The red fox is a solitary hunter that specializes in the capture of small prey. Hunting, like most activity, is done primarily at night although the fox is not strictly a nocturnal animal. Changes in food supply such as during winter months can force a need to hunt during the day, and individual animals may indeed prefer to do so. Thus, foxes can be seen searching for food at any time, although they favour dawn and dusk when their prey is most active.
Foxes are aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various prey animals they hunt. Various hunting techniques have been developed to take advantage of these differences in their quarry. In the case of larger prey, these techniques are often quite similar to those employed by cats. Several distinct hunting behaviours have been classified.
The first technique is used against insects, and is rather casual in nature. A fox will generally be going about it´s business, see an insect, and snap it up. No real attempt is made to sneak up on an insect, and this form of hunting is usually done during other activities when the opportunity presents itself. The reason behind this lack of effort is the fact that individual captures offer only a little mouthful of food and that foxes capture them with such ease. Given the lack of challenge offered by this type of prey, insect gathering could be likened to browsing for plant matter rather than a form of hunting. Insects can provide a major portion of a fox´s diet, especially in juveniles first learning to hunt.
The other staple in the fox´s diet are small burrowing rodents such as mice, voles, and pocket gophers. The hunting method used against this prey is perhaps the one most associated with red foxes, involving the famous "mousing leap". One can determine when a fox is searching for rodents by noting the elevated head position and perked ears distinctive to this form of hunting. It is most often observed along paths and forest edge where such prey are common. The fox will move very quietly, choosing its steps carefully so as to avoid producing any sounds that might be detected by its prey´s sensitive hearing. The hunter´s hearing is very sensitive too, listening for telltale scurrying noises that will indicate the presence of its quarry. When a likely meal is detected, the fox will attempt to determine its location through smell and by cocking its head to pinpoint the source of the sound. At this point, the fox will launch itself through the air at its target like a canine cruise missile, pinning its prey with uncanny accuracy. Rather than grabbing its victim and shaking it violently like dogs and wolves, prey is then dispatched by a series of quick bites. It is in these leaps that the advantages of the fox´s light body weight and long hind legs become apparent. Ranges of up to 5m can be attained on level ground and when done in a downhill direction, lunges can be extended an additional 3m or more. Over a fifth of these leaps result in a successful capture.
The final major hunting method is stalking, used primarily against rabbits, hares and other small animals that evade capture primarily through running. When prey has been detected, the fox crouches low to the ground and moves towards it, while attempting to minimize any noise or visual warnings. During the approach, the fox´s eyes remain locked on its target. A chase ensues once the fox has been detected, ending in either the prey escaping through dense undergrowth, or in the fox disabling it by biting it in the legs or haunches. A more extreme variation of this stalking technique is occasionally used against birds. Once the bird sees a threat, it can easily escape by flying away. While still stalking closely to the ground, the fox therefore attempts to close the distance much faster and with less attention paid to remaining quiet. At the last moment, the fox leaps horizontally at the prey and attempts a capture by biting it. As hunting birds in this manner is not particularly effective, it is usually only carried out when an opportunity arises. Birds rarely constitute a major portion of the vulpine diet.
Foxes have also been known to employ somewhat more unorthodox methods to get a meal. In "The Nature of Foxes", Rebecca Grambo provides two examples. In one case, a fox will sometimes engage in various playful, highly visible antics that make their prey curious for a closer look; when they come in closer, the fox immediately pounces on them. This particular technique is frequently mentioned in various sources, and is sometimes referred to as "charming". In another example, Grambo mentions a technique in which a fox will play dead and wait to ambush the various carrion birds that may come to feed on it. These bold methods of hunting are in stark contrast with stealth normally associated with the fox. It is from craft like this that legends are made.
|Table of Contents