Murie, Olaus J. (1959) FAUNA OF THE ALEUTIAN ISLANDS AND ALASKA PENINSULA, 1936-38, U.S. Dept. Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington. pg. 287


Red Fox: Vulpes (fulva) vulpes

Aleut name: Morzhovoi Bay: Ikowukh (Wetmore)
From vocabulary compiled by R. H. Geoghegan at Valdez in 1903: Ukhaching
Russian: Lee-see-sha (Buxton)
Russian, Siberia; See-way-doos-ka (cross fox)

The red fox is plentiful throughout the Alaska Peninsula and is found on the eastern Aleutian Islands. Unimak Island, in particular, has a large fox population, and the species occurs also on Akun, Unalaska, Umnak, Chuginadak, Amlia, Adak, Kanaga, and Sanak Islands. Foxes occur on Dolgoi, which was utilized for commercial fox propagation — it is possible that the fox originated here in that fashion. Great Sitkin, also, was said to have had some red foxes. Those on Amlia and Adak Islands are the silver-gray color phase.

Kellogg (1936) found bones of the red fox to be one of the most abundant mammal remains in Aleut middens on Kodiak Island.

The westward expansion of the red fox, in its various color phases, on the Aleutian chain is uncertain, but it certainly must have occupied the easternmost group of islands. General historical accounts give us a few clues. In his "History of Alaska, 1730-1885," Bancroft (p. 120) states that in 1758 Glottof started for the Aleutians, and wintered at Bering Island. The following summer, he arrived at an unknown island, probably Umnak. where he remained* for 3 years. He returned with a cargo of furs, including the black foxes from the Aleutian Islands. The shipment included 11 sea otters, 280 sea otter tails, 1,002 black foxes, 1,100 cross foxes, 400 red foxes, 22 walrus tusks, and 58 blue foxes.

Again (p. 154), Bancroft remarks, "In 1764, when the first black fox skins had been forwarded to the empress, gold medals were awarded to the merchants Orekhof , Kulkof; Shapkin, Panof , and Nikoforof." He says, "Ocheredin's share of the proceeds was 600 sea otters, 756 black foxes, 1230 red foxes; and with this rich cargo he arrived at Okhotsk on the 24th of July 1770." These skins were obtained from Akutan, Unalaska, or adjacent islands.

There are other passages worthy of record. On page 123, Bancroft states that the ships Gavril and Vladimir combined forces in 1760 and hunted Umnak, Sitkin, Atka, and Seguam, where they obtained about 900 sea otters, 400 foxes of various kinds, and 432 pounds of walrus tusks.

On page 153 of Bancroft's account, we find reference to a 1766 expedition by Solovief, during which he obtained 500 black foxes.

Bancroft (p. 169) further states that —

Shiloff, Orekhof, and Lapin, in July of the same year (1770), fitted out once more the old ship Sv Pavel at Okhotsk, and dispatched her to the islands under command of the notorious Solovief. By this time the Aleuts were evidently thoroughly subjugated, as the man who had slaughtered their brethren by hundreds during his former visit passed four additional years in safety among them, and then returned with an exceedingly valuable cargo of 1,900 sea otters, 1,493 black, 2,115 cross, and 1,275 red foxes. He claims to have reached the Alaskan Peninsula, and describes Unimak and adjoining islands.

The wording of this passage would lead us to believe that Solovief did not go far east of Unimak. If that is true, he undoubtedly obtained his foxes among the eastern islands, the group designated as the Fox Islands, from Unimak to Umnak inclusive. In all of these early cargoes of fox furs, there is an amazingly high percentage of black and cross color phases — these two phases greatly outnumbering the normal red color phase. There had not been time for artificial development of such strains on so great a scale, and there is no record of such breeding activities at that time. Therefore, it is evident that in the eastern Aleutian district a natural concentration of the melanistic type of the red fox had taken place, comparable to a similar development of the Arctic fox in the western Aleutians, Commanders, and Pribilofs. This may prove to be a significant biological phenomenon, when the active factors become understood.

It is probable that the dark color phases occurred also on Alaska Peninsula, and it is almost certain that excessive killing of these darker kinds, on a selective basis because of their greater value, has served to bring the population back to a practically type, the red phase. The silver fox persists on Amlia Island, but this island has been leased and the foxes are controlled artificially. We can no longer find the dark kinds in any numbers on Unalaska, where they were first found.

The following table shows the proportions of these color phases in the cargoes of three ships. The records of other cargoes are not used here because they appear to have been of a selective nature, not comparable for this purpose. For example, some cargoes showed only black fox, and some cargoes showed no cross fox.

At the time of these expeditions, the red fox probably had not reached as far west as Kanaga (where a few have been present in recent years). It is difficult to evaluate the present distribution because of the extensive commercial manipulation of the Aleutian fauna. We can be confident, however, that the red fox originally occupied the so-called Fox Islands, as far west as Umnak at least; it may have occurred as far as the Andreanofs, much farther west. Though Bancroft, writing a general history of Alaska, was not specific in mentioning the Aleutian fauna, he did make some helpful observations. His generalization on fur bearers at least gives us helpful indications :

The distribution of fur-bearing animals during the last century was of course very much the same as now, with the exception that foxes of all kinds came almost exclusively from the islands. The stone-foxes — blue, white, and gray — were most numerous on the western islands of the Aleutian chain and on the Pribilof group. Black and silver-gray foxes, then very valuable, were first obtained from Unalaska by the Shilof and Lapin Company and at once brought into fashion at St. Petersburg by means of a judicious presentation to the empress.

This passage confirms the general conclusion that blue foxes were confined to the western islands and red foxes (with their color phases) were limited to the eastern islands.

Turner (1886) reported the red fox "as far west as Umnak." Speaking of the cross and silver fox, he said that they occur in "All of Alaska, except the extreme western Aleutian Islands."

In the summer of 1925, I had an opportunity to frequently observe foxes on Unimak Island and Alaska Peninsula. They were found on some of the sand islands at Izembek Bay — it is probable that they reached these islands by traveling over the ice during the winter. They spent much time on the beaches of these islands, where they dug for clams which they located by scent. They also picked up crabs at low tide and ate codfish or other carrion thrown up on the beach.

On Unimak Island, Unalaska, and some other localities, rodents become important in the diet and the foxes spend more time inland.

In 1911, Wetmore examined a den in the Morzhovoi Bay region, where he noted fragments of ptarmigan and ground squirrels. He also noted that foxes came down to the beach at Thin Point to feed on the many stranded flounders.

Beals and Longworth (field report, 1941) found red foxes to be well distributed over Unimak Island, but noted that they were concentrated in the coastal areas, where they could feed on the beaches. "Sandfleas were present in unbelievable numbers under boulders and in rotting kelp. Scores of droppings were composed almost entirely of these little fellows. The valley floors were littered with mounds and tunnels made by small rodents and here again we found fox droppings showing only hair and bones of rodents. We found hundreds of instances where nesting burrows had been torn out and the inhabitants eaten."

They also found ptarmigan to be unusually abundant, observing flocks of 300 to 400 birds, and they remarked: "Fox-eaten ptarmigan were found often enought to indicate them as having an important place in his diet."

The contents of 57 red fox droppings from Dolgoi Island were found to contain the following items, listed in number of occurrences :

Item Number Percent
Microtus 38 52
Bird 16 21.9
Beach fleas (Crustacea) 6* 8.2
Sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis) 4* 5.4
Mussel (Mytilus sp.) 2* 2.7
Heavy cloth 2 2.7
Brown paper 2 2.7
Hair seal (Phoca sp.) 1 1.3
Small fish 1 1.3
Large bone 1 1.3
* Such forms are listed as times occurring, rather than as actual number of individuals.

At least two of the birds represented here were of sparrow size and may have been captured, but the others were larger birds and (since we found no bird colonies on this island) probably were carrion washed up on the beach. One dropping contained 100 percent sea urchin, three others contained 100 percent beach fleas.

The contents of 25 red fox droppings from Unalaska Island, based on number of items, were as follows :

Item Number Percent
Citellus 16 48.5
Microtus 9 27.3
Dicrostonyx 2 6 
Bird 6 18.2

In this case, rodents furnish the bulk of the food. The droppings were collected in summer. It is interesting to note that on Chuginadak, on Amlia, and probably on the sand islands in Izembek Bay, there are no rodents and the red fox evidently adapts itself to beach combing.

General Habits

There is no doubt that the life history of the Alaskan red fox follows a normal pattern, but there are certain unusual traits. One of these unusual traits is the remarkable tameness of certain "wild" foxes. Frequently, I approached quite close to a fox as it went about its usual business without giving me much attention. A most unusual incident occurred on Operl Island, at Izembek Bay, in the summer of 1925. A red fox that was hunting on the beach allowed me to approach with the camera to within 5 feet. The animal had fed well on the beach, judging by the contour of its body. When the tide came in, the animal left the beach and wandered into the sand dunes, where it eventually lay down to rest. It closed its eyes and went to sleep while I photographed it within a distance of 6 or 8 feet. The animal was still sleeping when I departed.

Local trappers assured me that foxes lose this extreme tameness on the approach of winter.

On another occasion, Stevenson and I came upon a group of five beach-feeding red foxes that exhibited more normal traits, particularly an aversion to swimming. They were at the tip of a narrow sand spit that was separated from the main beach by a narrow channel of water. This was an ideal situation for a picture, assuming that they would hesitate to swim the channel.

We quickly reached the base of the sand spit and, dividing the width equally between us, we walked slowly toward the foxes, camera ready. The foxes immediately sensed that they were trapped and acted at once. One after the other, three of them chose to race past us, rather than to swim a distance of 7 or 8 yards to the main beach. At high speed, a fox charged straight at us and passed within 5 or 6 feet. There was hardly time to change film before another fox, frantic because it was cornered, came rushing past us in the same manner, and the third fox followed the other two. Meanwhile, the remaining foxes swam across the lane of water and reached the main beach.


On Unimak Island, there is an annual limit to the trapper's take — each legal trapper is allowed a maximum of 50 red foxes for the trapping season. This appears to be a satisfactory arrangement, and the fox population has not been unduly depleted. Even on the Alaska Peninsula, where no bag limit is in effect, the fox population has remained fairly stable. The same is true of Umnak. There were reports that the status of the red fox on Unalaska was not so favorable; however, fox signs were quite common when we visited there in 1936 and 1937.

On other Aleutian Islands to the westward, red foxes are handled as private property and are either harvested at intervals, as on Amlia, or are being eliminated in favor of blue foxes.