Protect Dates: September 2014- August 2015
Details: Through the help of kids just like you, Earth Rangers and the Calgary Zoo are protecting the swift fox (Vulpes velox). The donations raised for this Bring Back the Wild project are helping to:
- Set up cameras in areas where swift foxes are thought to live to gather previously unknown scientific data about habitat occupancy during the summer when they are raising their young
- Compare summer habitat occupancy with where swift foxes spend the winter
Check out the latest updates about swift foxes!
- Swift foxes get their name because of their speediness. They can sprint at a top speed of around 60km/hr – that’s three times faster than the average human can run!
- Unlike most other foxes, swift foxes use their dens throughout the year, not just during the breeding season.
- They are nocturnal, coming out mostly at night to hunt and spending the day either in their den or sunning themselves near the entrance.
- Swift foxes are the smallest members of the dog family, but have vertical pupils, similar to cats, and have excellent night vision.
- Swift foxes were listed as endangered until 2009, after which their status was down-listed to threatened (COSEWIC 2009).
The swift fox is the smallest member of the dog family in North America. They are about 50 cm long with a 30 cm long tail, roughly the size of a large house cat. Males weigh 2.5 kg and females are slightly smaller at 2.3 kg. Even though these foxes are in the canid or dog family and related to animals like coyotes and wolves, they have vertical pupils and excellent night vision similar to cats.. They have orange-brown fur with white patches on their chest and belly, large ears, a black-tipped tail and black markings on their nose. In the winter the swift fox’s fur is long and dense but in the summer it becomes short, coarse and more reddish-grey in colour. Swift foxes are nocturnal, and therefore are most active at night. During the day they spend their time in the den or sunning themselves near their den entrance. Named after their speed, adult swift foxes can run over 60 km/hr, three times faster than the average human.
This species originally had a habitat range that extended from the plains of Western Canada down through the United States. Today, only a few scattered populations remain, the largest being in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming. In Canada, swift foxes are mainly found in the short-grass and mixed-grass prairie habitats of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. These open grasslands allow swift foxes to see better and move around more easily. Swift foxes use their den year-round; this is unique among foxes as most species den only during the breeding season. They can dig their own den, but they will often use existing dens made by smaller animals, enlarging or modifying the holes as needed. Dens are 2-4 m cm long and they can live in as many as 13 different dens throughout the year. Dens are built in sandy soil, and some consist of a single burrow and entrance while other dens have multiple entrances and burrows interconnected by tunnels.
Swift foxes depend on grassland habitat and the diverse species of plants and animals found in this ecosystem. In Canada, some of the plant species needed to create this habitat include buffalo grass, bluestem and wire grass. Grasslands are increasingly being degraded by human development, replaced by roads, buildings and agriculture. Another one of the major threats faced by swift foxes is from coyotes, both by being attacked by them and from accidental poisonings. Poisons are sometimes used to control coyote populations, but are sometimes accidentally ingested by swift foxes. Because coyotes have such a big effect on swift foxes, it is critical to monitor their populations and learn more about the way these two species interact.
Swift foxes are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they eat a variety of food; whatever is readily available and easy to catch. They hunt small animals like mice, rabbits, prairie dogs and squirrels, but will also eat a variety of grasses and fruit as well as insects, reptiles and amphibians. Like many foxes, the swift fox relies on stealth and surprise to catch their prey. They have a high pounce, which is one of the first things cubs learn as they being to hunt.
Adults usually mate in pairs, often staying with their partner for life. Males look for a partner when they are one year old, while females start breeding when they are two years old. The pair will breed once per year. In Canada, where the winters are harsh, breeding occurs in March. After 51 days, a litter of around two to-five kits are born sometime between April and May. The kits are born with their eyes and ears closed; they will open them after 10-15 days. Young swift foxes are weaned after six- to seven weeks, and by the autumn they will depart the den and start heading off on their own. Females invest more time than the males in rearing the kits. Family groups usually consist of the breeding pair, their offspring from that year and sometimes one or two female young who remain in the breeding pair’s home range until they are two years old. “Helpers” may also be found at the parent’s den, which are sometimes males. These foxes assist in raising the young. More research is needed to learn how swift foxes care for their young, and the types of habitats they live in during the summer season when they are raising kits.
As little as 35 years ago there were no swift foxes left in the wild in Canada due to prairie habitat loss, trapping and hunting. Beginning in the 1980s they were re-introduced and populations started to increase in size. While re-introductions have been among the most successful of any mammal, these foxes still face threats including risk of disease exposure and the need for grassland conservation to ensure they will have a home in the future. Coyotes pose a major threat to swift foxes; they are also preyed on by such animals as eagles, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and American badgers. The majority of the swift fox population lives on privately-owned land, which also puts them at risk of hunting and trapping. The swift fox was listed as an endangered species, but in 2009 their status was downgraded to threatened (COSEWIC 2009).
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