Foxes and human beings lived in close proximity in ancient Japan; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as his messengers. This role has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. The more tails a kitsune has—they may have as many as nine—the older, wiser, and more powerful it is. Because of their potential power and influence, some people make offerings to them as to a deity.
A nine-tailed fox, from the Qing edition of the Shan Hai Jing.
It is widely agreed that many fox myths in Japan can be traced to China, Korea, or India. Chinese folk tales tell of fox spirits that may have up to nine tails. Many of the earliest surviving stories are recorded in the Konjaku Monogatari, an 11th-century collection of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese narratives.
There is debate whether the kitsune myths originated entirely from foreign sources or are in part an indigenous Japanese concept dating as far back as the fifth century BC. Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki[who?] argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D.; the only things imported from China or Korea were the kitsune's negative attributes. He states that, according to a 16th-century book of records called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and human beings lived in close proximity in ancient Japan, and he contends that indigenous legends about the creatures arose as a result. Inari scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of the fox as seductress and the connection of the fox myths to Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.
Japan is home to two red fox subspecies: the Hokkaido fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki, pictured), and the Japanese red fox (Vulpes vulpes japonica).
The full etymology is unknown. The oldest known usage of the word is in the 794 text Shin'yaku Kegonkyō Ongi Shiki. Other old sources include Nihon Ryōiki (810–824) and Wamyō Ruijushō (c. 934). These oldest sources are written in Man'yōgana which clearly identifies the historical spelling as ki1tune. Following several diachronic phonological changes, this becomes kitsune.
Many etymological suggestions have been made; however, there is no general agreement.
* Myōgoki (1268) suggests that it is so called because it is "always (tsune) yellow (ki)".
* Early Kamakura period Mizukagami indicates that it means "came (ki) [perfective case particle tsu] to bedroom (ne)" due to a legend that a kitsune would change into one's wife and bear children.
* Arai Hakuseki in Tōga (1717) suggests that ki means "stench", tsu is a possessive particle, and ne is related to inu, the word for "dog".
* Tanikawa Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777–1887) suggests that ki means "yellow", tsu is a possessive particle, and ne is related to neko, the word for cat.
* Ōtsuki Fumihiko in Daigenkai (1932–1935) proposes that kitsu is an onomatopoeia for the animal, and that ne is an affix or an honorific word meaning a servant of an Inari shrine.
According to Nozaki, the word kitsune was originally onomatopoeia. Kitsu represented a fox's yelp and came to be the general word for fox. -Ne signifies an affectionate mood, which Nozaki presents as further evidence of an established, non-imported tradition of benevolent foxes in Japanese folklore. Kitsu is now archaic; in modern Japanese, a fox's cry is transcribed as kon kon or gon gon.
One of the oldest surviving kitsune tales provides a widely known folk etymology of the word kitsune; the story is now known to be false. Unlike most tales of kitsune who become human and marry human males, this one does not end tragically:
Ono, an inhabitant of Mino (says an ancient Japanese legend of A.D. 545), spent the seasons longing for his ideal of female beauty. He met her one evening on a vast moor and married her. Simultaneously with the birth of their son, Ono's dog was delivered of a pup which as it grew up became more and more hostile to the lady of the moors. She begged her husband to kill it, but he refused. At last one day the dog attacked her so furiously that she lost courage, resumed vulpine shape, leaped over a fence and fled.
"You may be a fox," Ono called after her, "but you are the mother of my son and I love you. Come back when you please; you will always be welcome."
So every evening she stole back and slept in his arms.
Because the fox returns to her husband each night as a woman but leaves each morning as a fox, she is called Kitsune. In classical Japanese, kitsu-ne means come and sleep, and ki-tsune means always comes.
Statue of a kitsune at the Inari shrine adjacent to Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara
Kitsune are believed to possess superior intelligence, long life, and magical powers. They are a type of yōkai, or spiritual entity, and the word kitsune is often translated as fox spirit. However, this does not mean that kitsune are ghosts, nor that they are fundamentally different from regular foxes. Because the word spirit is used to reflect a state of knowledge or enlightenment, all long-lived foxes gain supernatural abilities.
There are two common classifications of kitsune. The zenko (善狐 ?, literally, good foxes) are benevolent, celestial foxes associated with Inari-god; they are sometimes simply called Inari foxes. On the other hand, the yako (野狐 ?, literally, outsider foxes) tend to be mischievous or even malicious. Local traditions add further types. For example, a ninko is an invisible fox spirit that human beings can only perceive when it possesses them. Another tradition classifies kitsune into one of thirteen types defined by which supernatural abilities the kitsune possesses.
Physically, kitsune are noted for having as many as nine tails. Generally, a greater number of tails indicates an older and more powerful fox; in fact, some folktales say that a fox will only grow additional tails after it has lived 1,000 years. One, five, seven, and nine tails are the most common numbers in folk stories. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, its fur becomes white or gold. These kyūbi no kitsune (九尾の狐 ?, nine-tailed foxes) gain the abilities to see and hear anything happening anywhere in the world. Other tales attribute them infinite wisdom (omniscience).
