Friday, February 5, 2021

Red Foxes: Truly Magnetic Creatures

FoxIt takes a matter of seconds for residents here in the mountains to identify a fox.  These small, doglike creatures stick out like a sore thumb as they roam above the now cold, white landscape in their pursuit of their next meal.  Foxes are amazing creatures built for the hunt with numerous abilities that aid in survival.  What are these abilities?

Enhanced senses

It’s not evident from a distance but if you’re privileged to come into close proximity, you would see foxes have vertical pupils. This allows them to see well in the dark as well as giving them a wider field of view, 200 degrees compared to humans at 180 degrees.  Their eyes also have six to eight times more rod cells, allowing the fox to sense motion in the dark.

Foxes have quite the proboscis! They have a very keen sense of smell and have been known to find carcasses of livestock buried under deep snow and several inches below the surface. Their snouts are long and their noses are wet, allowing them to smell by dissolving the chemicals in the air and indicating the wind direction.

How about those ears?  The ears of a fox can be moved independently to pick up the source of a sound and rotate to pick up sounds from the side and behind them.  The fox has a chamber at each ear’s base, which they use as an echo chamber to detect these vibrations and pick up on low frequency sounds. They are known to use their keen sense of hearing before launching their jump, and works well when they are able to see their prey.

Foxes jump high to surprise their prey from above, a hunting technique called “mousing.”  While studying their hunting techniques, researchers observed that foxes on the hunt tend to direct their jumps in a roughly northeastern compass direction, regardless of the time of day, cloud cover, or other factors that could affect how they perceive their prey. In a large majority of the nearly 600 attacks the scientists observed, were oriented in the same direction. They found that 74 percent of the north-east-oriented attacks were successful, while attacks launched in other directions had only an 18 percent rate of success.

Scientists believe foxes that are hunting small animals in high grass or deep snow are using the magnetic field to launch a successful attack against prey, a skill termed as magnetoreception.  Utilizing the magnetic field as a type of range finder to measure distance to its prey, increasing the accuracy of their attacks when the prey is not visible to the eye.

This creature is proof that there are forces working with us, on our behalf, that are not always seen but can be felt and utilized in an amazing way.  Nature has many mysteries we have yet to find and experience, each one unique and splendid.

Image by Jackie Woodcock

Related Stories

Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

39 Responses

  1. Deb evans says:

    Re success of the hunt direction- could be because less shadow and wind information coming to the prey.

  2. Ethan says:

    Such beautiful animals and so beneficial.
    Perplexing why the NYDEC allows them to be killed in “kill contests” and in unlimited numbers.

    • Eric says:

      Ethan , by culling out some animals you give the remaining ones a better chance for survival . Starvation , disease , wounds from fighting are all much slower and more painful deaths .

      • Ethan says:

        Eric, you write “culling some”. My point was that hunters are permitted to kill as many as they choose because there are NO bag limits. There are a number of coyote killing contests being held in NY State and there are often just as many or more foxes than coyotes turned in at the weigh-in. No reporting required.
        BTW, are readers to assume you only target those animals who are starving, diseased or wounded? Otherwise it seems they are being killed indiscriminately. No one can predict which animals could succumb to the conditions you describe.

        • Eric says:

          Populations of both coyotes and fox are fine in NYS , hunting coyotes actually increases their numbers because when pressured the packs disperse and the females produce bigger litters as a result , to establish new packs. So if you are a big coyote fan that should make you happy.
          A female fox will bear 2 to 12 kits per year , so even if their numbers drop in a particular year they will bounce back . Disease and rabbit populations affect their numbers as well as long winters.
          This information is nothing new , it’s all available online.

          • AG says:

            Hunting coyotes and making their populations increase again throws nature out of balance. Coyotes put pressure on fox. They will kill them whenever they get a chance.

            • Eric says:

              Well coyotes aren’t native to NYS , so I’m not sure they really fit into the balence of things here . Their population is estimated between 20,000 to 30,000 in NY.

              • Steve B. says:

                Neither are humans for that matter. Coyotes have been present in NY near 100 years, kind of makes them native at this point. And a moot point as they are adept at finding ways to fill a void of natural predators, good thing IMO.

              • M Leybra says:

                Coyotes are native to North America & preferred living in more western areas until tax on their lives increased the more ranching increased so they decided to try moving east where they’d heard wolves had been extirpated & now NY is graced w/ their presence. BTW, there’s only one species that doesn’t fit into ‘the balance of things’ anywhere on earth & it’s not coyotes.

              • AG says:

                Coyotes exist in those numbers because European settlers killed off the two animals that keep them out or at low numbers – wolves and cougars

          • Boreas says:

            “Populations of both coyotes and fox are fine in NYS , hunting coyotes actually increases their numbers because when pressured the packs disperse and the females produce bigger litters as a result , to establish new packs.”

            THUS giving some humans a reason to kill even more of them indiscriminately? So by that logic, is indiscriminately killing predators, reducing the population or increasing it?? Is dispersion to other areas (that have yet to adapt to them) a good thing or a bad thing? Is killing the parent(s) of a family group with dependent young considered humane? If these predators are breeding in an area that is rich with prey, what would be gained by eliminating from the area to places with less prey? Then prey are open to starvation and disease – that is somehow better?.

