Red Fox – The Vulpes Versatile
The Red fox is arguably the most handsome of all canids, a creature whose adaptability has earned it a significant presence worldwide. We explore both sides of this beautiful coin, the reasons that it is loved and the cause for the bad press it receives.
It was April 1989, during my early days in the field, in the Himalayas. I’d taken a short break from the vegetation sampling that I was working on in the Tungnath-Chopta region of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand. Everything seemed still and silent in the subalpine habitat that had scattered oak (Quercussemecarpifolia) and fir Abiesspectabilistrees, open grazing meadows, Rhododendron (campanulatum)scrub, and boulders. Suddenly, I caught a movement close by. I watched intently for 10 minutes, and sure enough, a Red fox popped out from behind the boulders, shy and alert, and quickly moved towards the undergrowth, disappearing before I could capture anything but its bushy tail with my camera.
Outwitted, I went back to work, but my mind was already forming initial conclusions based on my observations. I felt, intuitively, that this boulder area could be a potential denning site for the fox family. If so, I was concerned for their future in the next few months: one, every year from May to November, grazer sand their livestock camp close by, and two, thousands of pilgrims would walk this route to their annual pilgrimage.
Humans and foxes have enjoyed an association based on culture for ages: folklore, and the tales from Aesop, Uncle Remus, Reynard, Panchatantra, Jakarta portray these animals as cunning and treacherous creatures, some even suggesting the possession of magical powers. In modern times, man has hunted the Red fox for sport, persecuted it to control rabies, killed it to reduce livestock loss, and farmed it for fur. On the other hand, man is also responsible for expanding the Red fox’s distribution range in the world in the form of irresponsible introduction with considerable consequences, as not even hunting and trapping, affect the population of this versatile species.
The global commoner
Foxes are generally the smallest of the family: Canidae (wolf, dog, jackal) that belong to the order Carnivora and are represented by37 species and several subspecies distributed throughout the world. Of these, 12 are true foxes (Vulpesspp), the Red fox (Vulpes Vulpes) being more common and widely distributed than any other carnivore, ranging from the Arctic Circle to North Africa. It is found in much of Eurasia (except the tropical southeast region),the Arabian Peninsula, Turkmenistan, the Iranian Plateau, coastal regions of north Africa south to Sudan, and North America (except the central plains) and has also been introduced in Australia and some Pacific islands. A versatile and opportunistic omnivore, not only is it capable of successfully surviving in and around human habitations and agricultural areas, it’s fairly abundant in some semi-urban areas, and therefore, considered a threat (because of rabies, depredation of farm animals), and in some cases, vermin.
Due to its wide distribution, stable populations, and lack of threat, the IUCN has listed it as ‘Least concern’ and it is not protected in many countries. In India, it is listed under the Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and is well protected.
An animal of considerable beauty
The Red fox is considered to be the most handsome of all canids. The large ears, narrow snout, and a small body (45 cm to 90 cm; three to 14 kg) lend a certain grace to the animal. Its coat is pale yellowish-red to deep reddish-brown on the dorsal side and white or grey on the ventral side. The lower parts of its legs are usually black and the long bushy tail (30 to 55 cm) generally has a white or black tip. The coat color varies across the distribution range, eg: the Cross fox, Silver fox, albino and melanistic.
Globally, the Red fox is found in a variety of habitats, ranging from the Arctic tundra to forests, deserts and urban settlements. In India, its distribution is centered in the Himalayas, generally between 2,500 m and 5,000 m in the upper temperate, subalpine and alpine habitats. This fox coexists with other large carnivores such as the Snow leopard (Pantherauncia), common leopard(P. pardus), Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus chanko), Brown bear (Ursusarctos), Asiatic black bear (U. thibetanus), and many medium and small-sized carnivores (lesser cats, martens, weasels). In fact, a significant number of carnivore scats found during sign surveys belong to the Red fox, indicating not only cohabitation but a relative high abundance. Even genetic analysis of half the scats, previously attributed to the Snow leopard, are now pointing to the Red fox.
Its range is also home to a variety of mammals, right from the mountain ungulates (deer, wild goat and sheep), to rodents(marmots, hares, pikas, voles, mice, rats), galliformes (pheasants, partridges, quails and snowcocks), other birds, reptiles (lizards, skinks) and rich, diverse and abundant invertebrate fauna. To exist successfully in this high altitude faunal community, the Red fox occupies the niche of an omnivore, adopting feeding strategies as per its convenience. In other words, an opportunist taking any food in proportion to availability.
A natural opportunist
Technically a carnivore, the Red fox largely behaves like an omnivore, feeding on a variety of food procured either by predation or scavenging. Even in food habits, it displays a large level of versatility. So, though the Red fox can kill new-born or the young of ungulates, small carnivores, small rodents, birds and their eggs or young, invertebrates (insects, worms), it also feeds on wild fruits (acorns, raspberries) when they are found in abundance. When it lives near human settlements like villages or camping sites, it can scavenge dead domestic livestock (cattle, goat/sheep), kill poultry, and consume waste from garbage dumps. The dietary analysis of Red fox scats collected from study sites in the Himalaya revealed that rodents and insects formed a major part of their diet. Large mammals, including domestic livestock (probably through scavenging), fruits, vegetation, and other food items formed relatively smaller portions.