This obake karuta (monster card) from the early 19th century depicts a kitsune. The associated game involves matching clues from folklore to pictures of specific creatures.
A kitsune may take on human form, an ability learned when it reaches a certain age — usually 100 years, although some tales say 50. As a common prerequisite for the transformation, the fox must place reeds, a broad leaf, or a skull over its head. Common forms assumed by kitsune include beautiful women, young girls, or elderly men. These shapes are not limited by the fox's age or gender, and a kitsune can duplicate the appearance of a specific person. Foxes are particularly renowned for impersonating beautiful women. Common belief in medieval Japan was that any woman encountered alone, especially at dusk or night, could be a fox.
In some stories, kitsune have difficulty hiding their tails when they take human form; looking for the tail, perhaps when the fox gets drunk or careless, is a common method of discerning the creature's true nature. Variants on the theme have the kitsune retain other foxlike traits, such as a coating of fine hair, a fox-shaped shadow, or a reflection that shows its true form. Kitsune-gao or fox-faced refers to human females who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, and high cheekbones. Traditionally, this facial structure is considered attractive, and some tales ascribe it to foxes in human form. Kitsune have a fear and hatred of dogs even while in human form, and some become so rattled by the presence of dogs that they revert to the shape of a fox and flee. A particularly devout individual may be able to see through a fox's disguise automatically.
One folk story illustrating these imperfections in the kitsune's human shape concerns Koan, a historical person credited with wisdom and magical powers of divination. According to the story, he was staying at the home of one of his devotees when he scalded his foot entering a bath because the water had been drawn too hot. Then, "in his pain, he ran out of the bathroom naked. When the people of the household saw him, they were astonished to see that Koan had fur covering much of his body, along with a fox's tail. Then Koan transformed in front of them, becoming an elderly fox and running away."
Other supernatural abilities commonly attributed to the kitsune include possession, mouths or tails that generate fire or lightning (known as kitsune-bi; literally, fox-fire), willful manifestation in the dreams of others, flight, invisibility, and the creation of illusions so elaborate as to be almost indistinguishable from reality. Some tales speak of kitsune with even greater powers, able to bend time and space, drive people mad, or take fantastic shapes such as a tree of incredible height or a second moon in the sky. Other kitsune have characteristics reminiscent of vampires or succubi and feed on the life or spirit of human beings, generally through sexual contact.
Inari and her fox spirits help the blacksmith Munechika forge the blade kogitsune-maru (Little Fox) at the end of the 10th century. The legend is the subject of the noh drama Sanjō Kokaji.
Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き or 狐付き; also written kitsune-tsuki) literally means the state of being possessed by a fox. The victim is always a young woman, whom the fox enters beneath her fingernails or through her breasts.In some cases, the victims' facial expressions are said to change in such a way that they resemble those of a fox. Japanese tradition holds that fox possession can cause illiterate victims to temporarily gain the ability to read. Though foxes in Folklore can possess a person of their own will, Kitsunetsuki is often attributed to the malign intents of a hereditary fox employers, or tsukimono-suji.
Folklorist Lafcadio Hearn describes the condition in the first volume of his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:
Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. And on some part of the body of the possessed a moving lump appears under the skin, which seems to have a life of its own. Prick it with a needle, and it glides instantly to another place. By no grasp can it be so tightly compressed by a strong hand that it will not slip from under the fingers. Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession. They eat only what foxes are believed to like — tofu, aburagé, azukimeshi, etc. — and they eat a great deal, alleging that not they, but the possessing foxes, are hungry.
He goes on to note that, once freed from the possession, the victim will never again be able to eat tofu, azukimeshi, or other foods favored by foxes.
Exorcism, often performed at an Inari shrine, may induce a fox to leave its host. In the past, when such gentle measures failed or a priest was not available, victims of kitsunetsuki were beaten or badly burned in hopes of forcing the fox to leave. Entire families were ostracized by their communities after a member of the family was thought to be possessed.
In Japan, kitsunetsuki was noted as a disease as early as the Heian period and remained a common diagnosis for mental illness until the early 20th century. Possession was the explanation for the abnormal behavior displayed by the afflicted individuals. In the late 19th century, Dr. Shunichi Shimamura noted that physical diseases that caused fever were often considered kitsunetsuki. The belief has lost favor, but stories of fox possession still appear in the tabloid press and popular media. One notable occasion involved allegations that members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult had been possessed.
In medicine, kitsunetsuki is an ethnic psychosis unique to Japanese culture. Those who suffer from the condition believe they are possessed by a fox. Symptoms include cravings for rice or sweet red beans, listlessness, restlessness, and aversion to eye contact. Kitsunetsuki is similar to but distinct from clinical lycanthropy.
 Hoshi no tama
Kitsune glowing with fox-fire gather near Edo. Print by Hiroshige.
