My latest photography of a red fox den activity took place as the result of a phone call from my “adopted” son, Michael Keating.
I knew there was a red fox den in my area, because I had seen the fox on my property several times recently. However, as my fox sightings took place in April, there was just no way that I would have known in which direction to even start to look for a den. I found several of the dens that I have previously worked on in this area by tracking the fox to its den in the snow.
Red foxes usually mate for life, although the male and female often go their separate ways after their latest pups have been taught to hunt and the family disperses around the end of September. Foxes begin to pair up again the first part of December just prior to their breeding season, which occurs from late December through the first of January in my home area of northwestern New Jersey.
It must be remembered; that I am the naturalist and wildlife photographer that I am today because I was a trapper as a kid, and I specialized in foxes. I used to follow fox tracks in the snow for half a day at a time, every time that I had the chance.
Foxes are territorial animals and generally den in the same general area, if not the precise same den, year after year. Driving through the countryside, I was (and still am) always looking for fox tracks in the snow, indicating that a fox had crossed the road.
If one crossed the road in one particular spot one time, there was an excellent chance that such a crossing was one of the fox’s main travel routes. When there was no snow, I constantly watched for fox droppings on the shoulder of the road because that was always an indication of where a fox was marking his territory. In other words, I was always looking for foxes.
Whereas, up until late November most fox tracks were of just a solitary animal, from early December on, the tracks usually indicated that the foxes were traveling in pairs. Quite frequently a pair of tracks would meld into one, with the second fox stepping exactly in the tracks made by the first fox.
If followed for a short distance, the tracks would diverge again as the foxes separated in their hunting. Foxes hunt cooperatively and they often separate to go around large bushes or brushy area in the chance that one fox might scare a rabbit or other prey species out in front of its mate.
By the beginning of January, the foxes have decided on a couple of den sites and, as they are usually dens they used previously, they have to be cleaned out. It was the digging of the fresh dirt from the interior of the dens, along with the leaves, grass and other debris that had blown into the den, scattered on top of the snow that could be seen for a long distance and betrayed the den site.
Foxes are exceptionally wary animals. Their reputation for intelligence is well founded. Don’t go any closer to a den than you must. Check the dens for signs of fresh usage from a distance using binoculars. Be constantly aware of the direction of the wind because, I assure you, the foxes are constantly checking the wind for the scent of danger – you!
All of your fox den photography will have to be done from a blind and you can’t just walk up and put your blind in position. It will have to be first put up at a distance, on the downwind side of the den, and be gradually moved into position.
You will need the longest lens you have, or can afford, and nothing less than a 400 mm and a converter will do. If you disturb the foxes, they will be gone. That’s why foxes usually clean out several different dens, so they have another one to move to if they have to, and they will do so at the slightest hint of danger.
The gestation period for foxes is 64 days, with most of the pups being born around the first of March. The pups usually venture out of the den around the middle of April at the age of about six weeks. You can tell their age because their baby blue eyes begin to change to a foxy yellow at about six weeks and are entirely yellow at two months of age.
To get photos of the adults coming in to feed the pups, you will have to be in your blind by dawn.
Most feeding is done between 6:00 and 7:00 a. m. The adults will come to the den and call the pups out. The female comes in far more often than the male, because, frequently he will give her whatever prey he has caught to take back to the den while he continues to hunt.
In addition to bringing food in for the pups, the female will nurse them. This is usually done with the female standing in a straddle legged position while the pups sit upright on their haunches with their front feet placed against her body. After nursing the pups, she will leave the area to avoid being constantly pestered by the pups.
At six to eight weeks of age, the pups will play outside the den for perhaps an hour at the most before they retire into the den for the day, emerging again around 5:00 p.m. While outside the den, the pups play/fight almost constantly, but are also monitoring every sound.
The alarm notes of a bluejay or crow often sends them tumbling down into the dark safety of the den. As the pups get older, they will stay out of the den for much longer periods of time.
I hate to sound repetitious, but again I use bait – in the form of road-killed squirrels and rabbits — whenever I can find some. I just walk a little nearer than usual to the den and throw the bait as close to the mouth of the den as I can.
Even if the bait lands fifty feet from the den, the pups will probably find it and then you should be ready to burn some film. There is no such thing as share and share alike; foxes live in a “might makes right” society and, from the time they are crawling around at two weeks of age, even before their eyes open, at three weeks, the pups are fighting for dominance with the largest pups getting first crack at any available food which, of course, allows them to grow even bigger, faster.
There is usually one runt pup in every litter of five or six pups. The pups go farther and farther from the den by the time they are two months old and will probably leave the den entirely by the time they are four months old.
After the pups are two months of age, they will spend quite a lot of their time stalking, pouncing on and eating such insects as crickets and grasshoppers. They are learning the hunting skills that they will need to survive as adults and those insects are a high protein food.
While waiting at a fox den, be alert to other photographic possibilities. I have never been at a fox den, or a raptor’s nest site, that didn’t have a number of fly-catching birds in attendance. There are usually enough meat scraps, or even bare bones, laying about that attract flies in droves. It’s that assured supply of food that attracts the flycatchers.
It will be much easier to locate a red fox den than that of a gray fox because the reds favor open country while the grays seek out crevasses in the rocks up on a mountaintop.
I wish you good luck because, to be successful, you’re going to need all the luck you can get, but the results are certainly worth the effort!
By Dr. Leonard Lee Rue, III