(above) A red fox playing with its meal. D. Pifer artwork courtesy the PA Game Commission.
Having lived in the country most of my seventy-odd years, I enjoy the night sounds made by various wild animals. I’m often surprised that so few people recognize or even notice them. This time of year, as the nights begin to turn cold, red foxes become more vocal. As I step outside on any given evening, I hear their harsh cries pierce the night.
Young foxes, newly on their own, are now exploring and traveling. Adult foxes are establishing and defending their territories against these young newcomers. Humans accustomed to being indoors after dark might find such vocal exchanges a bit scary. Over the past fifteen years, as foxes have moved into more suburban and urban habitats, their sounds are becoming increasingly more familiar.
I’ve come to recognize some cries foxes make as their love songs. Winter is their mating season and, like birds in the spring, foxes communicate by vocalizing. Late November and early December is when you’re most likely to hear foxes sing.
Most often heard is the vixen call, a loud, harsh yell people often think is a woman’s scream or a small child in distress. It’s a jarring, harsh sound you might expect from a bird, possibly an owl. When folks tell me they heard a bobcat’s scream I often wonder whether they’ve actually heard a fox. The vixen call can be heard any time of year and is made by both sexes. I frequently hear it played on the soundtracks of night-time country scenes on British TV detective shows. The film makers might like to use the vixen call because it is scary, and possibly because English countrymen are familiar with fox sounds.
During November foxes start barking. Usually it’s a three-or-four-part series of yapping barks, like “ow-ow-ow!” Frequently it ends in a high-pitched squeal. Sometimes it’s made alone and other times in response to a call from another fox. A fox’s bark, like spring birdsong, is made to proclaim territory, or to respond or call to a mate.
A very different fox noise, called “geckering,” is a chattering, screeching sound made by two or more foxes interacting, fighting, or chasing each other. It’s also the sound fox cubs make while playing together at night during the summer. This sound can vary in volume and pitch with the excitement of the animals and is one of the most frequent sounds that make dogs bark at night.
Foxes also emit a high, wheezy screech, believed to be an alarm call to their cubs. All fox calls can sound surprisingly loud when they occur at night after other sounds quiet down.
I believe foxes are intelligent enough to use their voices to express a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the night when I took a shortcut through a neighbor’s field on my way home from an evening walk. Suddenly a loud “Yaaah” from behind a row of hedges made me almost jump out of my skin. As its small, dark shadow departed, I was convinced that a fox intended to startle me.
Like birds, foxes also seem to sing because they feel good. On that same farm, I heard a fox bark in the woods one bright winter day. A beautifully furred fox suddenly appeared at full gallop. Crossing the lane in front of me, he ran through a grove of cedar trees and continued up the hillside. Half-way up the hill he barked again, spun around three times, and then proceeded on his way. To me his bark expressed total joy.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer