Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Fox

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FOX (Vulpes), a genus of digitigrade Carnivora, belonging to ths Canidæ or dog family, but differing from the true dogs (Canis) in the greater elongation and sharpness of the muzzle, and in the greater length and bushiness of the tail. They likewise differ in the pupil of the eye being elliptical when contracted, and in the possession of a subcaudal gland, in which a fetid substance is secreted, the emission of which gives to foxes their peculiarly disagreeable odour. There are 24 recent species of foxes known, distributed over all the great continents except South America and Australia. Of these the Fennec foxes are exclusively African, and the bristle-tailed foxes North American. The Common Fox (Vulpes vulgaris), the pet of the hunting field and the pest of the farmyard, occurs throughout Europe, wherever it has not been exterminated by man. It is the Scottish tod and the French renard. It measures about two feet in length exclusive of the tail, which is about a foot long. Its fur is of a reddish-brown colour above, and more or less white beneath; the back of its ears and the fore part of its limbs are black, and the tip of its bushy tail, or brush as it is called, is white. Its long, sharp muzzle, erect pointed ears, and sharp eye give it an appearance of sagacity and cunning which its real character fully justifies. The fox is undoubtedly the subtlest of British beasts of the field, its intellectual capacity having no doubt been enlarged by the peculiarly hard conditions under which alone it is permitted to exist in this country. It is regularly hunted by the fleet and keen-scented fox hounds, urged on by mounted huntsmen, all of whom are not unfrequently baffled by the speed, cunning, and ingenuity of this wily creature. The fox is a solitary animal, inhabiting a burrow known as its earth, which it either excavates for itself, or, as more usually happens, obtains by previously ejecting the badger or the rabbit from its home. So averse, indeed, is the fox to dig for itself, that when foiled in its attempts to dispossess the badger, it has been known to take up its quarters with the latter, and in Germany it is readily induced to make its home in artificial burrows, constructed of stone and earth for the purpose of facilitating the operation of digging out the cubs. The fox also occurs in woods, and even in the open country without burrows, lying in its “cover” by day and stealing forth at night, when alone it can be said to see properly, in search of its prey. Its food consists of rabbits, hares, poultry, and game-birds, although when these are not to be had it is fain to satisfy its hunger with rats, mice, and even insects “the droppings of these creatures,” says Bell, “being often composed almost entirely of the wing cases of beetles.” The fox also visits the sea-shore, where it feeds on shell-fish and crustaceans; and on the Continent it is said to frequent the vineyards in order to gratify its taste for ripe grapes. Although the flesh of most birds forms its favourite food, it is a curious circumstance, noticed by Dr Weissenborn, that even the severest hunger cannot compel it to eat the flesh of birds of prey, while there is good reason to believe that the fox enjoys, if it does not even prefer, “high” meat. The female produces her young in April — the period of gestation extending from 60 to 65 days. These are usually from 5 to 8 in number, and for them she shows the greatest solicitude), defending them with the utmost courage, and exhibiting a boldness altogether foreign to her character at other times. The cubs, attain their full size in about 18 months, and the duration of life in the species, judging from individuals kept in confinement, probably extends to 13 or 14 years. The cubs, like those of most Carnivora, are exceedingly playful, and may often be seen amusing themselves, after the manner of young dogs, in pursuit of their own brushes. Their resemblance to the dog does not, however, extend much further, for, unlike it, they seem incapable of attachment to man. Although taken young and brought up with dogs, their attachment does not go beyond refraining from biting the hand that is accustomed to feed them. They remain timid and suspicious, and are always ready to snap at any one seeking to be familiar. This incapability of domestication, and the fact that the dog and fox have never been known to interbreed, would seem to prove that these animals are by no means so nearly related as was at one time supposed. Ample proof of the very considerable intellectual capacity of the fox is to be found in the stratagems to which it has recourse in securing its prey, but still more in the quickness with which it detects man's strategic efforts to outwit and capture it. “Its instinctive cunning,” says Bell, “leads it soon to suspect the wiles of its enemies, and it will in a very short time ascertain the design of a trap or a gin, though concealed with the utmost care.” Nothing can exceed the caution with which reynard approaches and examines the baited trap, or the nonchalance with which he approaches, enters, and rifles the snare in which some animal has been already caught, and which he evidently knows can do him no injury until reset. There are also several well-authenticated cases of the fox counterfeiting death in order to escape from its enemies. Attempts have been made to put a different interpretation on such instances, but examples of “feigning” have of late years been noticed in so many and such diverse animals, — among insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals, — that there seems no reason to doubt that the wily fox has recourse to a stratagem which, for want of a better term, may be described as counterfeiting death.

