Speaking of Nature: Midnight wail — The call of the Red Fox

I took this photo while watching a red fox hunt for rodents in an open field. Those huge ears are the key to success for a hungry fox.

I took this photo while watching a red fox hunt for rodents in an open field. Those huge ears are the key to success for a hungry fox. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


Published: 02-20-2024 9:22 AM

It was early in the morning.  I had a fresh cup of coffee and a little something to nibble on as I sat down at my computer and tried to make a decision.  What was I going to write about this week?  There were two ideas rattling around in my head but neither one seemed to gain any traction over the other.  So I took a sip of coffee and woke up my computer by hitting the space bar.  Surely one of these ideas would prove itself to be better somehow.

The screen popped to life and I found myself looking at a couple programs that I use for working on my website.  I closed those down and behind them was the page for my email.  This is all predictable and mundane, but then the little lightning bolt struck.  There, in the middle of my inbox, was a message from Joanne.  She had been up very early in the morning to let her dogs out into her fenced backyard and she heard a “high-pitched wail.”  She then went on to wonder if this could be the call of a Red Fox.

As luck would have it, the Red Fox was one of the two ideas that had been vying for supremacy in my head and this email was the extra something special that pushed it into the winner’s circle.  The other idea may be headed your way next week, but for now the fox has the edge.  So Joanne, this one is for you.

The Red Fox (Vulpesvulpes) is one of two fox species that lives in our area.  Slender and lithe, the Red Fox is active day and night, but it is the only species that I generally see in the daytime hours.  Just a couple of weeks ago I happened to see a Red Fox sitting in the middle of a hay field on my way home from work.  It was one of those gorgeous blue-sky days and there was a beautiful blob of orange in the middle of the field, which was otherwise blanketed with the light yellow-tan of the dead grass.  

The fox appeared to be just sitting there, but don’t be fooled by appearances.  This animal was actively hunting.  Most of the diet of the Red Fox is made up of mice and voles, both of which can be hunted in an open field.  The technique for hunting them is rather simple: sit quietly and listen carefully.  The small rodents may not be visible, but they make noise as they move around under the dead grass.  When the rustling sound is in just the right place the fox will leap up into the air and then come down hard with both front paws.  If everything works properly, the rodent is pinned to the ground and the fox can grab it and dispatch it with a quick bite.  I have been very fortunate to have seen this sort of hunt in person.

So what about this strange sound at night?  Well, the sound itself is difficult to describe.  I heard one author try to suggest that it sounds like a high-pitched “monosyllabic whaaaa,” but I don’t love it.  Some noises defy description and have to be heard.  So here is what I would do.  The next time you are looking for something to do on a cozy day on the weekend, I recommend that you tune your TV to a channel where you can watch a British Cozy.  Specifically, I recommend a show called “Midsomer Murders.”  I haven’t done any official research to back up the following claim, but I think the call of a Red Fox appears in every single episode.

In the United States, an owl would be synonymous with nighttime, but in England it appears to be the fox that reigns supreme.  I have spent a lot of time outside and I don’t think that I have ever heard the call of a fox at night.  Owls, on the other hand, are something that I hear almost every week.  But there is a similarity between the two sounds and that similarity appears to be vocalizations made during the breeding season.

A little research suggests that the sound Joanne heard might have been the sound of a female fox (a vixen) attempting to summon a male (a dog).  But it might also have been an alarm call that is described as a “monosyllabic bark.”  That is really helpful, isn’t it?  Exactly what is the difference between a “monosyllabic whaaaa” and a “monosyllabic bark?”  I think that I have just set a personal record for using the word “monosyllabic” in a single column.  I need more coffee.

The days are getting longer and the world is starting to feel like spring is just around the corner.  I’ve heard chickadees and cardinals singing in my yard during the day and owls are making a wonderful racket out there at night.  A huge flock of Canada Geese flew over my yard last weekend and woodpeckers are drumming in the forest beyond the meadow.  That being said, we still have two more months to wait.  Sigh.

Oh, and one last thing.  The other fox species in our area is the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which used to be the dominant fox species in the Northeast prior to European colonization.  The Gray Fox is more closely associated with forest habitat, but European colonists had a penchant for clearing forests for agriculture.  This turned out to be perfect terraforming for Red Foxes … but I think this is a story for another day.  Cliffhanger!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics.  For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.