The Red Fox: Observations of Learned vs Innate Behaviors

By Dave Hanks

The Red Fox has so many and varied behaviors that it makes for an interesting study subject. It is also interesting to try to determine where innate actions end and learned ones take over.

Certainly what is eaten, and the urge to store the left-overs for later consumption, has to be an innate response. Likewise, the rising up on the hind legs to pounce on prey, as well as the urge to mark territory through urination - would, I think, be programmed at birth. Like all animals, their DNA code and resulting actions are inescapable.

But the fox demonstrates much that has to be learned and indicates a keen intelligence. The complex variety of vocalizations and certain hunting techniques would have to be copied from their parents. When parents bring back live rodents for the young to practice with, shows that school is definitely in session. Parents will also hold prey in their mouths, while moving their heads from side to side and up and down. This forces the pups to exercise and gain agility in their hunting movements.

A very good example of this animal’s intelligence is how they have learned to avoid the fox hunting chase by doubling back and running down the middle of a stream to erase their odor trail. Another intriguing behavior is called “charming”. Instead of dashing into a group of rabbits, who would then quickly escape, the fox will roll on the ground and chase its tail in a seemingly unconcerned attitude. The rabbits will curiously watch, but the predator slowly rolls close enough to suddenly spring and catch a rabbit.Is this behavior learned or innate? Your guess is as good as mine.

One fact, however, is that the more learning that is required – the more important play becomes amongst the young. Play also establishes dominance rankings and that reduces future adult conflicts.

(A young fox checks me out)