Depictions of kitsune or their possessed victims may feature round or onion-shaped white balls known as hoshi no tama (star balls). Tales describe these as glowing with kitsune-bi, or fox-fire. Some stories identify them as magical jewels or pearls. When not in human form or possessing a human, a kitsune keeps the ball in its mouth or carries it on its tail. Jewels are a common symbol of Inari, and representations of sacred Inari foxes without them are rare.
One belief is that when a kitsune changes shape, its hoshi no tama holds a portion of its magical power. Another tradition is that the pearl represents the kitsune's soul; the kitsune will die if separated from it for long. Those who obtain the ball may be able to extract a promise from the kitsune to help them in exchange for its return. For example, a 12th-century tale describes a man using a fox's hoshi no tama to secure a favor:
"Confound you!" snapped the fox. "Give me back my ball!" The man ignored its pleas till finally it said tearfully, "All right, you've got the ball, but you don't know how to keep it. It won't be any good to you. For me, it's a terrible loss. I tell you, if you don't give it back, I'll be your enemy forever. If you do give it back though, I'll stick to you like a protector god."
The fox later saves his life by leading him past a band of armed bandits.
Inari appears to a warrior. This portrayal of Inari shows the influence of Dakiniten concepts from Buddhism. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
 Servants of Inari
Kitsune are associated with Inari, the Shinto deity of rice. This association has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. Originally, kitsune were Inari's messengers, but the line between the two is now blurred so that Inari himself may be depicted as a fox. Likewise, entire shrines are dedicated to kitsune, where devotees can leave offerings. Fox spirits are particularly fond of a fried sliced tofu called aburage, which is accordingly found in kitsune udon and kitsune soba. Similarly, Inari-zushi is a type of sushi named for Inari that consists of rice-filled pouches of fried tofu. There is speculation among folklorists as to whether another Shinto fox deity existed in the past. Foxes have long been worshipped as kami.
Inari's kitsune are white, a color of good omen. They possess the power to ward off evil, and they sometimes serve as guardian spirits. In addition to protecting Inari shrines, they are petitioned to intervene on behalf of the locals and particularly to aid against troublesome nogitsune. Black foxes and nine-tailed foxes are likewise considered good omens.
According to beliefs derived from fusui (feng shui), the fox's power over evil is such that a mere statue of a fox can dispel the evil kimon, or energy, that flows from the northeast. Many Inari shrines, such as the famous Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, feature such statues, sometimes large numbers of them.
Kitsune are connected to the Buddhist religion through the Dakiniten, goddesses conflated with Inari's female aspect. Dakiniten is depicted as a female boddhisattva wielding a sword and riding a flying white fox.
The Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto features numerous kitsune statues.
Kitsune are often presented as tricksters, with motives that vary from mischief to malevolence. Stories tell of kitsune playing tricks on overly proud samurai, greedy merchants, and boastful commoners, while the crueler ones abuse poor tradesmen and farmers or devout Buddhist monks. Their victims are usually men; women are possessed instead. For example, kitsune are thought to employ their kitsune-bi or fox-fire to lead travelers astray in the manner of a will o' the wisp. Another tactic is for the kitsune to confuse its target with illusions or visions. Other common goals of trickster kitsune include seduction, theft of food, humiliation of the prideful, or vengeance for a perceived slight.
A traditional game called kitsune-ken (fox-fist) references the kitsune's powers over human beings. The game is similar to rock, paper, scissors, but the three hand positions signify a fox, a hunter, and a village headman. The headman beats the hunter, whom he outranks; the hunter beats the fox, whom he shoots; the fox beats the headman, whom he bewitches.
This ambiguous portrayal, coupled with their reputation for vengefulness, leads people to try to discover a troublesome fox's motives. In one case, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a high government official, wrote a letter to the kami Inari:
To Inari Daimyojin,
My lord, I have the honor to inform you that one of the foxes under your jurisdiction has bewitched one of my servants, causing her and others a great deal of trouble. I have to request that you make minute inquiries into the matter, and endeavor to find out the reason of your subject misbehaving in this way, and let me know the result.
If it turns out that the fox has no adequate reason to give for his behavior, you are to arrest and punish him at once. If you hesitate to take action in this matter I shall issue orders for the destruction of every fox in the land. Any other particulars that you may wish to be informed of in reference to what has occurred, you can learn from the high priest of Yoshida.
Tamamo-no-Mae, a legendary kitsune featured in noh and kyogen plays. Print by Yoshitoshi.
Kitsune keep their promises and strive to repay any favor. Occasionally a kitsune attaches itself to a person or household, where they can cause all sorts of mischief. In one story from the 12th century, only the homeowner's threat to exterminate the foxes convinces them to behave. The kitsune patriarch appears in the man's dreams:
"My father lived here before me, sir, and by now I have many children and grandchildren. They get into a lot of mischief, I'm afraid, and I'm always after them to stop, but they never listen. And now, sir, you're understandably fed up with us. I gather that you're going to kill us all. But I just want you to know, sir, how sorry I am that this is our last night of life. Won't you pardon us, one more time? If we ever make trouble again, then of course you must act as you think best. But the young ones, sir — I'm sure they'll understand when I explain to them why you're so upset. We'll do everything we can to protect you from now on, if only you'll forgive us, and we'll be sure to let you know when anything good is going to happen!"
