The extraordinary cunning of the fox

By Jose Luis Gallego. Environmental communicator @ecogallego

If there's one animal that needs no introduction, it's arguably the fox. Cunning, intelligent and capable of adapting to any ecosystem, the common fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of the most widely distributed and best-known carnivores among Iberian fauna.


Its evolutionary success has allowed it to achieve relatively large numbers despite being systematically persecuted by hunters throughout history. One example of this is the fact that today, in spite of society being considerably more aware of the importance of ecology and the improvements made in conservationist laws, the fox is still classed as game and its hunting is permitted.


Those of us who respect and admire this marvellous animal and appreciate its beauty never tire of extolling its elegant form and remarkable fur which (unfortunately) was so highly coveted it became fashionable as an item of clothing, a trend thankfully rejected by most of society today.



Ejemplar de zorro común. Fotografía de: Ana Mínguez

Common fox. Photograph by: Ana Mínguez



Of medium size, foxes are much smaller than wolves and also differ greatly from them in both appearance and behaviour. In Spain the colour of foxes varies according to its location, this being orange in high mountain areas and greyish brown in the centre of the peninsula.


A fox's sharp, shiny black muzzle and triangular, very pointed ears are evidence of its alert senses, which enable it to remain constantly on guard, taking note of everything happening around it, most particularly thanks to its acute sense of smell, its main means of survival.


With an intelligent gaze and beautiful caramel-coloured eyes, the lower part of the muzzle and belly are white, contrasting with the bottom of the forelegs which darken to black. However, the tail is perhaps the most striking part of a fox: broad, long, dense and bushy, slightly darker than the body but often pure white at the tip.



Zorro común rodeado de flores en el campo. Fotografía de: Ana Mínguez

A common fox surrounded by wild flowers. Photograph by: Ana Mínguez



Foxes tend to be about one metre in length and have a height at the withers (i.e. the shoulder) of 40 cm. Their weight, however, can vary greatly; this tends to be between five and eight kilos but they can be much lighter or heavier depending on the abundance of food.


Solitary and territorial, foxes never move in packs but act as solitary hunters. As a result of their persecution by hunters, they've become elusive and evasive, extremely cautious and difficult to surprise. But undoubtedly the main feature of a fox's behaviour is its extraordinary cunning.



Zorro común en un campo. Fotografía de: Ana Mínguez
A common fox in a field. Photograph by: Ana Mínguez



Ethologists suggest this small carnivore is one of the most intelligent animals in European fauna. I could share numerous anecdotes with you: from its ability to sense those who are its friend, acknowledging our presence in the countryside and approaching confidently with complete ease, to its incredible cunning in evading the persecution of hunters and their dogs, becoming almost invisible and disappearing without leaving any trace of its presence.


The vixens come on heat in December, and it's around this time that rival males challenge each other to defend their territory. After copulation, the gestation period lasts 52 days. Foxes are highly fertile and can give birth to up to a dozen cubs in particularly good years, although litters of four are the most common.


In early spring the cubs leave the den to begin their training for adulthood. After spending the summer in the company of their mother, once autumn arrives the young foxes become independent and move away from their father's territory to avoid competition.


A large part of the expansion of fox populations is due to their omnivorous nature, being able to adapt to whatever food source is abundantly available at the time. In those locations where rabbits proliferate, these form the basis of their diet. Dormice, voles, mice, reptiles and amphibians, birds and insects complete the list of their most common prey.


But when live prey is scarce, foxes can readily alter their diet and become essentially vegetarian. In such cases they feed mainly on wild berries in autumn, while in summer they eat all kinds of fruit, especially ripe grapes which they love, a habit that can bring them into conflict with winegrowers, although the ultimate aim is always one of harmonious coexistence.


I once knew a winegrower who befriended a fox that would prowl around his vineyards. He'd share the remains of his lunch with the animal and it ended up keeping the winegrower company while he worked, sleeping in a barn some nights and waiting for him to arrive at the top of the road. This friendship between a farmer and a fox illustrates just how much we can enjoy the presence of foxes, through tolerance and mutual respect.  


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