarctica is the only continent without foxes.
Barking up the Right Tree The less common fox in Iowa, the gray fox, is the only member of the Canidae family that can climb trees. While this practice may seem odd, it’s a great way for the fox to make a quick escape from larger predators like coyotes. There have even been reports of gray foxes having their kits in trees, using large hollows in the trunk like a burrow.
Perfect Pounce As a small predator, a fox must hunt efficiently. Different species of foxes may weigh as little as two pounds or as many as 30, but even the high end of that scale doesn’t guarantee enough strength to bring down prey in the typical canine grab-and-shake fashion. Instead, foxes will carefully target prey and kill it by separating the vertebrae with one bite like a cat. In snow or grassy fields, foxes can sometimes be seen diving theatrically to get to their prey – usually mice.
Population Problems Although foxes may live as long as 20 years in captivity, the average lifespan of a fox in the wild is about three years. Across the Midwest, gray fox populations are dwindling and the cause of the decline has not been determined. Disease, predation, decreasing and degrading habitat could all be factors, and a genetic analysis of gray fox population structure is being done by a coalition of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, Iowa State University, Luther College, and the Missouri Department of Conservation to better identify detrimental influences and develop conservation plans for the future. The Iowa DNR is participating in this study by collecting gray fox tissue samples from around the state whenever possible.
Fancy Feasting While foxes are members of the dog family and sometimes thought of as carnivores, they are actually omnivorous and will quickly change their diets based on what food is available. For urban- or suburban-dwelling foxes, this may include garbage and pet food, whereas other environments and seasonal conditions may lead foxes to munch on small game, eggs, fish, frogs, insects, vegetables, grass, berries, fruits and even worms.
Paired Parents Although generally solitary and territorial, a mated pair of foxes will stay together with their litter until the kits are mature. Litters generally range from two to six kits and are born in the spring, with the kits maturing late that summer. Generally the family will disband at this point, but sometimes a vixen’s mature kits will remain near their mother’s range, and occasionally the vixen’s mature female kits will help their mother raise the next litter. Foxes generally have their litters in dens which they either dig or acquire from another resident. It’s not uncommon for red foxes to use unoccupied badger dens.
What Does the Fox Say? Foxes seem to say a lot of things, actually. They produce vocalizations including whines, barks, yips, huffs, coughs, growls, yowls, howls and a chattering sort of sound called gekkering. Although many people have heard assorted fox calls, few recognize them as such because foxes are nocturnal and humans don’t usually see them make these sounds. Additionally, foxes are physically smaller than most dogs and their vocalizations seem comparatively high-pitched - sometimes getting them mistaken for owls or other animals in the night.