Other kitsune use their magic for the benefit of their companion or hosts as long as the human beings treat them with respect. As yōkai, however, kitsune do not share human morality, and a kitsune who has adopted a house in this manner may, for example, bring its host money or items that it has stolen from the neighbors. Accordingly, common households thought to harbor kitsune are treated with suspicion. Oddly, samurai families were often reputed to share similar arrangements with kitsune, but these foxes were considered zenko and the use of their magic a sign of prestige. Abandoned homes were common haunts for kitsune. One 12th-century story tells of a minister moving into an old mansion only to discover a family of foxes living there. They first try to scare him away, then claim that the house "has been ours for many years, and . . . we wish to register a vigorous protest." The man refuses, and the foxes resign themselves to moving to an abandoned lot nearby.[!
Tales distinguish kitsune gifts from kitsune payments. If a kitsune offers a payment or reward that includes money or material wealth, part or all of the sum will consist of old paper, leaves, twigs, stones, or similar valueless items under a magical illusion. True kitsune gifts are usually intangibles, such as protection, knowledge, or long life.
The kitsune Kuzunoha casts a fox's shadow even in human form. Kuzunoha is a popular figure in folklore and the subject of kabuki plays. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
 Wives and lovers
Kitsune are commonly portrayed as lovers, usually in stories involving a young human male and a kitsune who takes the form of a human woman. The kitsune may be a seductress, but these stories are more often romantic in nature. Typically, the young man unknowingly marries the fox, who proves a devoted wife. The man eventually discovers the fox's true nature, and the fox-wife is forced to leave him. In some cases, the husband wakes as if from a dream, filthy, disoriented, and far from home. He must then return to confront his abandoned family in shame.
Many stories tell of fox-wives bearing children. When such progeny are human, they possess special physical or supernatural qualities that often pass to their own children. The astrologer-magician Abe no Seimei was reputed to have inherited such extraordinary powers.
Other stories tell of kitsune marrying one another. Rain falling from a clear sky — a sunshower — is sometimes called kitsune no yomeiri or the kitsune's wedding, in reference to a folktale describing a wedding ceremony between the creatures being held during such conditions. The event is considered a good omen, but the kitsune will seek revenge on any uninvited guests.
Stephen Turnbull, in "Nagashino 1575", relates the tale of the Takeda clan's involvement with a fox-woman. The warlord Takeda Shingen, in 1544, defeated in battle a lesser local warlord named Suwa Yorishige and drove him to suicide after a "humiliating and spurious" peace conference, after which Shingen forced marriage on his beautiful 14-year-old daughter Lady Koi — Shingen's own niece. Shingen, Turnbull writes, "was so obsessed with the girl that his superstitious followers became alarmed and believed her to be an incarnation of the white fox-spirit of the Suwa Shrine, who had bewitched him in order to gain revenge." When their son Takeda Katsuyori proved to be a disastrous leader and led the clan to their devastating defeat at the battle of Nagashino, Turnbull writes, "wise old heads nodded, remembering the unhappy circumstances of his birth and his magical mother".
Embedded in Japanese folklore as they are, kitsune appear in numerous Japanese works. Noh, kyogen, bunraku, and kabuki plays derived from folk tales feature them, as do contemporary works such as anime, manga and video games. Western authors of fiction have begun to make use of the kitsune legends. Although these portrayals vary considerably, kitsune are generally depicted in accordance with folk stories, as wise, cunning, and powerful beings.
In Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film Ran, the wily, vengeful Lady Kaede is accused of being a fox spirit. Kaede is clever, manipulative and strong as she sows discord within her husband's clan. After her husband is killed, she seduces his brother and insists that he kill his wife. In Kurosawa's later film Dreams, a small boy learns firsthand the danger of witnessing a fox wedding.
In Neil Gaiman's illustrated story The Dream Hunters, the main character is a kitsune who falls in love with a Buddhist monk and the lengths she goes to in order to protect him from a murderous rival. The story concentrates on the fox's craftiness and cunning, along with her vindictive thirst for revenge.
A character by the name Kitsune appears in the The Myth Hunters and The Borderkind by Christopher Golden. She is modeled on the general Kitsune legend, and helps out on the quest of the main character, Oliver Bascombe. Unlike the myth she doesn't have nine tails, but keeps the ability to change into a fox at will. As a woman she is described as exceptionally beautiful, with vivid jade eyes that glow and wears a reddish fur coat.
In Naruto, a manga/anime story that takes place in a Japanese influenced modern day styled world - The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox (九尾の妖狐 ,Kyūbi no Yōko?) is the most powerful of the Tailed Beasts; The title character Naruto Uzumaki, also makes some references to the kitsune. Naruto is known to be a prankster and also invented the Sexy Technique, a jutsu that allows him to transform a beautiful woman. The most important reference is how he is wanting to keep his promise, which is the same trait that a kitsune has.
