Red Fox Behaviour - Introduction

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A Red fox eating a vole. Foxes evolved to hunt small birds and mammals and these "meals for one" help explain why group living and cooperation is rare in this species. - Credit: Tony McLean

In her 1912 children’s book, The Tale of Mr Tod, Beatrix Potter described the fox as being “of a wandering habit” and having “half a dozen houses but was seldom at home”. Indeed, Potter’s view that foxes were solitary antisocial roamers was widely held among the scientific community until, in the early 1970s, Professors David Macdonald and Stephen Harris began their studies on the foxes of Oxford and London, respectively. During the last four decades, we have learnt a great deal about the social life of the Red fox. We now know that to be solitary does not mean to have no social life.

In the behaviour section I will draw extensively on the observations of Oxford University zoologist David Macdonald and Canadian naturalist J. David Henry. These scholars have contributed hugely to our understanding of fox behaviour and, while I hope to do their decades of research some justice here, for much more in-depth and fascinating coverage of this subject I refer the reader to Macdonald’s 1987 book Running with the Fox and Henry’s 1993 book How to Spot a Fox. In conjunction with the work carried out by Macdonald and Henry, I have also drawn on some of the observations and experiences of veteran fox watcher and rehabilitator Mike Towler who has, through his years of interacting with foxes (indeed, various animals) gained some fascinating insights into fox behaviour and how they interpret the world around them.

Red foxes are predominantly solitary canids. That is to say that, throughout most of their range, foxes live either individually or in pairs. Most of us are familiar with the fox family groups shown on TV programmes, such as the BBC’s Springwatch, but this is actually a rather uncommon occurrence outside Britain’s towns and cities. Even where a pair of foxes live on a territory, they will typically spend the majority of their active time apart; some will only come together during the breeding and cub-rearing seasons. So, why should this be? After all, other canids (wolves being a well-known example) routinely live in social groups, so why not foxes? The answer is relatively simple: food.

As we have already seen (see: Food and Feeding), the Red fox evolved to hunt small and medium-sized mammals and birds – essentially, these are “meals for one”. A mouse, vole or pigeon is little more than a snack for a large canid such as a wolf - wolves need to take larger prey. A single wolf cannot bring down an elk; tackling such large prey requires teamwork. Thus, wolves have a need for cooperation, and hence sociality, while foxes do not. Indeed, when you’re looking for bite-sized meals, having more than one fox around is unwanted competition, rather than essential assistance. As we shall see, however, there are other advantages (more than just securing a big meal) to having other members of your species hanging around, but these are typically of secondary importance to being able to feed yourself. The question, then, is what happens to allow the formation of the fox social groups?