If you’ve heard weird noises in the night, it might not be ghosts that are to blame! Foxes are nocturnal animals, so you’ll often hear them rather than see them. But just what sounds do foxes make?
That’s what we’re here to find out! So step this way and discover how to tell if there’s a fox in the vicinity.
Why do foxes make sounds?
To make sense of the sounds foxes make, it’s helpful to understand why they make them.
Foxes, just like people, vocalize sounds to communicate. They might be addressing themselves to actual or potential mates. Or they could be warning other foxes – or other kinds of animals – off their territory.
Foxes are generally most active at night, and that’s when you’re most likely to hear them. But they can also get out and about during daylight hours.
Sometimes, the sounds they make are pretty weird. They’ve even inspired a novelty song – “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Norwegian dance duo Ylvis. The options offered up in that, though, are somewhat different from the reality!
So what does the fox really say?
The range of fox communication
While foxes are social animals, they also spend a lot of their time alone. That provides a very interesting context to the way they communicate.
Various studies have been carried out into fox vocalizations. One such study, carried out by British academics from the University of Bristol in 1992, looked specifically at the red fox, Vulpes vulpes. It identified no fewer than 20 different fox sounds, of which eight were made by cubs.
Let’s take a closer look at what they found.
Adult fox sounds
1. Barks and yell barks
The most common sound made by adult red foxes were barks – not surprising, given that foxes are members of the dog family.
But not all barks were the same. Some were short, sharp yaps, while others lasted longer. In both cases, they were repeated quickly. And they were usually one of two different pitches.
They were often combined with other kinds of fox calls, presumably to send more sophisticated messages.
The researchers also identified a second category of barks, which they called “yell barks”. These sound similar to barks, but get lower in pitch towards the end.
Some researchers have hypothesized that foxes use this kind of bark to sound the alarm when they spot a threat.
One of the eeriest kinds of noises made by foxes is the shriek. The pitch of a fox’s shriek can change a lot while it’s happening. But all shrieks sound surprisingly similar.
And unlike barks, foxes don’t usually mix shrieks with other kinds of sound. Perhaps that means they have a very specific meaning. Unfortunately, we don’t know what that is!
Yes, alongside shrieking, foxes do an excellent line in screaming! Their screams have a single note and typically last less than a second.
But while they often sound bloodcurdling and distressing, screams don’t mean the foxes are fighting or getting hurt. Some fox experts believe that it’s primarily females – vixens – who scream. And the purpose, they think, is to advertise their presence to potential mates.
So while they might not sound particularly appealing to our ears, those screams could be the fox equivalent of flirting!
4. Whines, yell whines and whimpers
Another very doggy noise made by foxes is the whine. The researchers found foxes often whined and whimpered after they’d barked.
Most whines were quite high pitched. And the pitch changed as the whine progressed, going up at the beginning and down at the end. The sounds the researchers called “yell whines” followed a similar pattern, but were much louder.
Researchers believe that dogs’ whines have a number of different purposes. They can be used as a greeting, to indicate that one dog is submitting to another, to signify frustration, or to seek attention. Who knows, maybe foxes use whining in a similar way.
5. Ratchet calls
Ratchet calls have been given a number of different names. Various researchers have called them “clickerting”, “clicketing” or “gekkering” – all of which give a good idea of what they sound like! A fox making these noises almost sounds like a weird – and very loud – bird!
A ratchet call is formed of a number of different parts, and each one varies from the next. One researcher called those different parts “snirks” – another indication of just how odd these noises can be!
These sounds are often made by male foxes when they’re squaring up to each other. And they’re most commonly heard during the breeding season, perhaps because male foxes are competing for mates.
6. Staccato and wow wow barks
As you’d expect from the name, staccato barks are short and sharp. The pitch of these barks can change frequently. It’s believed that this type of barking is used by foxes to keep in touch with others in their group over long distances.
Another type of bark is the “wow wow bark”. This tends to be formed of more parts than staccato barks. You can hear red foxes making this sound on this YouTube video from Lisa Saunders.
Some fox experts believe that wow wow barks are used by foxes to declare their ownership of territory.
Parent foxes may also use them to give their cubs the “all clear”, indicating it’s safe for them to leave their earth. And a male fox may use it when leaving food for his partner at the entrance to the den.
7. Yodel barks
Yes, foxes even yodel – and they don’t have to be up a mountain to do it!
This name is used for a softer type of bark than a staccato or wow wow bark. Its pitch rises and falls quickly, a bit like a person yodeling. Some researchers have referred to the sound as a “warble” or even a “coo”.
If a dog growls at you, you know where you stand with it – hopefully on the other side of a sturdy barrier!
Foxes growl too, a low sound that goes on for much longer than a bark – just over a second on average. And while other fox sounds are pretty unique, foxes growling can sound similar to other members of the dog family doing the same thing.
And just as with dogs, fox growls are intended as a threat. They’re often made by a male fox warning another male to stay away from his territory or else!
A fox cough is a strange, low and fairly soft noise. Vixens will often cough to their cubs.
Foxes typically repeat the same coughing noise in quick succession. But sometimes it’s a single, low sound.
One observer noticed that a momma fox seemed to be able to use coughs to call her cubs by name. Although each cough sounded exactly the same to his ears, only one cub would respond each time.
It seems likely that foxes are able to distinguish much more subtle information from their sounds than we humans can appreciate.
Cubs have their own repertoire of sounds. The researchers at Bristol University divided these into eight different categories. Those were murmurs, warbles, whines, ratchet calls, two types of wow wow barks, and two types of whines.
These are the most common sounds made by newborn cubs. A typical murmur lasts just over a second, rising and falling in pitch in what seems to be a random pattern. Murmurs are quite similar to the whimpers made by adult foxes.
At between two and three weeks old, fox cubs progress to warbling. Warbles are formed of a number of different sounds, which gradually separate from one another as the fox matures. In time, the sounds separate out entirely, transforming into the barks of adult foxes.
12. Baby versions of adult calls
Cubs make their own versions of some of the sounds made by adult foxes.
Their whines, for example, are quite different to that of an adult fox. They consist of a single note and last, on average, just over half a second. They tend to be produced before cubs have started to warble.
Cubs produce ratchet calls and wow wow barks too, although these are higher pitched than those of adult foxes. And their growls are also higher pitched and don’t last for as long as the adult equivalents.
The difference in pitch between adults and young foxes is probably simply a result of their different sizes.
How Does the Fox Go?
So what sounds do foxes make? The answer is – quite a lot of different ones!
You’re most likely to hear foxes at night. And they’re also noisier in the winter. That’s probably because that’s when food is scarcer, and there’s more competition between foxes.
This is also the time when foxes are most likely to leave their home groups, searching for food or mates. That means there are more calls between suitors and potential love interests! And there’s also more long-distance communication between lone foxes and their home group.
While researchers have guessed at the meaning of foxes’ many and varied sounds, it’s clear we don’t yet understand them perfectly.
The foxes, it seems, are still keeping their secrets!