Several years ago, while living in an old farm house in rural central New York, I woke one morning to a strange sound. It was somewhere between a cough and a bark, and it was coming from in front of the house. I crept through the bedrooms upstairs and peered out the window. To my surprise, I saw a red fox skulking around the sugar maples, apparently calling for its mate. Fast forward to about four years ago when someone sent in a recording to NCPR asking if anyone knew what the mysterious sound was. Although it had been several years, I recognized it immediately: the coughing bark of a red fox. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.
The Adirondack Mountains are home to two species of fox: the red (Vulpes vulpes) and the grey (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Both are small members of the dog family, and both, especially the grey, are considered to be cat-like canines. Their small size, their eyes with vertically contracting pupils, and the grey’s ability to climb trees certainly make them seem more like cats than dogs, yet there they sit on the taxonomic tree next to Fido, Wiley and The Wolf.
The smaller of the two, grey foxes are rarely found to exceed 12 pounds and more often weigh significantly less; my cats have all weighed more. Covered with grizzled grey fur, with reddish fur running along the sides of the neck and up towards the ears, a pale belly and a black-tipped tail, the grey fox is a strikingly handsome animal. It is also equipped with semi-retractable claws, which enable it to scamper up trees to avoid predators and curious humans. An inhabitant of woodlands, it is quite at home in our northern forests.
Red foxes are animals of woodland edges and open fields. Although less stocky than their grey counterparts, red foxes are known to reach weights upwards of 15 pounds. And while most red foxes are indeed red (well, actually more orange than red), as a species they exhibit great variation in color, running the gamut from yellow-blonde to black. There’s one thing they always have in common, though, and that’s a white tip on the tail. If you see a white tip, it’s a red fox, regardless of what color the rest of the animal is.
Although the grey fox is definitely a native animal, the red fox comes to us cloaked with controversy. Some folks claim that they are only on this continent thanks to the British love of The Hunt. As the story goes, when the English were establishing their reign in the early days of the Colonies, they brought with them the sport of fox hunting. Since the native grey fox had a tendency to climb trees and escape the hounds, they imported red foxes from back home to give them the kind of hunt they desired. Some scientists believe, however, that red foxes have been here all along, perhaps traveling across the famous land bridge in the Bering Strait centuries ago. Fossil evidence seems to support both claims: red foxes appear to be native to the boreal regions of North America (land bridge), while those found in temperate regions were apparently introduced (fox hunting).
Anyone who has gone tracking with me knows I have a tendency to stop and sniff things. When I teach tracking I encourage participants to take a sniff, too, for smell can be a great indicator of who left the sign behind. Sadly, most folks aren’t curious enough to take me up on the offer. I highly recommend it, though, especially if you are trying to ascertain if the animal you are trailing is a red fox. Once you have smelled red fox urine, you will never forget it, for it smells like a skunk. Trackers claim that red fox urine is at its most potent in January and February, and I suspect this is because mating season will soon be upon them.
If you want to go looking for foxes, now is the time to discover where they are, for winter is the great equalizer. Foxes are secretive; it is entirely possible that you have been watched by a fox while walking through the woods. They are shy, stealthy and clever; if they don’t want to be seen, they won’t be. But in the winter, they cannot hide their presence. By going out now, you can learn about your neighborhood foxes. Do you have reds or greys? Does the territory belong to a male or a female? With some patience and a good eye, you might even be lucky enough to spot your fox.
Photo courtesy George Seymour, Saugerties, NY