Kuzunoha, mother of Abe no Seimei, is a well-known kitsune character in traditional Japanese theater. She is featured in the five-part bunraku and kabuki play Ashiya Dōman Ōuchi Kagami (The Mirror of Ashiya Dōman and Ōuchi). The fourth part, Kuzunoha or The Fox of Shinoda Wood, is often performed independently of the other scenes and tells of the discovery of Kuzunoha's kitsune nature and her subsequent departure from her husband and child.
Tamamo-no-Mae is the subject of the noh drama Sesshoseki (The Death Stone) and of kabuki and kyogen plays titled Tamamonomae (The Beautiful Fox Witch). Tamamo-no-Mae commits evil deeds in India, China, and Japan but is discovered and dies. Her spirit transforms into the "killing stone" of the noh play's title. She is eventually redeemed by the Buddhist priest Gennō.
Genkurō is a kitsune renowned for his filial piety. In the bunraku and kabuki drama Yoshitsune Sembon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), Yoshitsune's lover, Lady Shizuka, owns a hand-drum made from the skins of Genkuro's parents. The fox takes human form and becomes his retainer, Satō Tadanobu, but his identity is revealed. The kitsune explains that he hears the voice of his parents when the drum is struck. Yoshitsune and Shizuka give him the drum, so Genkuro grants Yoshitsune magical protection..
The myth Tamamo-no-Mae is referenced in the video game Ōkami.
Miles "Tails" Prower from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series is said by several sources to be a kitsune, due to him having two tails.
The Pokémon Vulpix and the Digimon Renamon, as well as their evolutions, are based on kitsune and similar fox legends.
The InuYasha Character Shippo is a kitsune demon. The same mangaka's (Rumiko Takahashi) earlier work Urusei Yatsura also features a fox spirit named Kitsune who becomes a loyal companion to one of the series leads, Shinobu Miyake, and can transform into "chibi" versions (with fox ears) of the other characters from the series.
Ran Yakumo from Touhou, Yukari Yakumo's shikigami, is also a kitsune.
Youko Kurama from YuYu Hakusho is a kitsune spirit living in a human body.
Wagaya no Oinari-sama. is an anime about a mischievous guardian kitsune.
The series Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai contains a recurring female thief and friend of Usagi named Kitsune.
In the Star Fox video game series, the main character Fox McCloud was partially inspired by kitsune.
In The Legend of Zelda video game series, the Keaton race is based on kitsune.
In Kelley Armstrong's short story collection, Men of the Otherworld, the story "Kitsunegari" features several kitsune and a part-kitsune werewolf.
In Ljane Smith's The Vampire Diaries - The Return: Nightfall, the main antagonists is a couple of cruel and malevolent kitsune twins, Shinichi and Misao, who are bent on destroying the entire town for their own amusement
In the video game series Animal Crossing Tom Nook's shopkeeper rival, Crazy Redd, is a kitsune (opposingly as Nook himself is a tanuki.) Redd is known as a trickster in the game, operating the Black Market; he will often sell the player plain objects at inflated prices.
The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a mammal of the order Carnivora. In the British Isles, where there are no longer any other native wild canids, it is referred to simply as "the fox". It has the widest range of any terrestrial carnivore, being native to Canada, Alaska, almost all of the contiguous United States, Europe, North Africa and almost all of Asia, including Japan. It was introduced in Australia in the 19th century. As its name suggests, its fur is predominantly reddish-brown, but there is a naturally occurring grey morph known as the Silver Fox; a strain of tame Silver Fox has been produced from these animals by systematic domestication.
Today, the Red Fox has a range spanning most of North America and Eurasia, southern Australia, and with several populations in North Africa.
In Australia the Red Fox is an introduced species and a serious conservation problem. Introduction occurred about 1850, for recreational fox hunting,
In North America the Red Fox is native in boreal regions, introduced in temperate regions. There is a recent fossil record of Red Foxes in boreal North America, and one subspecies of these native boreal foxes extends south in the Rocky Mountains. In temperate North America, Red Foxes are derived from European Red Foxes, which were introduced into the Southeastern United States around 1650-1750 for fox hunting,, and from there to California for the fur trade. The first introduction is attributed to Robert Brooke, Sr., who is said to have imported 24 Red Foxes from England.. The introduced European Red Fox may have interbred with the scarce indigenous population to produce a hybrid population.
Three subspecies of Red Fox are found in India: Vulpes vulpes montana (the Tibetan Red Fox), found in Ladakh and the Himalayas, Vulpes vulpes griffithi (the Kashmir Fox) found in Jammu and Kashmir less the Ladakh sector, and Vulpes vulpes pusilla (the Desert Fox) found in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan and in Kutch, Gujarat. A subspecies, the Japanese Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes japonica) migrated from India to China and eventually to Japan.
A Red Fox sitting in a meadow in Denmark.
A Red Fox in its winter coat in Evergreen, Colorado.
