Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Foxes scream primarily for mating purposes, especially during the red fox mating season in January and February. The screams sound terrifying and unearthly, often resembling a human in distress to untrained ears.
- Male foxes (dogs) and female foxes (vixens) produce different sounds. While vixens emit a scream that sounds eerily human, males respond with a sound that resembles “hup hup hup.” Vixens also make unique sounds, such as coughing, when interacting with their cubs.
- Foxes are monogamous, often forming pairs for life. However, larger, stronger males have been discovered to mate with other females besides their partners.
- Foxes have a rich vocal repertoire, with research documenting up to 28 different calls, including contact, submissive, aggressive, comfort, warning and juvenile calls. These sounds are used for various activities, including marking territories.
- Besides vocalizations, foxes also communicate using body language and scent, similar to their larger cousins, wolves.
The sound of a female fox—a vixen—screaming is one of the most unearthly and terrifying sounds of the night. It can often sound like a human in distress. But why do foxes scream?
To a fox, however, this sound is delightful. It means there is another fox nearby who is ready for love.
January and February are the months of the red fox mating season. Vixens are only in estrus for 20 days and receptive to males for only 24 hours. They have to make sure they are heard; otherwise, they may miss the chance to mate.
Do male and female foxes have different screams? Do they scream for other reasons aside from mating? Just how do they make that noise?
Read on to find out.
Do Male And Female Foxes Make Different Noises?
The vixen (female fox) makes a scream that sounds eerily human and distressed. The dog (a male fox) answers with more of a bark. His call sounds like “hup hup hup.”
Vixens make special noises, such as coughing, when dealing with their cubs.
The breeding season for red foxes is midwinter. This is when you are likely to hear their mating calls at night.
Below, a male dog is hunting.
How Can You Tell Male And Female Foxes Apart?
Male and female foxes look quite similar, but there are some ways you can tell them apart.
Here are some clues to the sex of a fox:
- Dog (male) foxes are one-fifth heavier than vixens.
- Dog foxes have broader, more domed heads.
- In winter, you may be able to see a dog fox’s testes as they are enlarged in the mating season. These shrink in summer and are harder to see.
- Lactating vixens have swollen teats along their belly.
- In the breeding season, the vixen’s belly fur turns brick red. Out of season, her belly fur is white or gray.
- If the fox is digging out an “earth” (a fox den), it is likely the fox is female. It’s the female’s job to dig out a safe den for the cubs. She will often dig several dens in case one becomes unsafe.
The photo below shows a vixen with visible teats. She is likely to have given birth and is producing milk for her cubs.
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How Do Foxes Mate?
A vixen is only receptive to a dog fox for on average 20 days. Her fertile period can be as short as 24 hours.
- When the dog fox smells the vixen in estrus, he will follow her closely with his tail held out straight behind him. He will ignore food during this time. This stage can last several weeks.
- The vixen doesn’t let him mate with her right away. He has to wait until her fertile period. Sometimes the dog fox will attempt to mate with the vixen once or twice, and she rebuffs him.
- When she is ready, the dog fox will mount the vixen. His penis doesn’t enlarge until it is inside the vixen. A gland on his penis called the bulbus glandis swells, and the vixen’s vagina contracts.
- When this happens, the foxes are ‘locked’ in place and cannot be separated. Most people who own dogs will recognize this.
- This copulatory lock or tie can last 30 minutes or more.
- Afterwards, the dog fox will stay around, making sure no other dog foxes mate with the vixen.
Are foxes really monogamous?
Foxes form mated pairs, often for life. They are regarded as a monogamous species.
However, evidence has been found using genetic testing that shows foxes are not as faithful as previously thought.
Larger, stronger males were found to be mating not only with their own vixen partners but also the mated partners of other dog foxes. Noticeably, only the largest dog foxes behaved like this in the study.
On average, a dog fox would travel through seven different fox territories looking for mating opportunities.
In one study in Bristol, UK, a dog fox rapidly expanded his range. He moved through no less than 18 different fox territories, looking for further vixens to mate with.