Closely allied to the common fox of Europe is the Red Fox (Vulpes fulvus) of eastern North America, regarded by many naturalists as only a variety of the common species — an opinion which receives some confirmation from the fact that hitherto no remains of the red fox have been found in the cave deposits of that continent, although remains of the grey fox are abundant. It may thus possibly be the descendant of individuals of the European species, introduced at a comparatively early period, and owing the differences that now distinguish it to the greatly altered conditions under which for centuries it has existed. It is altogether larger than the common fox of Europe, and the fur is longer and softer, the colour more brilliant, and the muzzle less extended. According to Sir J. Richardson, it preys largely on the smaller animals of the rat family, and is very fond of fish. “The red fox,” he says, “does not possess the wind of its English congener. It runs for about 100 yards with great swiftness, but its strength is exhausted in the first burst, and it is soon overtaken by a wolf or a mounted horseman.” In Canada and the United States it is largely hunted for its valuable fur, about 60,000 skins of this species being annually imported into the London market. There are several well-known varieties of the red fox, as the cross fox and the black or silver fox. The latter is very scarce, and its fur is more valuable than any other found in North America. La Hontan states that in his time a skin of the silver fox was worth its weight in gold, and an unusually fine skin has been sold in the London market for £50. The fur is sometimes of a uniform black shining colour, except at the tip of the tail, which is white; but more usually it has a hoary appearance from the admixture of white tipped hairs with those entirely black. This fox is exceedingly shy and difficult of approach, owing probably to the persistency with which it is hunted by the fur traders. About 1600 skins of the silver fox are annually imported into Britain. The Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) is an inhabitant of the boreal regions of Europe, Asia, and America. It is somewhat smaller than the European fox, its ears being less pointed and the muzzle shorter. The soles of its feet are densely furred, resembling those of a hare, hence its specific name, lagopus. As with many Arctic animals the colour of its fur changes with the season, being in most cases of a pure white colour in winter, with the exception of a few black hairs at the extremity of the tail. Towards the end of April, however, when the Arctic snows begin to disappear, the long white fur gives place to shorter hair of a dark brown or sooty colour. Occasionally a dark-coloured fox may be seen in winter, and a white one in summer, and in Iceland, according to Professor Newton, the winter coat differs very slightly in colour from that of summer, probably owing to the comparatively mild character of the Icelandic winter. The Arctic fox has little of the proverbial cunning of its kind, having been seen to walk unsuspiciously into the trap which had been baited in its presence. It is an exceedingly cleanly animal, and the fetid odour characteristic of the entire genus is almost absent in this species. It differs also from the common fox in being gregarious, living, according to Richardson, in little villages consisting of 20 or 30 burrows placed near each other. The Arctic foxes seek their food, which consists of lemmings, birds, eggs, and carrion, at night, and their first impulse, says Captain Lyon, on securing it is to hide it, even though suffering severely from hunger. It was suggested some years ago by Professor Newton that this species supported itself during winter on a store of provisions laid up during summer, and Captain Feilden was able during the recent polar expedition (1875) to confirm this. When in Grinnell Land he and his companions came upon Arctic foxes, and were greatly surprised on discovering numerous deposits of dead lemmings. “In one nook,” says Captain Feilden, “under a rock we pulled out over 50; we disturbed numerous caches of 20 and 30, and the ground was honeycombed with holes, each of which contained several bodies of these little animals, a small quantity of earth being placed over them” (A Voyage to the Polar Sea, by Captain Sir G. Nares, 1878). Nearly 10,000 skins of the Arctic fox, chiefly in winter fur, are annually brought into Britain.

Foxes are found fossil in caverns in many parts of Europe, and extinct species occur in the Tertiary deposits of both hemispheres. (J. GI.)