The 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.