Do Foxes Make Other Noises?
In 1963, German ethologist Gunter Tenbrock studied fox vocalizations. He discovered no less than 28 different calls foxes can make.
More recently, in 1993, Nick Newton Fisher and his colleagues identified 20 different calls from 585 recordings.
Eight of these calls were only made by cubs. This includes an “ack-ack-ack” sound when the cubs are playing together. The most common noise for adults is barking.
Here are some of the range of fox calls and why they make them:
- Contact calls include vixen screams, which sound like ‘wow-wow-wow’, and the dog fox’s “hup-hup-hup.” Here’s what a mating call sounds like:
- Submissive calls are whines made by submissive foxes to a more dominant fox. Additionally, young foxes playing make them.
- Aggressive calls can sound very fierce, but usually foxes escape serious injury in disputes. These can be screams, bird-like yelps, shrieks, or squeaks.
- Comfort calls are soft growls and coughs made by a mother fox to her cubs.
- Warning calls are barks and yelps made by foxes to warn off intruders or if they see something they don’t understand. For example, a fox confronting a cat.
- Juvenile calls are only made by cubs to communicate their needs to their parents and each other.
Are foxes sociable?
We may think that foxes live alone, but this is not the case. While foxes hunt alone, they live in small family groups. These are most often made up of a dog fox, a vixen, and their cubs.
The dog and vixen are the only breeding pair. There can also be several young vixens who are daughters of the breeding pair. The daughters help raise and feed the cubs. This only happens when there is plentiful food and resources in the foxes’ territory.
Male cubs leave the family unit much earlier once they reach puberty.
Other Forms of Fox Communication
Foxes don’t just use their voices to communicate. They also use scent and body language, just as their larger cousins, wolves, do. Here’s how they do this:
A fox’s scent can contain over 80 different compounds. Foxes smell different at various times of the year. Their scent is strongest in the breeding season, in January and February.
Seasoned human hunters can sometimes even tell the difference between fox sexes just by the smell.
A fox has scent glands on either side of its anus. They also have glands along the line of their jaw, across the surface of their skin, and near the root of their tail. They even have glands between their toes. These produce a strong smell that humans can discern.
The gland near the tail is called the caudal, supracaudal, or “violet gland”. It gives off a scent that is compared to violets.
During the breeding season, the supracaudal gland is very active. It secretes lipoproteins. These stains darken the fur around the gland.
Fox urine smells very strong. Foxes have been observed urinating on each other as well as scent-marking parts of their territory. A male fox may urinate and leave a scent mark on a female during mating.
Foxhounds are trained to follow a fox’s scent. Fox hunting has now been made illegal in the UK, with only drag hunting (using a fox-scented bag dragged along the ground) permitted.
However, in other countries, such as Australia and North America, fox hunting is still carried out.
Fox Body Language
Foxes use a combination of body language and vocalizations to convey their meaning. A different vocalization can completely change the meaning of body language.
- A defensive fox will flatten its ears, curl its tail, and arch its back.
- A subordinate fox will approach a dominant fox by holding itself low to the ground. They will also lie on their backs and expose their belly to the dominant fox.
- Fighting foxes could just be playing. If this is the case, their ears are pricked forward. If the fight is serious, the foxes’ ears are flat against their heads.
- “Body slamming” is a tactic used by foxes to establish dominance. Fox cubs will throw themselves at another cub and knock it off its food to see who is the strongest.
Foxes use droppings to mark their territory. Fox droppings give off an acrid smell, much the same as dog droppings. You can usually tell what a fox has been eating by the look of its droppings.
Rural foxes, who eat more birds and mammals (rather than abandoned takeaways), have more pointy droppings.
Urban foxes who scavenge human trash tend to have droppings that look like dog droppings.
The fox that left this dropping had eaten persimmon seeds. Animal behavioral scientists can get a lot of information from looking at and dissecting droppings. These are also called scats.
How Do Foxes Raise A Family?
Foxes are excellent parents. Both the male and female foxes (dog and vixen) look after the cubs and hunt for food.