It is fascinating to watch a Red fox make a rodent kill (like vole, pika or the Himalayan mouse hare). Blessed with a sharp sense of hearing, sight and smell, once it has spotted prey, it stands still, ears upright, listening and watching, with its tail curved stiffly to the back. To observe the Red fox leap and land on its quarry is quite a sight; it leaps over a meter or so and lands on the prey with stiff forelegs and examines the animal to check if it is still alive. It bites the prey in the neck or in the shoulder, combined with a violent side to-side shake also known as the ‘death shake’. A swift hunter, the Red fox can take on small carnivores like weasels or hare that are known for their agility. Interestingly, it ambushes wildfowl, but does not eat the killed birds every time.
This fox needs about a half to one kilogram of food a day and is known to hoard food in scattered areas that it digs up with its paws, and though it remembers the general area, it is usually unable to return to the exact hoarding site. Thus, much of this food is stolen. To facilitate its movements, if the prey is large, the fox hides it under vegetation, but if it has killed something smaller, the mother carries it back to her young.
A loner’s lifestyle
Unlike other social canids, the Red fox is truly solitary. Adapted to terrestrial life, it is crepuscular or nocturnal, spending most of its day in its den, which is usually among rocky boulders, talus, tree hollows, and burrows. Red fox dens are reported to have more than one entrance, and are well connected to other nearby dens. There has been no study on the ecology and behavior of the Red fox in India with the exception of relative abundance estimates, food habits based on scat analysis, and ad libitum behavioral observations.
Daily activities include foraging trips within its home range,during which the Red fox normally walks or trots, covering at least eight to 10 km in a day in circuitous routes. It is well known for its stamina and if chased, can run for long distances. It is possible to encounter these animals while driving on the high Himalayan roads during dawn, dusk, or night. I actually vividly remember one such instance on the Leh-Kargil road in Ladakh, when a Red fox played ‘hide and seek’ with me for a while and refused to leave the road. Their home ranges are reported to be non-overlapping and varying in size, ranging from as small as 10 hectare to as large as 40 sqkm depending upon the resource abundance in the area.
One of the factors that make the Red fox so successful as a species is its high reproductive rate, despite the social life of this animal being restricted to a brief pairing. Males or reynards, mark territories by directing urine against a vertical surface while females, or vixens, rub a secretion (from a gland at the root of their tails) on the entrance of their dens. Breeding takes place during December to January and the young, with litter sizes varying from one to 13 (with an average of five) are born after a gestation period of 49 to 56 days. Pups weigh about 50to 150 g and their eyes open after nine to 14 days, though they don’t emerge from the den before four to five weeks. The vixen may move the young from one den to another at least once and though the pups are weaned by eight to 10 weeks, the family stays together until autumn. These pups attain sexual maturity in 10 months and dispersing individuals travel long distances to establish their own home range. It is possible that in fox family groups, a male has several vixens, but only the oldest will have whelps in spring. A Red fox may live up to 12 years, but under natural circumstances, the average life span is between three to four years.
Hope for the survivor
In 2011, during a regular field training trip to the Chopta-Tungnath area of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, I was delighted to encounter vixen with two pups! I watched the trainee officers capture the images that I missed about 24 years ago. With growing anthropogenic pressures in this area for over two decades, I have seen things change negatively: wildlife habitats degraded, animal populations declined, but the Red fox has proved to be a great survivor.
India is home to many charismatic, rare and endangered mega fauna that easily attracts public attention, support and most importantly, funds for research and conservation. But in that widely distributed common species that play significant ecological roles such as the Red fox, are often ignored. However, times are changing, and I hope that the Red fox gets its due recognition, the attention of young researchers, and wins support for conservation. So that even you can sight the Red fox and marvel at its beauty and versatility.
A changing world
In India, the Red fox is threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, degradation, retaliatory killings and poaching. In Europe, culling may reduce Red fox numbers well below carrying capacity, but scientists believe that the species is not threatened on any geographical scale. In Europe and North America, closed seasons for hunting are imposed as per hunting traditions and/ or legislation. The Red fox’s versatility, opportunistic diet, breeding potential are likely to ensure its survival. Some believe that while global warming could have serious effects on the Arctic fox habitat, the Red fox stands to gain as its geographical range would expand further north.
Red Fox Distribution
» The Red fox is one of the most abundant carnivores in the subalpine and alpine regions of the Indian Himalaya.
» In Latakharakh-Dharansi areas of Nanda Devi National Park, Uttarakhand, the relative abundance of the Red fox was about 1 scat/ km in 2003. In the same area in 2012, it accounted for 39 per cent of all mammal photo captures.
» During the testing of canid lure utility in alpine track plots of the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, during 1996, the Red fox visited all the plots.
» In Khangchendzonga National Park, Sikkim, Red fox relative abundance estimates in subalpine and alpine regions were 0.5 and 9.0 photo captures/ 100 trap-nights.
» Elsewhere, density of the Red fox is reported to be highly variable from 1/ sqkm to 30/ sqkm in some urban areas of United Kingdom where food is super abundant.
» In mountainous areas of Switzerland, the density is 3/sqkm, whereas it is 0.1/ sqkm in northern boreal forests and the Arctic tundra.
This article was originally published in the 2013 May-June Saevus magazine issue.