One thing I love about foxes is they’re just so easy to observe on the hunt.
Foxes hunt in a relatively small area compared to larger-sized predators which means you don’t have to search as far to find them, and their populations can be quite high within a relatively defined area.
When you understand their hunting strategy, it’s like a roadmap to having some pretty amazing moments watching foxes in the wild. So how do foxes hunt?
In general, foxes hunt in a steady paced trotting gait, which lets them patrol large sections of their territory while staying alert to opportunities for prey like small rodents and birds.
- When the trotting fox picks up a fresh scent on patrol, it will slow down, look, listen and follow the smell to find the source.
- Then once their prey has been located, the fox uses its small stealthy size to creep within range and pounce on their target from above.
This sequence is one of the most well documented wildlife hunting strategies in the world with some pretty amazing videos showing how it works.
Here are some examples:
This first video does a great job showing the bouncy trotting gait used by foxes during hunting…
Next, we see another example showing a lot more nose & scent involvement in heavy frost conditions.
This video shows how their hunting strategy changes in snow & cold conditions to rely more on sound than smell.
Understanding The Fox Hunting Strategy
The key to understanding how foxes become such successful hunters simply comes down to some basic observations about their size, family (canine), and how they use their dominant senses.
Size & Family Group:
Foxes are the smallest wild members of the canine family, which they share with coyotes, wolves and domesticated dogs. Most foxes weigh less than 15 pounds, and some weigh less than 6 pounds!
Being a small canine means foxes are designed to move quickly and efficiently over long distances, yet with the same stealth and hiding capability as much smaller mammals.
Their tiny size enables foxes to survive on even the smallest possible prey like voles & grasshoppers which simply would not sustain larger canine relatives like wolves.
This is a big key to the success of foxes around the world!
What Is The Foxes Dominant Sense?
The primary sense of all canines (including foxes) is smell. This is the starting point for their entire hunting strategy.
1. Scent first: Swiftly trotting through large areas of territory enables foxes to sample a wide variety of smells from recent animals in the area. They don’t need to waste time in locations lacking active prey, but if something catches their nose, they can slow down to investigate.
2. Hearing second. Moving at that fast pace means the fox is admittedly a bit less attuned to their sense of sound & sight while patrolling. However once the scent of their prey has been located, foxes rely very heavily on their ears to further refine their search.
Foxes have extremely well-developed hearing they can use to pinpoint vole movements in the grass. If an animal is close and moving, it usually only takes the fox a short time before they locate it through hearing.
3. Sight last: While sight tends to be the least developed sense in foxes, they will still use this to locate little movements in the grass. This is typically the final stage of their stalking sequence before moving in position to pounce.
Of course, the exact hunting strategy can vary depending on what food source the fox is actually focusing on. For example, foxes may rely more on sight and sound when hunting insects like grasshoppers or crickets.
So let’s talk about diet…
Key Points About Diet: What Do Foxes Eat?
Foxes are omnivores, which means they don’t just rely on hunting to find their food. People are sometimes surprised to learn that foxes also eat a lot of fruit, plants & even insects.
The primary food source of foxes really just depends on what’s available in your local area at different times of year.
While foxes will actively hunt at all times of year, it’s important to think about your local conditions and what else might be available in different seasons.
- Spring: mostly small rodents & birds
- Summer: insects, berries
- Fall: Fruit, vegetables
- Winter: Anything they can get (probably meat)
If you live in a place with lots of orchards or agricultural lands, foxes may even be seasonal vegetarians during the peak harvest season.
When it comes to hunting, the most important prey for foxes are small animals like voles, mice, squirrels, crickets, grasshoppers & occasionally birds.
How Season Affects The Dietary Needs of Foxes
The overall quantity of food required by foxes also changes depending on the time of year.
Spring and summer are when foxes raise their pups, which requires a significant boost in food and therefore hunting activity.
The most likely time to see a hunting fox is a mom or dad catching food to feed their family.
Diet throughout the year will also vary between different species of fox and the habitat in which the fox lives. Arctic foxes are more carnivorous than foxes who live in warmer climates.
Diet & Habitat of 5 Common Types of Foxes:
- Red & Grey Fox: Habitat generalists with a very wide distribution. Capable of surviving in forests, fields, during hot summers & freezing snowy winters.
