Fantastic Foxes

Photographer David C. Olson uses his long-distance lens to get up close and personal with a creature that’s mysterious, elusive, playful and mercurial but also fascinatingly fantastic.

Story & Photos by David C. Olson

North America is home to five species of fabulous foxes: the red, gray, arctic, kit and swift fox. The states of Illinois and Wisconsin are home to red and gray foxes.

You may also spot a cross fox, which is a red fox with a partial melanistic (dark phase) color morph. Red foxes can be found throughout Illinois but are less common in the southern part of the state.

Foxes are canines, meaning they are related to our family dogs, coyotes and wolves. Even though they are relatives of dogs, red foxes have whiskers and great night vision similar to cats.

All foxes have long legs, the capacity to reach high speeds and the ability to spring high into the air to pounce on prey. Their remarkably powerful sense of smell is almost 100 times better than a person’s. This allows them to smell mice under deep snow and grasses while detecting other prey up to a half-mile away. Some recent studies have suggested they can detect odors from an animal or human up to three days after the individual has left the area.

The ears of canines can swivel independently to focus on sounds on each side or behind. Foxes are also considered digitigrade mammals, meaning they walk on their toes rather than flat feet. In winter, the large tail of the fox wraps around its body and face to keep it warm while it is sleeping in subzero temperatures.

Many types of foxes are known to be curious and friendly. They also enjoy playing together or with cats, dogs and other animals.

The Life of a Fox
Foxes only breed once a year, between January and March. While they can dwell above ground in a sheltered space, like a log hollow, their typical home is an underground burrow known as a den. These dens give their pups a safe environment to be born, a cool place to sleep and a place to store food. Dens also have tunnels with living quarters and feature a number of outlets so that the animals can run away if a predator breaks in.

Young foxes are called kits, and both parents help raise them for the first five to seven months. Then, the kits are on their own. Litters generally number between three and 10 kits, but only about 10 to 20% of kits survive into adulthood.

Wild foxes living on the property are excellent neighbors since they keep mice and other rodents under control while also providing us all an opportunity to see this beautiful animal native to the area.

The Red Fox
The red foxes in our region have adapted to city life as human development has invaded their living space. A red fox’s lifespan in the wild is only two to four years on average. This makes it difficult to make a living as a small canine. A red fox’s diet is diverse and includes birds, frogs, snakes, insects, berries, mice, rabbits and other rodents. Their ability to successfully eat rodents benefits us all.

The Gray Fox
Gray foxes of the Midwest are beautiful with their unique combinations of black, pepper-gray, orange-yellow and white fur. Because of dwindling populations, grays are listed on the watch list for species in danger in Illinois and Wisconsin. Unlike red foxes, grays prefer nearby wooded cover of forests and are uncomfortable in more-open settings.
An interesting fact about the gray fox is that it has the ability to climb trees. Only gray foxes can climb trees, so don’t be surprised if you come across a fox in a tree.
Sighting gray foxes is quite rare in our neck of the woods. They are the most nocturnal and timid of our neighborhood foxes. In all my time photographing, I have only had a handful of gray fox encounters, and each one was magnificent and memorable.

Photographing Foxes
I always use a straightforward method while taking pictures of foxes or any other bird or animal. The well-being of the animals comes first, period.

Whenever I photograph a fox family and den in the spring, I generally operate out of a hide or blind for weeks to conceal my human shape and scent. During the rest of the seasons, fox photography in our area is usually just a quick glimpse of them in the woods or meadows.

I usually photograph from a great distance with a very long lens, usually 600mm or more. I always make sure that I’m not a distraction or disruption to the growing family. This allows me to create stunning images of the foxes’ natural behavior and often leads to seeing humorous, emotional and unusual moments in nature.

A wild canine is always an exciting subject to capture but can be a difficult subject as well. Foxes are very shy in the daytime, so my time photographing them is usually a “better be ready” process behind the camera.

To successfully photograph foxes you need to have your camera or binoculars in hand and ready to go. You can up your odds of witnessing this animal by getting out early in the morning, being very quiet and, of course, being patient. Foxes have adapted to humans by understandings that humans are busier in the day, so foxes have become more of a nocturnal hunter. The old saying “smart like a fox” is a very true statement.

David Olson and his wife Adrienne’s photographs can be found in numerous publications, including National Geographic, National Wildlife, Audubon and nature books all around the country. Located on State Street in Rockford, Olson Photography has a full-service portrait studio and art gallery. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or at