Swift Fox

Description
swift fox

Size

  • The swift fox is the smallest of the North American wild dogs, and the smallest to occur in Alberta.
  • Soaking wet, they are the size of a large house cat. When dry, their long coarse hair makes them look larger.
  • An adult swift fox weighs two to three kilograms (roughly four to seven pounds, about half as much as a red fox).
  • Males (dogs) may be slightly heavier than females (vixens).

Appearance

  • Both sexes look similar, and characteristic features include:
    • Large ears and dark bright eyes
    • Black facial spots on each side of the muzzle
    • Soft grey fur tinged with orange or tan on the legs and lower half of the body
    • White to buff-brown throat, chest and belly
    • Long, black-tipped, bushy tail
  • For a small animal, the swift fox is lean, long in the body, and long-legged, making it well adapted for speed.
Distribution
  • Until recently, the swift fox was an extirpated (locally extinct) species in Canada. A small, reintroduced population now resides in Canada.
  • Swift foxes were first officially released in Alberta in 1983. By 1996, 540 foxes had been released in the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and Milk River Ridge areas, parts of the species' native range.
  • A small, relatively stable population continues to live free in the southeastern regions of the province.
Natural History

Habitat

  • Each pair of foxes regularly uses a home range, or area of normal use, centered around the natal den. The size of the home range depends upon the availability of food, short-grass vegetation, and flat open areas.
  • Swift foxes prefer to live on flat plains with low ground cover where they can see a long way and move without restrictions.
  • Short-grass regions with buffalo grass, blue grama, bluestem, and wire grass are excellent swift fox habitat.
  • Swift foxes use underground burrows or dens throughout the year for protection against predators and poor weather, and as a place to rear their young.

Food

  • A swift fox's diet changes throughout the year according to whatever is abundant and in season.
  • In Alberta these foxes depend heavily on mice, larks, insects, and ground squirrels.
  • The eggs of ground-nesting birds are eaten in the spring and many grasshoppers are eaten in the summer.
  • Carrion (dead animal meat) is often scavenged off roads within the home range.

When Active

  • Swift foxes are nocturnal predators. They hunt continually from dusk to dawn and cover great distances in the home range each night.
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • During the breeding season, activity centres around the natal den. Breeding probably occurs during March in Alberta, and pairs may stay together or change between years.
  • Following a gestation period of about 50 days, one to seven pups (the average is 3.9 pups per litter in the Canadian wild population) are born in the den in mid-May.
  • Blind and helpless, the pups depend completely on the female for food and protection. She stays underground with the pups while the male hunts and brings food to the den. Later, both adults will supply food for the young foxes.

Growth Process

  • Approximately 10 to 15 days after birth, the pups' eyes open. The young foxes begin to move around in the den but do not appear at the entrance until they are nearly one month old.
  • Swift fox pups are active and playful near the den for the next two to three weeks; however, they sleep underground and quickly dive into the burrow if danger threatens.
  • Although pups are weaned at six to seven weeks of age, they stay with the adults until they are four or five months old, usually staying within the home range and near the dens.
  • Swift foxes can breed successfully in their first year and usually live from three to six years in the wild. (They can live up to 14 years in captivity).
Conservation and Management

Status

The swift fox is classified as At Risk in the General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:

Also see the Status of the Swift Fox in Alberta report at:

This species is also listed as Endangered under the Wildlife Act. For more information on this species and the assessment and listing process, see:

Issues

  • At present, it is estimated that there are approximately 96 swift foxes in Alberta, most of them the offspring of released foxes.
  • The population is stable or increasing slightly, but the species remains extremely vulnerable because of its small numbers and limited distribution.
  • Limited factors to swift fox population success include:
    • Habitat fragmentation due to human agricultural and oil exploration activities
    • Competition and predation from coyotes
    • Pesticide use and overgrazing which may negatively impact prey species

Current management

  • Because the swift fox is designated as Endangered under the Alberta Wildlife Act, it is a protected species. It is illegal to harm a swift fox or disturb its dens anywhere or at anytime in Alberta.
Similar Species
  • Red Fox
    The swift fox can be most easily distinguished from the much more common red fox by its grey back, black spots on each side of the muzzle, and especially its black-tipped tail.

 

Page Information

Updated: Jan 8, 2014