Backyard Naturalist: The winter romance of a fox

  • A fox family spotted in Peterborough last spring. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • A fox family spotted in Peterborough last spring. Staff photo by Ben Conant

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/23/2021 2:23:13 PM

Romance is in the air. I can smell it. I’m not talking about the heady aroma of roses and chocolate. Rather, a skunky scent wafting through the cold February air. Perhaps you’ve been smelling it too, lately. You might be wondering if a striped skunk is slinking around your community. Right around Valentine’s Day, skunks leave their winter refuge and search for mates.

But this smell is different. It’s more wild and seems to be the only winter fragrance in the air along fields and meadows. That skunky odor is actually red fox urine. There is nothing subtle about this burnt rubber fragrance. For a female fox, with her highly developed sense of smell, it is an irresistible bouquet enticing her into courtship. The scent doesn’t just announce a male’s presence. The discerning female can sniff out his sexual status and relative dominance. From autumn until mating season, red foxes live a solitary life. Usually nocturnal, they spend their active time foraging for fruits, nuts, and seeds, but primarily survive by hunting small animals, including mice, voles and squirrels. They are territorial, especially between females. They mark their boundaries through urine and feces and will actively defend their home through aggressive vocalizations and threatening physical displays. Like many other mammal predators, a male’s range often overlaps with multiple females’ territories. This amplifies his opportunities for mating.

Starting in late January and through courtship, you might also hear foxes in the night declaring their boundaries and defending them from interlopers. Listen for their yips, yowls and high-pitched barks punctuating the night. A few years back, a viral Norwegian music video had many people asking, “What does the fox say?” It seems the fox has a lot to say, and speaks with a variety of different calls. Researchers have documented over 20 different red fox vocalizations, from barks and whines to shrieks and screams.

From mid-January through February, foxes are looking for a mating match. The aromatic urine plays a key role in this. Its vibrant odor is the preamble. A male will join a female in her territory and two weeks of romance will ensue, including playful chases and shared meals. The pair, so caught up with one another, can often be spotted during daylight hours romping together. Red foxes are often described as monogamous, meaning they mate with only one partner but research shows this isn’t always the case. The females are monogamous, and will not mate with another male. But when there is an ample food supply, males have been documented mating with more than one female. The vixens’ territories are nearby and the male will tend to both females and their litters. When this does occur, the normally territorial females, demonstrate tolerance to one another and might even be closely related, such as sisters.

Pups are born in late March through April, 50 to 55 days after mating. Females give birth to one to 12 babies, with the average being between three and six. The birthing den can be a hollowed-out log or a rocky crevice but is most often a reclaimed burrow from another animal, like a woodchuck or a skunk. It isn’t unusual for the pair to move their young several times to different dens. This helps keep the babies safe from predators, like raptors, coyotes, and bobcats.

Raising the litter together, the male and female provide the young with a variety of food. The pair is not only feeding the pups, they are also teaching them what foods are available. Many dens will also have an additional adult female helping them mind the young. These nanny foxes are usually females from last year’s litter who haven’t dispersed. By late August through early fall, the juveniles who have spent the summer months accompanying their parents on hunting forays, begin to leave in search of territories of their own.

According to Meade Cadot, an avid life-long tracker and retired director of the Harris Center, now is a good time to look for foxes and their tracks. Mating seasons puts them on the move. Step outside and take a whiff – if you smell skunk start searching. While we have snow, look for their small dog-like prints in meadows, fields and open spaces. Their tracks are small, only about two inches in length and their trail is often a tidy straight line. You might not need to go very far before you find a track or maybe even see one. Meade watched one cross Hancock’s Main Street, just the other day.

Following Meade’s advice one late January day, I took a sniff and began to track. It wasn’t long before I found two sets of tracks, intertwining. Looking out towards Norway Pond, I spotted them, two specks of brilliant color on the white landscape. Like a voyeur, I watched them play, prance and chase one another. They took every opportunity to touch — hip checking, nips, and pounces. I recognized their language. It was universally flirty.

Susie Spikol is the Community Program Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock.

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