            There appears to be very little logic in the arguments FOR continuing coyote killfests.

            Are these killfests a better management tool than allowing natural predator/prey cycles run their course? Is culling healthy predators curing a problem, or just creating and supporting a blood sport that creates chaos in an ecosystem? I don’t have a problem with hunting predators if there are strict, logical and sustainable bag limits. Limits do not result in eliminating /displacing predators from an area of sufficient or overabundant prey. When prey levels drop enough, predators either lower their reproduction or move to an area with higher prey numbers. They don’t need our “help”.

            These arguments also point to low numbers of game species being due to overabundant predators. Prey control their numbers the same way predators do – litter size and movements to areas with more food. ONGOING lack of deep snow cover, habitat changes, habitat fragmentation, starvation, disease, ticks and other parasites ALL combine to control prey and predators. Focusing on killing as many predators as possible is not going to balance anything. Indiscriminately targeting any part of the system is a recipe for larger ecological problems. Have we learned nothing in the last 20,000 years? It would seem not.

            I do not see DEC as using environmental theory and practices to determine hunting/trapping laws – it caters to the hunting lobby. I understand the political pressures. But DEC has a way to go to convince the public that their practices are truly supported by the environment, not manipulating the environment to support a lobby.

            • M Leybra says:

              Main way public is manipulated is by DEC ‘claim’ that their famous ‘wildlife management’ (state politician-given) power is ‘based on science.’ And every state continues referring to wildlife within their borders as a ‘resource’ like timber or oil. Even referring to wildlife as annual ‘crops’ to ‘harvest.’ Yes, they are “manipulating the environment to support a lobby” of, ‘look to the dollar’ & freely admit that their wildlife biologist’s salaries & pensions are paid for by the blood of wildlife, (hunter & trapper’s annual license fees.) The other way, is convincing the public, that if not managed, (killed,) wildlife will breed out of control & even a mute swan (a species w/ no kill value they want eradicated) can be as dangerous to humans in right circumstance, as a man-eating tiger. And to gullible public, DEC are the ‘experts.’

              • JT says:

                M Leybra,
                I would consider deer a resource. For me it is. The resource definitely needs to be managed. As Boreas had mentioned, The NYSDEC does cater to the hunting lobby. They have to because hunting is the only tool they have to manage the deer herd. To many deer hunters, success is determined by the antler size of the buck harvested. The only way to reduce the deer herd is to harvest does and many hunters will not do this and ones that will cannot because the bulk of the season is bucks only. I believe the deer population is held artificially high to ensure there are enough large antlered bucks to keep most of the hunters happy. Deer over browsing is one of the biggest threats to Northeastern forests. It affects tree species composition, favors invasive species and ultimately reduces the quality of habitat for birds and mammals, including foxes. If the NYSDEC could manage the deer population based solely on habitat sustainability, that would be much better overall. I think hunters got used to seeing a lot of deer 20 to 30 years ago, then the NYSDEC started issuing more DMP (doe) tags which knocked the population down. Then they stopped seeing as many deer and did they bitch and complain. As far as furbearing mammals being a resource, some people supplement their income from trapping but it hardly is worth it any more because fur prices are so low and I think these populations will manage themselves.

  3. JT says:

    I have seen in the fields around here the fox tracks and ambush holes through the snow. It is pretty cool to see. Did not pay attention to the direction. Next time I will watch out for that to see if it is northeast. Learned something new.
    Was reading on the NYSDEC website mammal section that coyotes will prey on foxes. Also, that foxes will prey on bobcat kittens. So if I hunt coyotes, that will help the foxes, but will hurt the bobcats. Not sure what I should do.

    • Eric says:

      Hunting coyotes causes the packs to split up and produce larger litters .

      • JT says:

        I have heard about the larger litters produced when hunted, I guess the term I heard is they self regulate their population.
        We have a lot of coyote hunters around. I see their trucks parked along side the roads. they have antennas they use to keep track of their dogs with radio collars. They think they are a bunch of do gooder’s because they think the coyotes are decimating the deer herd. Coyotes do take some deer but not very many. The deer are doing fine.
        I say if you like to hunt or trap, gets you outdoors getting some exercise, go for it as long as it is done legally. None of our furbearer populations are in danger. I don’t think any of the furbearer populations need to be managed except for sometimes beaver. They will manage themselves.

        • AG says:

          In addition – natural predators take the weakest or slowest or the sick first – which actually keeps the gene pool of prey strong. Humans with guns have a very different effect

        • Eric says:

          Yeah , I agree with you JT , seems like cottontail numbers are way down though from what they once were . Grouse also are harder to come by , not sure if that’s due to coyotes.

          • M Leybra says:

            More likely numbers down has to do w/ human hunting, trapping, no bag limits, etc.. All life exists on other life in natural balance w/ every creature having own unique defenses & natural predators never take more than 10% of their prey. Coyotes, fox, living in North America thousands of years & never caused the extinction or extirpation of any other species. Only one predator known to do that & it’s not coyotes.