- Swift Fox: Desert specialist, specially adapted to surviving in arid regions.
- Kit Fox: Prairie specialist, adapted specifically to open habitats and grasslands.
- Arctic Fox: Arctic specialist, adapted to survive with very little plant life.
Foxes that have easy access to unmowed fields and meadows tend to be very happy. However foxes can also live quite successfully in forested conditions, where they hunt squirrels and voles.
Choosing A Location: Where Do Foxes Go To Hunt?
Foxes are highly adaptable predators, so it’s possible to find them hunting in forests, fields & even urban environments.
That said, open environments like unmowed fields and meadows tend to have the highest abundance of voles & large insects like grasshoppers to eat.
Open landscapes also give you the best chance of seeing a hunt in progress because you’re able to see so much farther without encroaching on their personal space.
While close encounters with foxes can be extremely common in their core areas, they will typically go out of their way to avoid humans whenever possible.
In a previous article discussing how to observe predator & prey relationships in an ecosystem, I shared the example of watching foxes hunt on San Juan Island which was an incredibly abundant oceanside prairie.
Another thing to consider… in places with abundant coyote populations, coyotes are known to act aggressively towards foxes which can dramatically reduce their populations.
In general, the more skilled and knowledgeable you get about animal tracking with all types of mammals, birds & even insects, the easier it is to predict where foxes are most likely to be seen.
Timing The Hunt: When Do Foxes Hunt?
Perhaps the greatest challenge of watching foxes while they hunt is getting the timing right.
Foxes will generally focus most of their hunting efforts at night, or in the transition times around dawn and dusk.
This is partially for their own safety because foxes are themselves quite vulnerable to predation. The other factor is that foxes need to hunt at times of peak activity for their prey.
Night and the transitions between night and day are when most prey animals are active under the cover of poor lighting.
This is why if you live in a place with lots of foxes, you’ve probably learned to be cautious while driving around dawn or dusk for foxes darting across the road.
There are however, many exceptions that can cause foxes to hunt during the daytime.
Especially during spring, when raising a family, foxes will be forced to hunt at all hours of the day, and taking advantage of the abundant prey during this time.
In less abundant times of year, foxes may also be forced into hunting during the day because prey is a bit more scarce. Wildlife patterns can be significantly altered by freezing night-time temperatures, or heavy rain/snow.
If you get a big storm or deep freeze that oppresses animal activity at night, you may see foxes emerge the following day to catch food (Learn more about how weather affects animal behavior).
How To Watch Foxes On Their Hunt
Possibly my favorite thing about tracking wild animals like foxes is getting to see them living wild and free with my own eyes.
Here are some simple tips to follow if you want to see foxes hunting.
- Go to open habitats like grasslands & meadows in the early morning. Look for places that catch the sun where foxes like to patrol.
- Look for the presence of small hawks & harrier activity who feed on the same prey as foxes. Foxes will often hunt at the same time as the hawks in these landscapes (Learn more about how hawks hunt to get better at this).
- Pay particular attention during spring & early summer when fox parents are hunting more regularly.
- In closed landscapes with forest and vegetative cover, learn to detect the alarm calls made by jays and other scolding birds when foxes are present.
Using Bird Language To Find Foxes In The Wild
Foxes are frequent targets of bird alarm activity, especially in habitats that lack long distance visibility. This can be an incredibly useful tool to understand how foxes are moving through your environment.
Blue Jays are especially frequent scolders of foxes when they move through forests and along the edges of open fields.
Smaller birds like sparrows will also react to foxes in open landscapes like grasslands, but they don’t always make vocal alarm calls in this context.
Instead they fly up several feet into the shrub as a fox passes nearby, then return to ground as it leaves.
Fix your gaze on the shrub-line and use your peripheral vision to watch these little brown birds popping up in a moving sequence. Using this method, it’s possible to follow hidden foxes over long distances without invading their personal space.
If you want to learn more about using bird language to track cool animals like foxes, check out the beginner’s guide to bird language which goes super deep into how you can learn to do this too!
Remember to always respect your local wildlife & keep learning out there!
What other questions do you have about foxes?