Today I am fulfilling a request from one of my readers, who wanted to know more about foxes. Specifically, she was interested in why foes are portrayed as sly, cunning animals in many stories and mythologies. Well, I’m not a mythologist, but I will do my best to relate the common portrayal of a fox to the animal’s biology.

Red foxes are members of the Canid family, which includes dogs, wolves, coyotes and a score of weirder animals most people haven’t heard of. They have the widest range of any living Canid, spanning the entire Northern hemisphere, and also prospering in Australia and the Falkland Islands where it has been introduced. It’s done so well in these parts that the red fox has made it onto the IUCN’s 100 most invasive animals list. Which I’m sure the fox considers a great honour.

A typical red fox, looking very dapper.
A typical red fox, looking very dapper.

Standing at 35-50 cm at the shoulder, red foxes are the largest of the true foxes (though they’re still quite small compared to many other Canids). The characteristic colouring of a red fox is a red (surprise!) coat, with black ears and legs, and a white underside with a white tip on the tail. There are, however, two other colour patterns, cross and silver. The cross morph has two distinct stripes, one running down the back and the other going across the shoulders (forming a cross). Silver foxes can range from sliver to almost black, and silver pelts fetch the highest prices in the fur market.

The silver morph of the red fox.
The silver morph of the red fox.

Red foxes generally travel in pairs or in small family groups, with males and females typically being monogamous. Females retreat to a den just before birth, with males providing her with food but not entering the den himself. The number of pups per litter can range from 1-13 but is usually around 5. Which is a lot of little ones to look after, but oftentimes the parents have help, as the previous litter sticks around to help raise the new pups. Wouldn’t it be nice if human siblings were as helpful with newborns as red foxes? I doubt if my brother ever brought me a juicy mouse to eat.

Which is what these animals eat, among other things, like rabbits insects, and even some plant matter, like fruit. They hunt alone, and usually at twilight or right before sunrise. They have very good hearing, and when hunting mice stand still and locate their prey by sound, before leaping dramatically and pinning the mice on the ground. These leaps can be pretty incredible, sometimes reaching 5 meters. Red foxes will sometimes cache food, and will protect these caches even against bigger, more dominant animals. Red foxes are also very territorial, and mark their home ranges with a variety of scents, including urine, faeces, and secretions from anal glands and glands around the mouth and on the pads of the feet. Foxes are very vocal animals, using up to 28 different vocalizations to communicate, with individual foxes having distinct voices.

A red fox leaping to catch some prey. They use their tails in the air to steer during their impressive jumps.
A red fox leaping to catch some prey. They use their tails in the air to steer during their impressive jumps.

Although they are cute as buttons, foxes don’t really make good pets. Though young foxes that are taken into homes are friendly towards their human guardians, at around 10 weeks of age their instincts kick in, and they become fearful and try to hide. So as much as you may want a fox for a pet (I do!), it’s not a great idea. There is, however, a population of domestic silver foxes in Russia, known as Belyaev foxes. These guys are part of an ongoing experiment studying domestication (40+ years!). Foxes were selected purely for a lack of fear of humans, and over forty years marked differences in behaviour and appearance have been observed. Tame foxes approach and lick their handlers, often accompanied by a wagging tail. As well, their snouts have shortened, ears are often floppy, and piebald coat colours are more common in the tame lines. Basically they are turning into puppies, which has got to be one of the cutest things ever.

A Belyaev fox. Notice the white markings and floppy ears. I want one!
A Belyaev fox. Notice the white markings and floppy ears. I want one!

Okay, so why are foxes always the trickster, the cunning animal that fools all others? I think one reason is because foxes are typically solitary creatures, that are nocturnal. Foxes are quite shy, and have numerous dens into which they can escape within their territory. So I can imagine ancient peoples seeing the lone fox at twilight, and then being unable to find it again in the dark, and attributing this magical disappearance to cunning. And of course there is another probable cause for the fox’s skewed portrayal in mythology: they eat domestic animals. Mostly chickens and other small animals, but you can picture a farmer trying to fox proof his barn and constantly failing (after all, they can jump up to 2 meters high, and can also dig). He then attributes the fox with above average intelligence and guile (he doesn’t want to admit that the problem may be him, not the fox), and thus the fox achieves its dubious status. These are, of course, just theories. As I said, I’m not a mythologist. Still, they seem like plausible explanations. I’ll let you decide for yourselves.

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