Hunted as pests, kept as pets, known in popular culture as shrewd and clever, known in South America as ‘Zorro’; there are a million fox stories. Here are a few.
Foxes are one of nature’s great success stories.
They are found on every continent, except Antarctica, and thrive in every type of terrain; grassland, forest, arid plains, mountains, even downtown in your local city.
I have seen one in the suburbs of London, and one in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and one in the suburbs of Melbourne.
Some of them live in packs – also known as ‘skulks’, and ‘earths’ – and some of them live solitary lives, only seeking out other foxes to mate. Nearly all of them live in dens underground; well-designed dens with multiple exits, so they can escape if needed.
They are often regarded as pests, and are hunted both for their furs, and for sport. In some developed countries, efforts are being made to domesticate them; you can buy a red fox as a pet in the United States, for $ 9 000.
They are shy, but curious, by nature.
They are amazing creatures.
Foxes are a member of the Canidae family, which also includes dogs, cats, wolves, coyotes and jackals.
Canids first appear in the fossil record around 50 million years ago; the first species was a dog-like creature called Prohesperocyon Wilsoni, native to Texas.
Foxes evolved around 34 million years ago. During the last proper ice age, these early foxes made their way across the land bridge between Alaska and Russia, across the Bering Strait, and spread from there through Europe and Asia.
And as they spread, they adapted to their surroundings.
Where foxes live in cold climates, they have developed a remarkable hunting technique, which has been observed in multiple species across Europe and North America.
When the ground is covered in snow, and food scarce, foxes are still able to hunt for the small prey, usually mice, that make up the bulk of their diet. They sit quietly, listening, intent; suddenly, the fox springs several feet into the air, and plunges head first into the snow, breaking through to the ground underneath.
A surprising number of times, when they pull out, they have caught something in their jaws. Somehow, no one is sure exactly how, the fox has detected a mouse, sight unseen, moving around underneath the snow.
It is such a strange technique, and so often successful, that some scientists believe it indicates that foxes can sense Earth’s magnetic field.
The core of the Earth is a giant ball of molten iron.
Super hot, and rotating very slowly, it produces an intense magnetic field, that stretches far into space. This protects us from the solar wind, dangerously charged particles that flow continuously from the sun, and also produces the northern and southern aurora.
A number of animals can also detect the planet’s magnetic field; birds, and turtles, and ants, all of whom use it for navigation.
During a study of red foxes in the 1980’s, Czech scientist Jaroslav Cerveny found that when the snow hunting technique was employed in a north-easterly direction, or its exact reverse, the fox was far more likely to catch something than when hunting in any other direction.
As the north-east axis aligned with the magnetic pole where his study was conducted, Cerveny theorised that the foxes were able to correlate this information somehow; sensing the magnetic field to aid their hunting (a full explanation of his theory can be found here).
Far from the snow of northern Europe, the ‘Bat Eared’ fox makes it home in the grasslands of Africa’s savannah.
This fox’s name is derived from an obvious source; its giant ears stick up a remarkable 13 centimetres, giving it an unusual, bat-like appearance. While the giant ears do provide the fox with acute hearing, their primary function is more related to its habitat. On very hot days, the large surface area of the animal’s ears makes for a very efficient dispersal of body heat, allowing the fox to regulate its temperature.
The ears are also used in communication.
Bat Eared foxes are among the most sociable of fox species, and usually live in groups of up to 15 members. To communicate quickly among these large groups, they have developed a simple visual method that utilises their ears; low and flat to indicate danger, high and pointed to indicate a direction (in conjunction with their eyes), among other signals.
Rather than hunt other animals, the Bat Eared fox spends its time searching for active termite nests. Once one is located, the fox family will move in and gorge itself on the insects, an excellent source of protein, clearing out the nest that they then use as a den.
In urban landscapes, foxes have learned to live on the margins of society.
They frequent abandoned plots of land, industrial estates, and hard to access areas like railway sidings. Here they forage for scraps of food and carrion, although are still able to hunt more traditional prey that also live in cities, like mice and possums.
Urban foxes are shyer and warier than their rural counterparts, and mostly live a shadowy existence, out of sight.
Although, this is not true in every case.
In 2018, BBC 4 newsreader Zeb Soanes came home from work in London to find an injured fox on his doorstop. Taking pity on the animal, which Soanes thought looked like a Disney fox, he brought it a few slices of ham, after which it disappeared down the street.
But, a few weeks later it came back, now fully healed.
The fox, which Soanes dubbed Gaspard, became a regular visitor. While still clearly a wild animal, for some reason Gaspard took to Soanes, and allowed him to pat it and feed it. He would appear in his garden, several times a week.
On one of these visits, Gaspard appeared with a cub, and Soanes realised his friend was actually a she, and now a mother.
He was so taken with the fox that he wrote a children’s book about it, imagining the foxes adventures in the city. While foxes are often viewed as vermin by city dwellers, Soanes had instead found a friend (watch a BBC video report on Gaspard, here).
The shop was called ‘Arte y Esperanza’, and stood on a backstreet just off of the Plaza de Mayo, in central Buenos Aries.
I was in the country for a few weeks holiday, and it had been recommended to me as a good place to buy local arts and crafts. Arte y Esperanza ('Art and Hope') sold stuff that had been made by surviving members of local indigenous tribes, using traditional methods and materials.
It was a small, simple place, run by two ancient old ladies, and stocked with a never ending series of colourful wonders; jewellery, semi-precious gemstones, woodwork, metal work, hand made paper.
But I don’t see any of this. What I see, at first, is the wooden fox head, on the wall.
The Pampas Fox lives throughout South America, and is one of the most adaptable of fox species.
While their preferred habitat is the open plains found in the centre of the continent, which provides them their name, they also thrive in the wilds of Patagonia.
The Pampas Fox has unique habits; they eat almost anything, including lizards, frogs, sugar cane and fruit. And unlike nearly all other fox species, they do not build dens underground. Rather they will take up residence in any available, existent space; caves, hollow logs, or dens abandoned by other animals.
Perhaps most striking, is their distinctive colouring. The have bright yellow muzzles, white ears, and throat, and a dark brown coat. All over they are covered by fine, black hairs, like little highlights.
I do not notice at first, but one of the shop’s ancient proprietors is standing beside me.
I am staring at the fox head. It is yellow and white and brown, and wears an inscrutable expression. It appears simultaneously calm, and intent, and profound. It is unbelievably captivating.
Suddenly, I notice the woman beside me, and I turn and look at her.
She smiles and says, ‘Zorro.’
I smile back, and nod knowingly. I have no idea what she is talking about.
She points at the fox head, and says, ‘Zorro!’
Seeing my lack of understanding, she tries to clarify: ‘Azara Zorro!!’
Later, I will learn that ‘Zorro’ is the Spanish word for fox, a fact that I have been ignorant of, despite knowing about the caped, horse-riding, action hero Zorro, for most of my life.
The woman gets the fox head off the wall and gives it to me, to have a look. She can tell, I would say, that I am completely in love with this thing.
I turn it around. It is very light and delicate, and has obviously been made by hand.
In pencil, inside, in the neck of it, is written ‘Azara Zorro’. It is obviously coming with me.
Foxes are amazing creatures.