Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Adirondack Wildlife: The Gray Fox

Grey-Fox-Website_49The end of August through mid-September is the time in the Adirondacks when the urge to be independent becomes strong enough in fox pups to cause them to vacate their parents’ territory and seek out a place they can claim as their own. As the near adult-size animal travels for many dozens, to a hundred miles or more searching for a suitable setting without a current resident, it may occasionally be glimpsed, especially around dusk and dawn, walking across a road, meandering through a backyard, trotting along the edge of a field or quietly weaving its way into a brushy thicket.

The red fox is traditionally associated with northern regions, and it is the fox most commonly seen within the Blue Line over the last two centuries. However, the geographic range of the gray fox has been steadily expanding into higher latitudes during the course of the past several decades and is now just as likely to be seen as the red fox in many locations in the Park, especially in lowland valleys where the climate is less severe.

The gray fox (I spell it g-r-a-y, rather than g-r-e-y, although both spelling are considered acceptable) is so named because of the more grayish color on its back, upper sides and the top of its bushy tail. However, like the red fox, the gray has areas on its lower sides, legs, neck and chest that contain large amounts of rusty-reddish fur. In areas of poor light, or when seen from the side in a patch of brush, a gray fox can easily be mistaken for a red fox. The best way to identify a gray is by its dark-tipped tail, the nearly black band along the upper part of its tail, and a slender black patch on its snout.

Physically, the gray fox also differs from the red in having claws that can dig into the bark of a tree and front paws jointed in a way that allows this canine to grasp a trunk of a tree so that it can climb off the ground. While not as skilled at ascending a tree as a raccoon or cat, the gray fox can get high enough above the forest floor to avoid being attacked by a coyote or domestic dog. The legs, paws, and balance of a gray fox also provide it with the ability to shimmy out onto a larger limb.

While the gray fox uses its crude climbing ability primarily to escape ground predators, it also provides this omnivore with access to apples that have not yet fallen to the ground and to clusters of acorns that form on the lower branches of the few oaks that exist in our warmer lowlands. Since hardwood trees, especially those that typify temperate regions like the oaks and hickories, tend to yield more nutritious mast, the gray fox is more inclined to thrive in these deciduous woodlands.

Aside from its color, a gray fox’s fur is not as thick and lush as that of its distant cousin. This permits the gray fox to function better in regions in which warmer weather prevails for much of the year and limits its distribution into more northern locations. The red fox is a cold-hardy member of the clan, as its geographic range extends throughout the boreal forests of the sub-arctic and into the southern regions of the tundra.

When searching for food, or traveling around its territory, the gray fox prefers to remain in wooded areas as much as possible. The forest provides cover for this small predator, which allows it to move about an area without being as easily seen as it would if it were to spend time in an open field or meadow. Should a coyote, or a pack of these predators, approach an individual, the presence of trees all around it allows the gray fox the opportunity to dart up one of these wooden columns and escape attack. While the population of red fox tends to be lower in areas inhabited by coyotes, the population of gray fox typically remains unchanged in regions in which the coyote has taken up residence.

Over the past century, the rise in the coyote population is believed to have negatively influenced red fox numbers throughout the Adirondacks; however, the gray fox status has improved over this period of time. This may be the result of the change in climate that would seem to favor the gray fox. It also may be the maturing of our forests, which benefits a tree climbing animal as opposed to one that strongly prefers woodland edges and small forest clearings. Regardless, the gray fox is no longer a rarity in the region, and the sight of a maturing pup roaming the area in search of a territory over the course of the next month should give some lucky residents and visitors a wildlife encounter here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Florida State University’s Habitat Tracker.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

8 Responses

  1. Ron Vanselow says:

    Coincidentally, I was out on my wood lot(which also contains my garden…) this afternoon and something started yelling at me from the edge of the woods. It was a short, raspy, barking sound. This happened a couple of times, and then I saw a grey fox walking through my berry patch. I talked to him for a moment (as I do with other critters who share that space with me) and he quickly headed back into the woods. And as I walked back toward the house, he gave a couple of more barks. I guess I have a new neighbor.

  2. Paul says:

    Tom this is cool. I had no idea that Gray foxes are up there. I see them down here in the finger lakes occasionally. It is pretty cool to see how fast they can run up a tree when the need (or want) to. Perhaps one benefit of a warming climate?

  3. Bill Quinlivan says:

    Tom, Thanks for the fine article. My wife and I live in the woods a few miles south of Indian Lake and for the last two Autumns we have had a female gray fox visit our home. My wife, Joann, is a painter and she took hundreds of pics of her over the course of the two autumns / early winters. Last year she was traveling with another gray fox and we thought it may have been a mate. We have not seen her since, but hope she will grace us again with her presence once again this year. Now, thanks to your article, we know a bit more about her.

  4. Bob says:

    Several years ago I observed a gray fox climb a small tree and stealthily walk out on an even smaller limb. It did not see me and it appeared to be using the elevation as a lookout to watch for whatever lurked in a patch of brush below. Eventually it saw me, dropped to the ground in one bound and disappeared. Wonderful article as always.

  5. Paul says:

    Tom, will Gray Fox pounce down on birds like Grouse from above? That would be cool to see.

    • Tom Kalinowski says:

      Hi Paul: I have never heard about a gray fox pouncing on an animal, like a bobcat would do, but I imagine that anything is possible, especially if the fox was not too high above the ground.

  6. Nan Plantier says:

    Hi Tom,

    Great article. We have had them here around our house in Lake Luzerne (Southern Adirondacks) for the past 10 years. Red foxes, too.

  7. Russell Frantzen says:

    Enjoyed your piece on the gray fox, thanks for the info. I can confirm their presence around Lake Luzerne. A couple years ago whenever I would grill around sunset I would get a big gray fox skulking toward me from the north corner of the back yard and a young red one from the south corner. Don’t know if it was a product of age or not, but the gray was much more bold and definitely not afraid of me (didn’t like me banging the garbage can with the spatula though).