Story and photos by Bill Banaszewski
Since childhood, I have been fascinated with the natural world. Eventually that led to a wonderful 37-year teaching career in environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College, and also writing wildlife articles accompanied with my photos for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine. Observing, photographing and studying wildlife is my passion, and it never grows old.
For the past several years on our property, gray foxes and red foxes have alternated raising pups in a den, which was formerly used by a woodchuck. The den is only 30 yards from our home and is hidden among shrubs and trees only 10 feet from the edge of our lawn. In 2022, a red fox raised five pups in that den. The discovery of that red fox den was the start of another wildlife adventure.
The trail camera (TC) in my yard captured a photo of red fox carrying a gray squirrel in the direction of a den used by a grey fox the previous year. I went to the den where I found evidence of pups: small droppings, bird feathers, a scent of ammonia or a skunk-like odor, typical of fox urine. I set up another trail cam 20 feet from the den. After four days, I downloaded contents of the TC memory card, including 2,169 photos of pups around the den!
The quality of images wasn’t great. The first images revealed four pups with fuzzy gray to chocolate brown fur.
Three days later, there were five pups outside den. Their fur showed a little tan and red coloring. (I later determined that five was the total number of kits in the litter.)
In one week, the color of the kits’ coats rapidly changed from gray to tan-red with black legs.
Pups’ ages can be determined by the color of their eyes. At six weeks, their blue colored eyes start to turn tan.
As spring advanced, I decided to build a blind near the den with branches and newly developing greenery to get better quality photos with my SONY a7iii digital camera with a 200mm lens. I approached the den at daybreak. There was no action for a half hour, so I was about to leave when a single pup poked its head from the den and stared at me. When it heard the sound of the shutter, it scurried back into the den. Curiosity got the best of the kit; it eventually walked toward me and stood motionless. I snapped 10 photos.
While out on the deck with my morning coffee, I heard whimpers coming from the Have-a-Heart trap set to capture a woodchuck that was living under the deck. There was no woodchuck inside the trap, but one of the kits. I carried the trap out to the lawn and opened the front to let the kit escape. It didn’t budge, so I had to tilt and rattle the trap to coax the pup out and on its way. It made a bee-line toward the den, tumbling over several times along its way.
It was an amazing morning with good light. The pups were getting used to my presence, scurrying in and out of the den. I was able to start identifying them by various features – a chunk of hair missing on a forehead, black fur inside ears, one with an injured or missing ear. In a little over two weeks, their fur had changed from gray to sandy brown with a tint of red. Their eyes were turning brown. They were now 7 weeks old.
The kit with the deformed ear seemed smaller than the others and not as alert. It seldom ran into the den in my presence. As the runt of the litter, it was submissive with its siblings and didn’t compete well for food against the more aggressive litter-mates. Sadly, this is the last photo I took of “One Ear.” It most likely died from being caught by a predator or malnutrition – I will never know. It’s not unusual for the last born in many wildlife species to perish.
The month of May is when young foxes are very active and easy to watch day and night. These three pups went exploring quite a distance from the den.
At 2-1/2 months old, the pups spend more time traveling with the vixen at night, learning to hunt or just being a nuisance. Exhausted from nighttime adventures, they spend time sleeping in the sun or near the den. I came to the den and the pup remained asleep – I left quietly.
The TC captured an image of a kit staring into the yard at 2:56 p.m. I checked what I was doing at that time – pruning shrubs, 25 feet away while it watched me.
The vixen arrived at the den with a grey squirrel. Adults bring captured prey to young pups and regurgitate the chewed food, making it easier for them to swallow. Later, the adults bring live prey, so kits can learn to kill their food. The competition becomes serious. It’s easy to tell when vixen is coming to the den, as the crows and other birds, chipmunks, squirrels make loud warning calls until the vixen leaves.
There was a meeting of the minds to determine what kind of trouble the kits are going to get into today. Pups are left unsupervised for long periods of time while the adults are hunting, leaving plenty of time for play and adventure.
The kits are nearly 3 months old. Their eyes are darker brown and their tan coats are showing more red. They often run away when I come toward the den.
This kit probably watched and learned from vixen how to listen, then pounce on a mouse or chipmunk. It was not successful.
The TC captured images of a large woodchuck in and out of den, which is not unusual. Kits probably left through the escape hole.
The adults are away and the kits engage in constant play, chasing, rolling over and seemingly laughing so hard they fell over. (It made me laugh.)
There are also many photos of them butt rubbing … I’m not sure what this behavior means.
As they matured, play got rougher, even violent at times. Ears back, biting, sometimes causing injury. These activities are part of establishing social hierarchy, resulting in the largest and strongest member of the litter becoming the dominant or alpha pup.
The TC captured a photo of a large coyote at the den. They certainly prey on pups, and I thought it was very possible it would capture at least one.
Two days after the coyote appeared, I took a photo showing all four pups, alive and well.
I watched a pup pounce on and capture a chipmunk. It ran off with its catch while two of its siblings chased after.
I got a good laugh watching a kit chase a squirrel up a tree. It sat at the trunk, while the squirrel scolded it.
The vixen arrived with a baby raccoon.
The pups are approximately 14 weeks old. There’s still a marked difference in fur color. This pup is still tan, while the others are turning red.
After catching and partially consuming a chipmunk, a pup dug a hole and buried the remains to save it for later. Crows quickly descended on the spot and stole the leftovers.
The pups are now over 4 months old. These young foxes are becoming skilled hunters. Earlier in spring chipmunks and squirrels were numerous in the yard. Now their numbers are diminished.
Going on 5 months old, the young foxes are hard to distinguish from the adults.
I’ve been away for awhile. The pups are now 7 months old. The kits are venturing out on their own to establish new territories. The TC captured a few photos of them at night.
Since spring, two kits had color differences. One had dark black legs and a red coat while the other had less black on its legs, a tan-reddish coat and more white on the tip of the tail.
Watching and photographing the life of these red fox pups at their den was immensely enjoyable. I took over 15,000 images of them.
Red foxes are now quite common in the Finger Lakes Region, and it is my hope that readers can enjoy an experience similar to mine. I suggest exploring around your property in March. Look for freshly dug dens with loose soil at the entrances and fox signs as mentioned earlier. If the entrance holes are full of leaves, it is not in use. Maintain a respectful distance and don’t over-pursue your encounters because the vixen will move the litter to a different location, and you may lose your chance for a great encounter with the natural world.
Red foxes mate from late December through January. Gestation is 30-40 days. Born in March, they are blind, deaf and weigh a mere ¼ pound. At birth, their fur is dark grey. The vixen stays in the den nursing and keeping the pups warm, while the male hunts to provide her food. The kits begin emerging from the den in early April.
Dens usually have a larger main entrance and a second smaller exit for escape. The inside tunnel is between 10-20 ft long.
A fox’s diet includes chipmunks, rodents, grey and red squirrels, small wood chucks, rabbits, raccoons, birds and bird eggs, amphibians, insects, apples, grapes, acorns and so on.
Red fox predators include coyotes, gray foxes, great horned owls, eagles, fishers, bobcats and bears.