Conservation Corner: The Fox Says Happy New Year

Rex Fox

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation 

We humans often ring in the New Year with a roar, whether it’s dropping a giant ball or a spectacular fireworks display. But if you listen closely on a cold January night, you could hear a much stranger sound welcoming in 2021. Perhaps an unusual barking; but it might not be a dog. 

That’s because the month of January also starts the peak of the red fox’s mating season, and it’s often marked by nocturnal barking. They have a lot to sound off about this time of year. 

Red foxes truly are as smart and cunning as, well… foxes. They are probably more often seen than Missouri’s other species of fox, the gray fox. The red fox looks much like a medium-small dog with a very long, pointed muzzle. Their ears are large and pointed, and they always seem to have them on alert as if constantly scanning for the slightest sound. They have thick fur and a plump, bushy tail, both of which are a light rust color. This contrasts with the red fox’s whitish cheeks, throat, and belly. There’s also a distinctive white tail tip. 

Red foxes can be found throughout Missouri. They prefer the border of a forest and open lands nearby, but they are not partial to dense or large forests. Red foxes are very adaptable however and can just as well live within suburbs that have wooded areas. 

For dinner, a red fox is likely to pursue rabbits, mice, and rats… and they are helpful to humans in keeping these rodents in check. Occasionally they can be a problem for anyone raising chickens as they have been known to raid the coups. Fortunately, humans are not on the menu, so people have nothing to fear. 

After mating in the winter, fox kits are born in March or April. Mother red foxes just have one litter per year, and they typically bear 4–7 kits. 

As far as that barking goes, red foxes really do have amazing voices. They make about a dozen sounds that span five octaves, including a hoarse, chilling scream. They’ll also communicate with facial expressions and strong scent markings. Not only can they make many sounds, they hear them exceptionally well, too. A red fox can detect the low frequency sounds of small animals digging under the ground, leaves, or snow. They also use the earth’s magnetic field to help zero on their prey before they pounce. 

So, if you happen to awake some frosty night this month to a startling sound coming from the woods, it might not be a dream. It could just be a red fox wishing a happy new year! 

Photo: Listen for the bark of the red fox this month as it helps to ring in the new year. 

Photo by Jim Rathert, Missouri Department of Conservation.