How to tell the difference between male and female foxes

Vixen on roof

Wolfy showing slightly swollen teats.

For the past few months I have been referring to Wolfy as male, but as the above picture confirms Wolfy is most definitely female. Ouch! That’s a poor mistake for me to make, but it got me thinking about how we identify the sex of a wild fox. Often it is very obvious, but not always. This blog explores why I think I leapt to an incorrect conclusion and looks at some of the ways that wild foxes can be sexed.

Looking at the above picture of Wolfy, her teats are clearly evident on her lower trunk. This is one of the most obvious signs of a vixen and is even more unmistakable when the vixen is nursing young. See the next image of a previous vixen taken when she was nursing young cubs.

nursing vixen

Nursing vixen – photo taken a few years ago

Identifying male foxes can also be easy, as in this next photo. Of course, they don’t always present themselves quite so explicitly. It’s very easy when the penis is protruding, but often all you will see is a small circle of fur in that area.

male (dog) fox

Dog Fox – this photo is from a few years ago of a male (dog) fox.

 

This next photo (taken some years ago) is of a male (‘dog’) fox in heavy moult (and possible slight mange); but it also shows the fox’s testicles (which are carried relatively high). 

Male fox with testicles visible

Male fox with testicles visible

 

My assumption that Wolfy was male was based primarily on the identification of ‘him’ as ‘male’ as a young cub, having seen him present himself (penis extruding) very much as in the previous picture. That and some aspects of his friendly behaviour. Of the 5 cubs we saw over the summer, two were noticeably darker than the others. Wolfy was one of them, a bit of a loner with a preference for the front corner of the garden. He was a more regular visitor than the second darker fox.

Autumn brings behavioural changes as the adult foxes reassert their territorial claims. Young foxes are driven off to fend for themselves. For a short while we barely saw any cubs. Thus, when a familiar young fox, with a dark coat, reappeared in November I assumed it was Wolfy. 

fox at night

Wolfy taken on 8th December 2018


I missed some (obvious) clues that it wasn’t him (i.e. the male cub from the summer).

Firstly, during the annual dispersal of cubs a young male fox is much more likely than a female to be driven off from the birth territory. While males nearly always disperse, it is relatively common for a first year female to remain with the home group even if she doesn’t breed. She will act as a helper vixen to the primary vixen much as Pretty – a 2017 female cub – did last year. So that was a big behavioural clue and I should have paid much more heed to it. Bluntly a mature male would not allow a young male to remain on his turf. And if a young fox remains she is almost certainly female.  

There are also some other physiological clues. Males tend to have broader heads (and may be larger overall). This is more obvious with mature adults but heavy winter coats can disguise this to an extent (much as the winter coat will mask the more obvious sex characteristics). A broad head indicates a male, much as a narrow head indicates a female.  

dog fox

Dog fox showing the broad male head

vixen

Vixen showing the narrow head shape

vixen

The Bold Vixen from a few years ago had a relatively broad face so head shape in isolation can be tricky.  

With juveniles, head shape is less helpful as they are still growing. Foxes are not fully developed until over a year old (they tend to gain muscle and weight). The heavy winter coat can also be deceptive as the fur broadens their overall shape. These are excuses, but Wolfy is small, and her head has remained ‘narrow’. This is more obvious as she approaches her first birthday.   

The biggest clue, however was this next video clip and I missed it entirely. It was captured in November and is definitely Wolfy. 

Although I hear fox calls all the time I have very rarely witnessed them, and didn’t appreciate the significance of this call until I came across an excellent video by Professor Dawn Scott (produced for the Fox Guardians site). Wolfy is making the vixen’s call for mating partners.

I’ll sign off with a couple more pictures of Wolfy. And hopefully this will teach me to be more observant of all the signs.

Vixen scratching

Wolfy at approx 1 year old (taken 1st March 2019)

fox cub

‘Wolfy’ at 3-4 months old

Postscript: for a more scientific article on this topic visit the excellent Wildlife Online site.

 

Posted in Behaviour, Foxes, Wildlife Tagged , , , |

Out and About Around Brighton

In between all the foxes I’ve been spending a little more time out and about with the camera. Still all in the local area, but finding new subjects and places to explore. A few days ago I decided to explore the area opposite one of my usual haunts (Sheepcote Valley) and took a wander along the tracks that run between the meadows on the north of the main road. It was an eye opener. There were some lovely views across the valley, and loads of horses in paddocks.

horse in paddock

Horse in paddocks around Woodingdean, East Sussex

portrait of horse's head

Portrait shot

white hrose

White horse with view of houses in the distance

horse

Loved the colours on this horse and the soft reflected sunlight on the distant hill

That’s an area I’ll certainly be re-visiting.

