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Socialisation and Communication

It was thought until recently that foxes were solitary and avoided each others' company, except in the breeding season. Through much work over the past 20 years or so, many more facts have been uncovered about fox social life and society.

Originally it was thought that only a pair could share a territory without coming into contact except for copulation in January.

It is now known that there can be an average of six or seven foxes in the same territory, forming bonds with each other and regularly meeting up. They have a strict social hierarchy, much like a pack of wolves or domestic dogs, but they do not hunt together in a pack.

As in a wolf pack there will be an Alpha male and female, with subordinate vixens and sometimes the odd subordinate dog fox. Only the dominant pair shall mate and bear young, while the subordinates will not come into season and will help out with the rearing of the cubs. This happens automatically without much skirmishing, unlike wolves and coyotes, who have to prevent the subordinates from mating, for they do come into season.

The lower rank vixens are usually sisters or daughters from the previous year, who have stayed on the parents' territory instead of dispersing during the prior Autumn. The young dog foxes in the litter usually disperse but sometimes they will stay on as subordinates in the group.

Large groups will not be in every fox territory, as a territory can only hold the amount of foxes according to food availability. Some territories can only sustain one dog and one vixen. Certain foxes may be wandering loners who roam the countryside with no fixed domain. If there is not enough food to hold a group of foxes then the young are driven out by the parents in the Autumn - sometimes with a huge screaming fight.

In urban areas the situation may be entirely different. Studies by Dr. David MacDonald (author of Running with the Fox) on urban foxes in Oxford city showed that there are large groups mixing together in the same territory without any social structure or proper social hierarchy. Most vixens breed and often two share the same earth to rear their two litters of cubs.

A theory for this is that the mortality rate for foxes in urban areas is very high and so they don't have a chance to establish a proper pecking order since the annual fox turnover is so great.

Where foxes are kept in captivity, hierarchies are very strict and by watching a social group it is not very hard to spot who is dominant and who is submissive. The subordinates will crouch with ears flat, tails lashing and often mouths open when they approach or are approached by a higher ranking fox.

Accompanying this there may be small whining noises. The lower in rank, the lower the crouch will be. The actions of the foxes who are higher on the ladder will not be so exaggerated when they come across the dominant pair. The dominant foxes usually look on and ignore these displays.

From laying out food for groups of wild foxes, I have observed the submissive waiting for the dominant fox to come and take food first. There is very much more to be learned about fox social behaviour as hierarchies are formed in very young litters of cubs, while they are still underground.

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