The largest species within the genus Vulpes, the Red Fox may reach an adult weight of 3–11 kg (6.5–24 lb), but this varies from region to region; foxes living in Canada and Alaska tend to be larger than foxes in the United Kingdom, which are in turn larger than those inhabiting the Southern United States. Head and body length is 18 to 33.75 in (46 to 86 cm), with a tail of 12 to 21.75 in (30.5 to 55.5 cm) Size can be estimated from tracks. Red Fox footprints are normally about 4.4 cm (1¾ inch) wide and 5.7 cm (2¼ inch) long. A normal Red Fox's trotting stride is about 33-38 cm (13-15 inch). They are the largest of the true foxes.
The Red Fox is most commonly a rusty red, with white underbelly, black ear tips and legs, and a bushy tail usually with a distinctive white tip. The "red" tone can vary from dark chestnut to golden, and in fact can be "agouti", with bands of red, brown, black and white on each individual hair. In North America, the Red Fox's pelt has long, soft hair, whereas the fur of European Red Foxes is flatter and less silky. In the wild, two other colour phases are also seen. The first is silver or black, comprising 10% of the wild population. Approximately 30% of wild individuals have additional dark patterning, which usually manifests as bold markings on the face, with a stripe across the shoulders and down the centre of the back. The stripes form a "cross" over the shoulders, and these foxes are therefore often called cross foxes. Farmed stock are mostly silver, but may be almost any colour including spotted or blotched with white.
As seen in this fox on San Juan Island, the color of the Red Fox varies considerably between individuals.
Fox eyes are gold to yellow and have distinctive vertical-slit pupils, similar to those of domestic cats. Their eyesight, despite having cat-like eyes, has been described by fox expert J. David Henry as "poor" and "near-sighted" Their behavior, and eye-slits, combined with their extreme agility for a canid, warrants the Red Fox to be referred to as the "cat-like canine". Its long bushy tail with distinctive white tip provides balance for large jumps and complex movement. Its strong legs allow it to reach speeds of approximately 72 km/h (45 miles per hour), a great benefit to catching prey or evading predators.
In general, the spacing between the canine teeth is approximately 11⁄16–1 ″ (18 to 25 mm) apart. Foxes lack the facial muscles necessary to bare their teeth, unlike most other canids.
During the autumn and winter, the Red Fox will grow more fur. This so-called "winter fur" keeps the animal warm in the colder environment. The fox sheds this fur at the onset of spring, reverting back to the short fur for the duration of the summer.
Red Fox with prey
The Red Fox is found in a variety of biomes, from prairies and scrubland to forest settings. It is most suited to lower latitudes but does venture considerably far north, competing directly with the Arctic Fox on the tundra. The Red Fox has also become a familiar sight in suburban and even urban environments both in Europe and in North America.
Red Foxes are largely carnivorous. The majority of their diet consists of invertebrates, such as insects, mollusks, earthworms and crayfish. They do also eat some plant material, especially blackberries, apples, plums and other fruit. Common vertebrate prey includes rodents (such as mice and voles), rabbits, birds, eggs, amphibians, small reptiles and fish. Foxes have been known to kill deer fawns. In Scandinavia, predation by Red Fox is the most important mortality cause for neonatal Roe deer. They will scavenge carrion and other edible material they find, and in urban areas, they will scavenge on human refuse, even eating from pet food bowls left outside. Analysis of country and urban fox diets show that urban foxes have a higher proportion of scavenged food than country foxes. They typically eat 0.5–1 kg (1–2 lb) of food a day.
They usually hunt alone. With their acute sense of hearing, they can locate small mammals in thick grass, and they jump high in the air to pounce on the prey. They also stalk prey such as rabbits, keeping hidden until close enough to catch them in a short dash. Foxes tend to be extremely possessive of their food and will not share it with others. Exceptions to this rule include dog foxes feeding vixens during courtship and vixens feeding cubs.
Red Foxes have proportionately small stomachs for their size and can only eat half as much food in relation to their body weight as wolves and dogs can (about 10% compared with 20%). In periods of abundance, foxes will cache excess food against starvation at other times. They typically store the food in shallow holes (5–10 cm deep). Foxes tend to make many small caches, scattering them across their territories rather than storing their food in a single central location. This is thought to prevent the loss of the fox's entire food supply in the event that another animal finds the store.
Red Fox cubs in their natural habitat.
Along with the Gray Fox, the Red Fox is the most common species of fox in North America. The two species prefer different habitats. The Red Fox prefers sparsely-settled, hill areas with wooded tracts, marshes and streams. The Gray is found in brushy areas, swamplands and rugged, mountainous terrain. Where their ranges overlap, the smaller Gray Foxes tend to be the dominant species due to higher levels of aggression. Red Foxes tend to be dominant in areas where they co-exist with Arctic Foxes. The larger, more aggressive Red Fox can dominate Arctic Foxes in direct competition for den sites and other limited resources. Red Foxes in the San Joaquin Valley of California compete with the smaller endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox.
In areas in North America where Red Fox and Coyote populations are sympatric, fox territories tend to be located outside of coyote territories. The principal cause of this separation is believed to be active avoidance of coyotes by the foxes. Interactions between the two species vary in nature, ranging from active antagonism, to indifference. The majority of aggressive encounters are initiated by coyotes, and there are few reports of Red Foxes acting aggressively toward coyotes except when attacked or when their pups were approached. Foxes and coyotes have sometimes been seen feeding together.
In Israel, the Red Fox shares its habitat with the Golden Jackal. Where their ranges meet, the two canids compete due to near identical diets. Foxes ignore jackal scents or tracks in their territories, and avoid close physical proximity with jackals themselves. Studies show that in areas where jackals became very abundant, the population of foxes decreases significantly, apparently because of competitive exclusion.
Red Foxes sometimes compete with Eurasian Badgers for earthworms, eggs, fruits and den sites. Badgers have been known to kill and eat fox cubs. However, violence between the two animals is thought to be uncommon, and most encounters amount to little more than mutual indifference. Foxes have on occasion shared dens with Eurasian Badgers.
Eurasian Lynxes tend to depress fox populations in areas where the two species are sympatric. The killing of Red Foxes by Eurasian Lynxes is uncommon but occurs during winter and spring, the main period when foxes establish new territories. Beyond coyotes, badgers and lynxes, red foxes are known to be preyed on by large eagles (most likely the Golden Eagle), gray wolves, cougars and bears.
Fox playing with its kit
Living as it does in a wide variety of habitats, the Red Fox displays a wide variety of behaviours. In Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, MacDonald and Sillero-Zubiri state that two populations of the Red Fox may be behaviourally as different as two species.
The Red Fox is primarily crepuscular with a tendency to becoming nocturnal in areas of great human interference (and artificial lighting); that is to say, it is most active at night and at twilight. It is generally a solitary hunter. If a fox catches more food than it can eat, it will bury the extra food (cache) to store it for later.
In general, each fox claims its own territory; it pairs up only in winter, foraging alone in the summer. Territories may be as large as 50 km² (19 square miles); ranges are much smaller (less than 12 km², 4.6 sq mi)) in habitats with abundant food sources, however. Several dens are utilized within these territories; dens may be claimed from previous residents such as marmots, or dug anew. A larger main den is used for winter living, birthing and rearing of young; smaller dens are dispersed throughout the territory for emergency and food storage purposes. A series of tunnels often connects them with the main den. One fox may only need a square kilometre of land marked by recognition posts that are special smells that come from a scent gland located just above a fox's tail.
The Red Fox has been considered a monogamous species, however evidence for polygamy (polygyny and polyandry) includes males' extraterritorial movements during breeding season (possibly searching for additional mates) and males' home ranges overlapping two or more females' home ranges. Such variability is thought to be linked to variation in the spatial availability of key resources such as food.
The Red Fox primarily forms monogamous pairs each winter, which cooperate to raise a litter of 4–6 kits (also called pups) each year; but in various locales and for various incompletely explored reasons they may also practice polygamy (multiple males sharing a single female and/or vice versa). Young foxes disperse promptly on maturity (approx. 8–10 months).
The reason for this "group living" behaviour is not well understood; some researchers believe the non-breeders boost the survival rate of the litters while others believe there is no significant difference, and such arrangements are made spontaneously due to a resource surplus.
Socially, the fox communicates with body language and a variety of vocalizations. Its vocal range is quite large and its noises vary from a distinctive three-yip "lost call" to a shriek reminiscent of a human scream. It also communicates with scent, marking food and territorial boundary lines with urine and faeces.
John James Audubon noted that cross foxes tended to be shyer than their fully red counterparts. He conjectured that the reason was due to the greater commercial value its fur, thus forcing it to adopt a warier behaviour in order to evade hunters.
Fox kits nursing near the den
The Red Fox breeding period varies widely due to its broad distribution; southern populations breed from December to January, central populations from January to February and northern populations from February to April. Females have an annual estrous period of between 1 and 6 days; ovulation is spontaneous. Copulation is loud and short, usually lasting no more than 20 seconds. Although a female may mate with several males (who fight amongst each other for the right), she will eventually settle with only one.
A fox kit sitting on sand
Males will supply food to females up to and after birthing, otherwise leaving the female alone with her kits (also called cubs or pups) in a "maternity den". An average litter size is five kits, but may be as large as 13. Kits are born blind and may weigh as much as 150 grams (0.33 lb). Their eyes are open by two weeks and the kits have taken their first exploratory steps out of the den by five weeks; by ten weeks they are fully weaned.
In autumn of the same year, the young foxes will disperse and claim their own territories. The Red Fox reaches sexual maturity by ten months of age, and may live for 12 years in captivity but will usually only live three years in the wild.
Foxes and humans
Red Fox sculpture in Japan
The Red Fox has both positive and negative standing with humans, often being loved or hated. This has been most visible in the United Kingdom where fox hunting with dogs was a traditional sport and an occasional localised means of culling, until this was made illegal in Scotland in August, 2002, and in England and Wales in February, 2005. The fox features in much folklore (see Reynard), usually as a wily villain, though sometimes also as the underdog who triumphs over human efforts to control or destroy it.
