Oh, you fox: February is the month for love

The red fox is one of two fox species typically found in this part of Colorado. Enlargephoto

Associated Press file photo

The red fox is one of two fox species typically found in this part of Colorado.

February is the month where love is in the air.

However, I’m not talking about the kind that involves a dinner out, roses and chocolates (one of the annual mating rituals of homo sapiens), but one of the variety that involves a lot of yipping and yapping. Listen closely this month for lots of high-pitched canine vocalization, because February is the mating season for the fox.

The fox is a member of the dog, or canid, family. However, unlike other canids such as wolves and coyotes, the fox exists primarily in monogamous pairs and family units, rather than packs. It may be “love,” but more likely it is thought that single male and female foxes have overlapping territories. During mating season, the male can be seen following the female closely everywhere she goes. Vocalizations are at their highest, and fights can break out if more than one male is competing within a female’s territory.

At the end of the winter, the female finds a suitable den where she can prepare to give birth. She usually gives birth to four or five blind and deaf cubs, which don’t leave the den for the first few weeks. For the entire time the female is confined to the den, the male’s role is to bring food for first the mother, and then the growing cubs. When the female finishes lactating in early summer and abandons the den, both parents share feeding responsibilities, tapering off so the juveniles can learn to forage for themselves.

In the autumn the cubs are full-grown, and most that survive literally get kicked out of the nest, or in this case the territories. Fighting may increase during this dispersal season, where food is not abundant enough to support the entire family. After dispersal, mom and dad are usually left within the original territory to start the cycle over again.

Foxes mark their territory with scent. Urine is usually used to mark their home range, while urine and feces can be used to mark a specific state, such as when females are fertile. These signs are often placed in conspicuous spots, like paths, trails or even food remains. Foxes have scent glands on their tail, feet and faces that they can rub on things, in addition to using their saliva.

Colorado is home to four species of foxes. However, the smaller kit fox and the swift fox are fairly rare and live mostly on Colorado’s eastern plains. The types of foxes found around this part of Colorado are the red fox and the gray fox. Both are extremely adaptable, eating bugs, berries, reptiles, eggs and small mammals. Rodents are often preferred, and the cubs learn at an early age to become adept at killing live prey through a pouncing method. Foxes are solitary, rather than pack hunters. But, however adaptive and wily foxes may be, they often have a short life span. Though they can live up to 14 years in the wild, they rarely live more than two years because of hunting, road accidents and disease.

So, I suppose a fox must live life to its fullest. Although most of us would prefer a candlelit dinner to a good scent-gland rubbing, all of those Valentine’s Day celebrants out there share an annual February ritual with the love-struck fox.

sally@durangonaturestudies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.