Photo by Bill Thornley
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is now the most widely distributed canid in the world, capable of living alongside people in some of the most densely populated areas. Introduced to some parts of the world to control the rabbit population, and others to promote foxhunting, the red fox is an amazingly adaptable animal, that is found all over the United States, as well as all over Wisconsin. The "red" is the largest member of the genus Vulpes, and males are normally larger than females, weighing up to 30 pounds, but red foxes over 22 pounds are somewhat rare. Many red foxes do have a rufous coat, but there can also be significant individual variation in coloration.

Red foxes, as you might suspect from their numbers and adaptability, are highly opportunistic feeders. Rodents and other small animals make up the bulk of their diet, but they will also scavenge, particularly in urban areas where they are relatively free of predators, and may even be seen in the daytime foraging in yards, gardens and parks. Reds rarely prey on animals weighing over six pounds, and they typically eat between 1-2 pounds of food per day, with any surplus being cached or stored inside the den. The den, consisting of two or more entrances or exits, is easier to find than that of the Gray Fox, in that it is generally a mess outside, strewn with discarded animal bones and leftovers. In the fall, red foxes eat fruits, vegetables and berries in large quantities, and they seem to particularly enjoy cultivated crops, such as turnips and cabbage.

The size of the home range is variable and tends to be smaller in urban areas, where food is more plentiful and predators less abundant. Home range can be as small as .04 square miles or as large as 8 square miles, but a more normal home range would be .7 to 1.9 square miles. Both sexes will mark territories with both feces and urine. The most usual social arrangement is a mated pair, sometimes accompanied by their offspring, but there are also other social combinations that occur quite regularly. One often-recorded situation is a single male accompanied by several females (vixen) of which one is dominant. The females are usually related, and only the dominant female breeds, with the other vixen assisting in the care of the cubs. These groups tend to be very territorial, vigorously defending their home ranges from neighboring foxes, and fiercely attacking any intruders.

The mating season ranges from December to April, occurring earlier in the south where temperatures warm sooner. It is thought that the conception rate is related to the availability of prey, and also there has been correlation between the number of breeding vixens and the price paid for fox pelts. As pelt prices rise, hunting and trapping pressure increases and more foxes are killed. However, because nearly 30% of the population can be non-breeding females, a fairly large number can be killed without seriously affecting the reproductive potential of the fox community. With survivors having ever more food available, an increase in breeding is likely and the population is soon back to previous levels. The vixen gives birth in a den, which may be dug by the fox itself in a hidden location, or she may use a burrow abandoned by another animal and modified to suit her needs. Dens can be complex structures, sometimes used by generations of foxes over many years, and one such den was known to have been inhabited for over 35 years. A disturbed female may move her cubs to another den before they become independent. Most often, 2-4 cubs will be born, but as many as 12 have been recorded. Sometimes, more than one vixen will give birth in the den, and then both will share the duties of raising all the young, assisted by the male providing food. This clan will stay together until fall, yet the cubs are fully weaned in just two months. Young males seem to be the first to leave the family, beginning at about six months of age, and they may travel nearly twenty miles to establish their own territories. Females, on the other hand, don't travel such great distances, and may even stay in the area of their birth. Reds mature at about ten months of age, and will breed the following year. Some males can't establish territories, and most of these die rather quickly due to starvation and predation. After dark as winter nears, you can hear the calls of male foxes laying claims to territories.

In the wild, red foxes rarely live beyond three years, but in captivity they are capable of a twelve-year lifespan. Human persecution, by shooting, hunting or trapping, claims the lives of many foxes, while collisions with vehicles take their toll in urban areas. Rabies kills foxes, as does mange, which is easily transmitted by direct contact in the den. Reds host a variety of parasites such as fleas, ticks, lice, chiggers and mites. Natural causes of death also include dogs, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, golden eagles and some hawks, which prey on pups. Foxes avoid predators by speed, which they can keep up for a considerable distance, and agility, which makes them hard to corner, as they can jump some distance off the ground over a wall or onto a tree branch. They are not natural swimmers, but they won't hesitate to take to the water when being pursued. Sense of hearing is particularly acute, allowing them to detect danger at a distance. It is extremely difficult to slip up on a fox undetected, as when they do rest above ground, their ears are always moving and alert. It is thought that a red fox can hear a rodent over 150 feet away, which helps them hunt effectively. The red fox is known for its cunning, evidenced by the fact that a single fox can outwit a pack of thirty chasing hounds and as many formally clad hunters on horseback.

Red foxes may be harvested by a variety of hunting methods and by trapping. Wisconsin does have a red fox hunting season, but there are no bag limits. On private land, landowners, occupants and family members can hunt or trap fox without a license to remove nuisance animals at any time except the 24 hours preceding the gun deer opener. Fox may be hunted without any hunting hours restrictions except during the bow bear or bow deer seasons when hunting hours apply to all bow hunting and during the regular gun deer season when hunting hours apply to all bow and gun hunting. This restriction does not apply to the muzzleloader deer season or an extended gun deer season. It is legal to use any type of call or amplified sound for attracting fox. It is illegal to hunt any species using bait after small game hunting hours (1/2 hour before sunrise to 15 minutes after sunset) unless the hunting involves the release of trailing dogs. Try to set up in an area that gives you a good field of vision, if you are call hunting, so that you will see your quarry at the greatest distance possible, as it approaches. Choose your weapon to match the terrain and the distance that you are likely to shoot. Some hunters use center fire rifles, while others use shotguns, and some good choices might be a Remington 700 in .222 or a Winchester 22-250. There are many types of calls on the market today for the fox hunter, but the call-of-choice seems to be the mouth-blown rabbit distress call. There are also many electronic calls available, which can be particularly good for the beginning hunter to help achieve a true and accurate sound. The key to fox calling is "natural", both in sound and sequence, and the calling sequence is often as critical as the calling sound. Calling from an unnatural position can also immediately notify the fox that something is wrong and send him scurrying in the opposite direction. If you are opting to use a rabbit distress call, it is wise to set up in a brushy area where you would hunt rabbits if you were a rabbit hunter. Learning about the prey species can be a valuable aid to hunting the predator. Don't call too long, as continuous calling sequences, of several minutes, can represent danger to the fox. Human lungs are larger than rabbit lungs, and a short and erratic series of sounds is more realistic sounding to the red. A good calling sequence would last about a minute and attempt to represent a natural occurrence. Then be silent for at least three minutes, and be alert for it is often at this time that you will spot the fox. Red foxes tend to feed at night, at the slightest hint of hunting pressure, or under the cover of low light conditions during early morning and pre-dawn hours, but during winter months or particularly after storms, they may be more willing to move throughout the day. Conceal yourself well, within your hunting environment, as red foxes have very keen senses. Camouflage will help you blend in, and pay particular attention to hands and face covering. A slightly elevated rabbit skin placed about twenty yards from your shooting position will move in a breeze and may be visible to a wary fox, as well as tempting to his sense of smell. Be sure to select a set up position where you can see an incoming animal and make certain that you can actually shoot from your position. It doesn't do any good to conceal yourself to such an extent that you can't see the fox coming in, and having to move your position on an incoming animal to get a shot off will often result in no shot at all. Everything between the fox and your hunting position has to look, smell and sound natural. Fox driving is another way to hunt red foxes that is becoming quite popular in many places. It offers a faster pace and requires no special equipment or skills. A few friends, and possibly a dog or two, is all that you will need, and you use similar hunting plans and techniques as on a whitetail deer drive. Place your posters on logical escape routes such as river or creek bottoms, hedgerows, ditches or even open fields, and start the drivers beating the brush. Foxes will break cover when pressured and will often run across an open field for safety. Tracking, after a fresh snow, can be a great asset for lone hunters or hunters trying to push foxes past gunners.