A few days later I was really bold and wandered down into Brighton proper. I did have a particular subject in mind… the murmuration of starlings that takes place at sunset around the Palace Pier, but I was there much earlier which gave me some time in the afternoon. Apart from the usual shots of the i-360, I spend an age watching the Brighton Bubble Man entertaining the small crowd alongside the West Pier. The bubbles he creates are huge. Here’s just a few shots that worked out ok. Worth stopping by if you are ever down there.

giant bubble

Child’s hand reaching up to a bubble

Giant bubble framing the West Pier

Bubbles over the West Pier (by The BubbleMan)

A cup of coffee and a slice of cake later, the sun was beginning to go down and I got ready for the main event. Sunset was at 5.16pm and at 5.00pm I was still wondering whether anything would happen. There were starlings to be seen. But nature knows its stuff and as the sun went down below the horizon, small flocks of starlings started to gather and very quickly merged into a massive flock. And then they started the sky painting. This was my first attempt at murmurations and I made a few mistakes. I should have had more of the western sky in the shot (better colours), but my aim was to also grab plenty of the pier itself for context. I tried to keep the shutter rate high (above 1/250 with a decent depth of field). Inevitably it gets more difficult as the light disappears. I’ve included shots where the classic shape of the murmuration is more evident.

murmuration of starlings at Brighton

Murmuration of starlings at Brighton Palace Pier

murmuration of starlings at Brighton

Murmuration of starlings at Brighton Palace Pier

murmuration of starlings at Brighton

Murmuration of starlings at Brighton Palace Pier

I mentioned the advantage of looking west to catch the true colour of the sunset. These were taken shortly before the sun disappeared.

sunset brighton beach

West Pier (and i360) at sunset

sunset brighton beach

West Pier (and i360) at sunset

Camera note: all photos taken with the Canon 1DX Mark II. I used the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM for the horses and the EF 70-200mm f/4.0L IS II USM lens for everything else.

Posted in Birds, coastal, horse, Landscape, Seaside Views, starlings, Sunset, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , , |

Fox Hopping

This is going to be another catch-up post, mainly on Wolfy our one constant fox visitor. I’ve also been tweaking the website so that there is now a new header and some more slight changes to fonts and overall layout. Most of this is the result of updating my theme (Photocrati) which has allowed more flexibility and improved performance with better back-end security.

Enough of the tech-speak> here’s a quick round-up of fox activity.

There are a couple of regular cats that share the garden, and one in particular who camps out at night. It’s a beautiful fluffy thing and while there are occasional run-ins with the foxes they generally steer around each other. Except when they don’t. In this shot Wolfy had been laying down across the path while I was taking photos. The cat was trying to get to the corner of the garden and rather than step around the fox it decided to give him a quick tap on his rump. Caught us both by surprise! The cat then ambled another two or three yards and sat down watching us.

fox and cat

Wolfy being pestered by a cat

We’ve also been trying to tidy the place up a bit, taking down some overgrown shrubs, including an out of control privet. Here’s Wolfy admiring the job (half done at that stage).

fox

Wolfy admiring our gardening

fox

Investigating garden cuttings

Towards the latter part of January we had a lunar eclipse. I missed most of it, but did wake up just after totality and grabbed this shot at 5.45am.

lunar eclipse

Lunar eclipse

The end of January saw us get a light covering of snow. This brought out one of the other foxes (one we don’t usually see).

fox in snow

Unknown fox in the snow

A couple of nights later (and after a second snow-fall), I managed to get some pictures of Wolfy in the white stuff.

fox in snow

Wolfy in the snow

fox in snow

Wolfy in the snow

fox in snow

Wolfy in the snow

Which brings me to the title of the blog. Somewhere on his travels Wolfy got himself injured. He picked up a very heavy limp on his right front leg, plus a cut on his head. This left him almost hopping about the garden.

fox with injured leg

Wolfy holding up injured leg.

I first spotted the injury on 4th February and he seemed to be struggling with it for about a week, though foxes are highly mobile even on three legs. Injuries like this are very common and pretty much an occupational hazard of being a fox. It’s all the climbing, jumping, scrambling over fences that places them at risk. Just about every fox we’ve known well has sported a limp at one time or another.

fox running with injured leg

Wolfy running with injured leg (on far side/front)

Thankfully he’s fine now (only the slightest hint of a limp left).

fox sitting

His foot seems to have healed and he’s now placing it on the ground and letting it bear his weight.

Finally, here’s a clip of a couple of the more elusive foxes out in the snow.

Camera note: all photos taken with the Canon 1DX Mark II and (as far as I can remember) the EF 70-200mm f/4.0L IS II USM lens.

Posted in Foxes, Moon, Wildlife Tagged , , |