While the vixen is lactating, the dog fox does most of the hunting. He is often helped by their grown daughters.
Check out the fox family timeline here.
- January–February: A female fox (vixen) will mate.
- She has been pregnant for an average of 52 days.
- March: The vixen gives birth to 4 or 5 cubs. The cubs are born blind and deaf. They cannot control their own body temperature for the first few weeks of their lives. Their mother needs to give them constant milk and warmth. The father goes hunting for them all.
- More dominant fox cubs emerge during this stage. They will mercilessly take food and milk from weaker siblings. 20% of fox cubs die during this underground stage.
- April: After 4 weeks from birth, fox cubs can now see and hear. They begin to explore outside the den. Their adult facial features are still developing. Their muzzle becomes longer and their ears more erect.
- May: 6 to 7 weeks from birth, most of the fox cubs are weaned. Some still suckle from their mother. Most are able to take solid and regurgitated food their parents have brought back.
- June: Cubs abandon the den and lie in undergrowth in the daytime.
- July: Cubs look similar to adults. They are learning to hunt.
- September: Male cubs and many female cubs leave their parents.
Do Foxes Vocalize To Mark Their Territory?
Foxes can also make vocalizations to mark the boundaries of their territory. These are not the same noises they make while mating or looking for romance. They are more likely to mark their territory with droppings and scent.
Males will make threatening screams to chase off rival dog foxes. Sometimes the whole family group will join in to help the male.
A family of foxes needs a territory of at least 0.2 square kilometers (0.12 miles) This small size of territory would be suitable in an urban area where there’s lots of food available, like the bins of a big supermarket.
In large areas of farmland with only one crop or hill country, a fox family’s territory may need to be up to 40 sq km (24.8 miles). This is due to the reduced biological diversity of these areas.
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Fun Facts about Foxes
- A group of foxes is called a ‘leash’ or a ‘skulk.’
- Fox hunting with dogs is still legal in Australia, Ireland, and North America, among others.
- Foxes are very good parents. In 2009, a baby fox cub was caught in a snare for two weeks. He survived. His mother continued to bring him food the entire time and did not abandon him. Finally, he was rescued by the RSPCA.
- Foxes are the only canid (dog family species) with retractable claws.
- Red foxes can hear rodents digging many meters underground. They have excellent hearing. A fox can hear a watch ticking 40 yards (36.5 m) away.
- Foxes have the same facility as cats to form slits with their pupils. This helps them see in the dark.
- Foxes are faithful. Unless one of them dies, they mate for life.
- There are 12 species of ‘true fox’ (Vulpes genus) worldwide.
- The Fennec fox is the smallest fox at only 3 lb (1.3 kg) in weight.
- The North American gray Fox is the only fox that can climb trees.
Why do foxes scream FAQs
How long do fox cubs stay with their parents?
Fox cubs stay with their parents for seven months. After that, the male cubs leave to find a mate. The female cubs may leave, but they often choose to stay with their parents and help with raising the cubs and finding food.
How many species of fox are there?
This is not so simple. There are 12 species of “true fox” in the genus Vulpes. However, there are six genera of animals regarded as foxes, which brings the number of “fox” species to 23. This makes fox classification a constant source of argument among wildlife specialists.
Are foxes classified as vermin?
Foxes are not classified as vermin in the UK. They are regarded as pests or vermin in other countries, such as Australia.
They are thought to spread diseases such as mange. They sometimes kill and eat livestock, such as chickens. This means it is legal to hunt them in some countries.
Do all fox species mate at the same time?
Many foxes (and wolves) mate in the winter, from January to February. The Arctic fox doesn’t.
The estrous cycle of the Arctic fox starts in March, and their pups are born in late May or early June. They can also mate in June and have pups in August. This could be due to avoiding the extreme cold of winter while the pups are vulnerable.
What is a baby fox called?
There is some confusion over whether to call a baby fox a cub, a pup, or even a kit.
The general consensus is that any of these terms are suitable. This just goes to show how foxes occupy a special niche, with aspects of both canine and feline biology and habits.