            • Eric says:

              Daily bag limits
              rabbits , 3
              grouse , 4

              • JohnL says:

                Not sure how we got here on an article about foxes, but I love grouse hunting. Having said that, I’ve hunted ruffed grouse most of my life and I don’t think I’ve ever shot my bag limit (4) in one day. They are very difficult to hit, particulaly when they explode out of heavy cover, scare the wits out of you, and dart in and out among the trees. Hunting is fun, although I’m not a fan of the ‘kill contests’ you mention, unless there is some really serious demonstrated reason to do so.

                • Eric says:

                  I think that bag limit is my lifetime total , lol .
                  As far as these contests go , the actual numbers of animals taken isn’t that high , but you know , people need something to be outraged about or they have no purpose.

                  • Ethan says:

                    Eric, I eagerly look forward to having “no purpose” when it comes to fair and ethical treatment of our wildlife.

                    • Eric says:

                      Ethan , I’m sure at some point you’ll tell us that kids fishing for bluegill and sunfish are moral degenerates.

      • M Leybra says:

        Coyotes are loners, mated pairs or sometimes a couple of young siblings, they do not live in packs. If you live near woods & hear the excruciatingly loud, vocalizing sounds of a ‘pack’ of a dozen or more coyotes & you get lucky enough to eventually see them, you’ll see that everything you heard was coming from just two coyotes.

  4. Nora Mongan says:

    Loved the article , thank you again Jackie Woodcock , always look forward to your articles.

    Growing up in Ireland as a young girl I was always fascinated with the foxes , their keen sense of smell and survival instincts . Even as I watched the fox hunts I was amazed at how clever then were in escaping the riders.

  5. I have an older female cat, who is very gentle and clearly subordinate to our two younger, smaller cats. and we live next to an overgrown field. One day a fox approached from the field and my cat saw it. She assumed her ground hugging hunting posture and began slowing moving directly towards it, when she got to about 30 feet away the fox began to back up and kept backing away until my cat was about 10 feet away, then the fox turned and ran away. When I checked on You tube for fox/cat interactions it turned out this was normal as at least some foxes are afraid of cats

    • AG says:

      Foxes don’t have owners that will take them to the vet. Nor do they have homes that they can lounge around in. All of their energy has to be used to fend for themselves. Most wild animals will avoid a fight. A fox can’t eat your cat – but a wolf could. So the wolf would eat your cat.

  6. Ethan says:

    Must have been fascinating to observe! How big is your cat? Interestingly enough, most foxes only weigh somewhere within the 10 to 13 lb category but their thick coats make them appear larger.

    • Steve B. says:

      Apparent size is a method cats use to judge their opponents. I’d be surprised if a cat could take on a fox, or would try. Cats don’t appear to be a food supply for foxes either, which is surprising to me.

    • Boreas says:

      Most predators give each other a wide berth. An injured predator is typically a dead predator. They wisely avoid conflict with their own species as well as other species to avoid injury. That fox knew full well that it was in another “predator’s” territory, so was on full alert. Why the cat was “stalking” the fox may be territorial, but could it be possible both it and the fox were hunting the same prey?

      Cats are ambush predators. It can’t stand on its hind legs and thump its chest. I think it was just instinctively maintaining a stalking/aggressive posture to perhaps get closer to the intruder to maintain its perceived territory. It was also displaying to the fox that it was aware of its presence. Whatever the reason, it eliminated the intruder. A cat I once had would chase deer out of the yard the same way!

  7. Another great article Jackie! The red fox is our number one most effective weapon in the fight against Lyme Disease, simply because of the volume of rodents they take. Black legged ticks carry the Lyme bacteria, but they pick it up from rodents, such as white footed mice. All hunting and trapping of predators that control rodents, should be outlawed, as it already is for Birds of Prey. Everything in nature is connected. When will we figure that out, and act accordingly?

    • Balian the Cat says:


      I think the hurdle is the inability of some to see humans as part of the biotic community. Not seeing ourselves as part of the web allows us to feel above it and prioritize our own perceived needs (i.e., the “economy”) over all else. Choices have consequences, naturally, but we often overlook those as well. I am not optimistic.

  8. Thomas Hunt Williams says:

    Fascinating stuff, Jackie.
    Magnetic field? Wow.

  9. Vanessa says:

    I love red foxes, they’re beautiful :). Thanks for the lovely article.

  10. Bert says:

    Coyotes are a great addition to New York , now if we could get a population of Eurasian Boars things would be even better .

  11. nathan says:

    since the boom of coyotes starting in the 1980’s i went from seeing foxes in the fields weekly , to now adays not seeying foxes at all. over the years i have seen coyotes attacking fox dens and fox pups 4 times. now all the smaller mammals that used to be abundant have been almost completely wiped out by coyotes.
    Shoot coyotes, trap coyotes, id rather have back all the other animals. thanks to every coyote hunter!!!

    • AG says:

      Coyotes got in because the wolves were killed off… Nature abhors a vacuum. Wolves kill coyotes the same way coyotes kill foxes

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox