Gray fox. Submitted photo

 

I am hiking through the woods one day with my dogs when we hear a rustling. Investigating the sound we are all astonished when three little foxes shoot out of a pile of oak leaves to greet us. My little Chihuahua Lucy wags her tail – everyone wants to play until Hope (2nd Chihuahua) barks at which time the foxes dive for cover. I call out “hey little foxes” a few times and two reappear but don’t emerge completely from the den. I snap two pictures.

A couple of days earlier on the same hike I had seen an adult fox scurrying up a hill hugging a stone wall at mid day; now I knew why. I returned to the den area each day around the same time and called out “hey little foxes.” I believed I could teach them to respond to my voice. It didn’t take long. On the fourth day as soon as I greeted them one emerged. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. Yesterday I was amazed to find a good sized dirty baize egg dropped outside their door. One of the parents must have brought it home?

Because I feed foxes here I am used to seeing both reds and greys bringing in their kits to snack on birdseed later in the spring (from June on). But because they are older, they look more like their parents. One of the dens on this land can be viewed through binoculars but it is not the same thing.

These little characters wore dark brown coats and I soon learned that this coloring identified them as young grey foxes. They were about five weeks old and I was so excited because I had never had an opportunity to visit with young kits on a regular basis in such close proximity. I hope I am writing this article at the beginning of a long spring journey to learn more about grey foxes…

All animals like routines, so I visit each day at the same time and hope to get some more pictures as time passes. These delightful children are so curious and unafraid. At this point in their lives no human has yet threatened them.

Gray foxes are the only members of the canines that can climb trees and have retractable claws like a cat. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some reddish fur, but gray foxes have a black stripe and black-tipped tail; Reds wear black stockings and have a white-tipped tail. The latter are found from southern Canada southward to Venezuela and Columbia, except in mountainous areas of northwestern United States, parts of the Great Plains, and the eastern coast of Central America.

Gray foxes thrive in forest and brushy woodland areas – they choose habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens, places that have access to water. They have adapted to living in close proximity to humans.

Gray foxes have several natural predators, most notably coyotes, followed by bobcats, but great horned owls, eagles, and cougars also prey upon them. They are territorial among themselves, yet they share these spaces with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.

Their “unnatural” predator is man who shoots and traps them and whose most egregious act is fox penning, a canned hunt of foxes that are trapped in the wild, placed within fenced areas, and then set upon by dozens of dogs who are let loose to hunt them down. The live foxes are literally torn apart by the dogs, dying in massive pain and agony. This disgusting behavior on the part of man makes a powerful statement about the extent of human cruelty that is impossible to ignore.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them. Keen vision, hearing, and sense of smell help them hunt for cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, wood rats, black rats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed dispersers.

Sometimes gray foxes will rest on high branches or in the crotch of a tree. To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch. Coming down is a bit trickier than going up… it’s either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds. These foxes also like to swim if denning near water.

According to the literature breeding occurs in January or February and the kits are born in March or April and they begin to emerge four or five weeks after birth. These foxes dig their own dens or enlarge dens that other animals have used before. They have a number of entrances.

Both gray and red foxes are supposed to be nocturnal; however this has not been my experience perhaps because animals know I am not a threat. It is more common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. I can attest to the fact that little foxes love to play around their dens during the day.

I am already getting attached to this family and hope to meet the parents one day soon.


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