Like other wild animals, foxes are considered vectors of disease. The Red Fox helps farmers by preying on animals that damage crops but is considered to be a pest by farmers involved in poultry farming. In some places,[vague] the Red Fox is used as a food animal.
Greater visibility in nature documentaries and sympathetic portrayals in fiction have improved the Red Fox's reputation and appeal in recent years.
In Hong Kong, it is a protected species under Wild Animals Protection Ordinance Cap 170.
Silver fox fur
The Red Fox is of some importance in the fur industry. The fur of a silver fox was once considered by the natives of New England to be worth over 40 beaver skins. A chieftain accepting a gift of silver fox fur was seen as an act of reconciliation. Silver foxes were first commercially bred on Prince Edward Island, Canada in 1878. Red Foxes are among the most commonly bred animals in fur farms, along with American Minks. Today, silver fox is traditionally used for collars and cuffs, wraps and stoles, while common Red Fox fur is used for trimming and for full fur garments.
An urban fox investigating a domestic pet in a garden in Birmingham, UK
Red Foxes are generally considered to be the most serious predator of free range poultry. The safest option known in poultry protection is to keep the flock and the fox physically separated, usually with fencing. A fence needs to be at least 2 m high in order to keep out most foxes, though on some rare occasions, a determined fox might succeed in climbing over. Surplus killing will often occur in enclosed spaces such as huts, with discarded feathers and headless bodies usually being the main indicators of fox predation.
Although poultry is the most commonly-taken domesticated prey, Red Foxes will on some occasions kill young or small animals, particularly lambs and kids. In exceptional circumstances, they may attack sub-adult and adult sheep and goats and sometimes small calves. Foxes will usually kill lambs or kids by repeatedly biting the neck and back, which is usually the result from young animals being caught while lying down. Other than with poultry, fox predation on livestock can be distinguished from dog or coyote predation by the fact that foxes rarely cause severe ossular damage when feeding. Red Foxes also are noted for carrying small carcasses back to their dens to feed their young which may account for some poultry, lambs and kids that disappear and are never found. Scientific studies in Britain found that between 0.5 % and 3 % of otherwise viable lambs may be taken by foxes, described as a small amount when compared to the mortality caused by exposure, starvation a!
Further information: Foxes in culture
"Reynard the Fox" as depicted in an 1869 children's book.
The emblematic Red Fox is a frequent player in the stories of many cultures. A trickster character, the word Sly is almost invariably associated with foxes in English, and the connotation of a sneaking intelligence (or even magic powers of stealth) are seen in traditional tales of Europe, Japan, China, and North America (though in the North America the Coyote usually plays this role).
In the European fable tradition, running from Aesop's Fables, to Jean de La Fontaine's Fabliaux and the Reynard tales, the fox ranges from immoral villain (as the Fox in the hen house), to sly operator (either foolish or crafty), to wise observer (as a mouthpiece for the moral in some Aesop tales) to clever underdog (exemplified by the Reynard tradition). Some historians argue that the fox came to symbolise the survival strategies of European peasantry from the Medieval period to the French Revolution. Peasants admired guile and wit needed to out manoeuvre the powers of aristocracy, state and church, just as they saw the fox use these same qualities to raid their livestock under cover of darkness.
Japan, hosting two subspecies of red fox, also uses foxes in much of its mythology. The Japaenese believed foxes (which they called kitsune) to possess mystical powers, which advanced as they aged. As in Europe, the kitsune were portrayed in numerous ways, from being mischievous troublemakers to noble guardians, and even taking human form and becoming wives.
Feral foxes in Australia
A feral fox in Mornington Peninsula National Park
Feral foxes in Australia pose a serious conservation problem. According to the Australian Government, the Red Fox was introduced to Australia for hunting in 1855, but has since become widespread, and is considered responsible for the decline in a number of species of native animals in the "critical weight range". In a program known as Western Shield, Western Australia state government authorities conduct aerial and hand baiting on almost 35,000 km² (8.75 million acres) to control foxes and feral cats. The West Australian conservation department, CALM, estimates introduced predators are responsible for the extinction of ten native species in that state, while Western Shield targets the conservation of 16 others.
According to the Tasmanian government, Red Foxes have recently been introduced to the previously fox free island of Tasmania. An eradication program is being conducted by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water. An independent member of the Tasmanian state Parliament, Ivan Dean, has claimed that the fox introductions are a hoax, a claim the Minister for Primary Industry, David Llewellyn described as a "load of rubbish".
In Australia, foxes are usually controlled with baits or the animals shot with the aid of spotlighting. The eyeshine signature (from the tapetum lucidum in the eye) of foxes, and body shape and silhouette are used to identify them. Success has also been found with the reintroduction of the native "Australian Dog", the Dingo, which has been shown to control the number of feral foxes, and a consequential increase in native fauna.
The Hokkaido fox carries the echinococcus parasite, which can be fatal in humans. Because this parasite can be spread through water, do not drink any unboiled river or lake water in Hokkaido. Approaching or feeding foxes is also not recommended. (Feeding wildlife is also illegal.)
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