Ecology and behaviour: Life cycle

A typical fox year

A figure showing fox lifecycle in the northern hemisphere
Fox lifecycle in the northen hemisphere
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The following pattern is found in the northern hemisphere; in the southern hemisphere the fox life cycle is shifted by approximately six months as illustrated by the two figures right and below.

Spring

The female gives birth to 4-5 cubs in a den and at the beginning the male brings food to feed her as she rarely leaves the den. The cubs are born blind and deaf and their fur is short and black. For the first few weeks the cubs do not leave the den and are dependent on their mother's warmth.

A female fox sitting down and displaying signs of lactation
Lactating female fox
© J. Bowry

Progressively, the female spends a greater time away from the den. After about a month, the cubs start emerging from the den and exploring their surroundings. At this stage they start eating solid food and so all adults in a group are busy bringing food to the enlarged family. In spring foxes begin their annual moult.

Summer

At the beginning of summer, the female has finished lactating and the breeding den is abandoned.

A figure showing fox lifecycle in the southern hemisphere
Fox lifecycle in the southern hemisphere. Data from Improving fox management strategies in Australia
Text description of this file is available on a separate page

In mid-summer the adults start bringing less food for the cubs and so the juveniles (youngsters) need to learn to forage for themselves. Towards the end of the summer, the family is increasingly spread over a larger area.

Autumn

Already in early autumn, the cubs are fully grown and cannot easily be distinguished from an adult fox. The family group starts to break up, fighting increases and some of the youngsters disperse.

A dispersing fox
© J. Bowry

Autumn, as well as winter, are part of the dispersal season. Whilst the adults moult out their old coat in the early summer, the growth of the new coat is not completed until the early autumn. This is when their coats look at their best, and is why most foxes are hunted for their furs in early winter.

Winter

This is the mating season and when young foxes disperse from their natal area. Males follow females at close quarters. This is the period when fights and vocalizations are their highest. Towards the end of the winter, the female will look for a suitable den where she can give birth to the cubs.

Question & Answer

TopHow many times do foxes mate per year?

The mating season only lasts a few weeks, and during this period female foxes come into heat once. Her "oestrus" is short, only about three days.

TopHow long does pregnancy last?

Pregnancy is a little shorter than in the domestic dog, lasting about 53 days.

TopWhich sort of dens do foxes use?

A fox cub returning to its den
© N. Cole

Foxes are not very selective when it comes to dens.

They use earths of other animals (e.g. badger setts), unused or occupied buildings and garden sheds. Dens can be underground or above ground, even in hollow trees or in the branches of dense trees.

References

  • Harris, S. & Baker, P. (2001) Urban foxes. Whittet Books, Suffolk.
  • Larivière, S. & Pasitschniak-Arts, M. (1996) Vulpes vulpes. Mammalian Species 537, 1-11.
  • Lloyd, H.G. (1980) The red fox. Batsford, London.
  • Nowak, R.M. (2005) Walker's carnivores of the world. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
  • Saunders, G. & McLeod, L. (2007) Improving fox management strategies in Australia. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra, Australia.