By Lesley B. Carson
The swift fox is known for its quick speed and small size. Photo by Mark Howery
Did you know that Oklahoma has a fox that is only one foot tall and only weighs about seven pounds? In fact, it's about the size of a large house cat.
They received the name "swift" fox because of their speediness. They can run up to 25 miles per hour!
The swift fox (Vulpes velox) is a furbearer species that lives in Oklahoma's three panhandle counties as well as portions of Harper and Ellis Counties. They are native to the short and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains region.
Swift foxes are a dark grayish-tan color that turns to a yellow-tan color on their legs. The throat, chest and belly are pale yellow to almost white. Their tails are black-tipped and they have large ears.
Their diet is quite varied. It includes birds, rabbits, prairie dogs, reptiles and ground squirrels or mice. They have a relatively small stomach for their size and can only eat half as much food in relation to their body weight.
Swift foxes live an average three years in wild, and have been known to live 10 to 12 years in captivity. They are very territorial and normally live and hunt in the same area, which is usually about five miles depending on habitat.
They mark their territory using urine and feces, and will fight to defend it from other foxes. To communicate, swift foxes use a wide variety of calls that range from barks to screams, howls, yaps and growls.
Foxes make their homes in underground dens, sometimes in abandoned burrows of other animals such as rabbits and beavers. They will make them larger, adding extra rooms and entry ways. This will allow them an easier escape should the need arise. The same den may be used for several generations.
They are social animals that keep one mate throughout their lifetime. Usually, more than one female helps raise the pups.
Another interesting fact about the swift fox is that it was of great importance to the culture of many different Plains Indians.
Apaches believed the fox stole fire from the gods and brought it to man. Many other tribes believed that foxes brought the power of healing.
Until the late 1800s the swift fox was very common in North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and into southern portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Then at the beginning of the 20th century, their number declined for many reasons.
Intense trapping, landscape changes including poor quality, loss and fragmentation were the main reasons for the reduction of swift fox numbers.
Nearly 45 percent of swift fox habitat throughout the historic range has been lost as a result of prairie conversion to cropland. Even where natural prairies remain, they are often fragmented and isolated, reducing habitat and prey while increasing predation and competition.
The prairie ecosystem has changed because of fire suppression, not use, and domestic livestock grazing which make it difficult for swift fox populations to persist. Now only 40 percent of the swift fox's historical range in the United States is occupied.
The swift fox is one of the most elusive animals that the Oklahoma Wildlife Department monitors. Because they are located in one of the most vacant landscapes in the state, very few people have ever seen one.
If you venture into far northwest Oklahoma, keep an eye out for the elusive swift fox. Their nighttime antics cannot be missed.
-Story by Lesley B. Carson, wildlife diversity information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.