When you think of foxes (if you ever do), you likely picture the ginger-coated red fox, like Mr. Tod from Beatrix Potter’s fantastical children’s tales, only without the dapper suitcoat and tweed knickers. It is the less common gray fox, however, that has been wandering the woods and fields near my home – and climbing the trees.
That’s right: gray foxes can climb trees, a distinction they share with only one other member of the Canidae family, the raccoon dog of East Asia. This arboreal ability provides several benefits for the gray fox, from evading predators to reaching food.
It was this fondness for trees that led me to our neighborhood gray fox last winter. Curious about the jumbled network of dainty tracks surrounding an old apple tree just beyond the back vegetable garden, I set the game camera at the base of its trunk. Just like that, I had a dozen nighttime images of a beautiful gray fox, black lines running like streaked mascara from its eyes, thick ruff of fur around its neck, and an enormously bushy tail, topped and tipped in black.
That ridge of black guard hairs along the tail, and the black-tip, are features that definitively revealed this fox as a gray, not a red. Gray foxes have coarser hair than reds, although their mostly black-and-gray coat is dappled with rusty red. They are also stockier than their red counterparts, with shorter legs.
Although similar in size and sharing some habits of red foxes, gray foxes represent an entirely separate branch of Canidae evolution and are in the genus Urocyon (rather than Vulpes, the genus that comprises red and many other foxes). The gray fox’s ancestors separated from other canid species 3.6 million years ago, and Urocyon cinereoargenteus, the gray fox, is considered among the oldest species in the Canidae family.
The gray fox’s curved, semi-retractable claws and flexible front legs may also give the animal a literal leg up over their red fox brethren in the region. Unlike red foxes, they are able to evade coyotes by climbing trees – they sometimes even den in tree hollows far above the ground. Their arboreal skills also enable them to reach fruit that red foxes can’t.
Gray foxes mate once a year, in late winter. The mating pair share responsibility for raising offspring, and the family generally stays together until fall.
While the kits – normally three to five in a litter – are confined to the den, the male fox (known as a tod), goes out hunting while the vixen remains with the kits. By June, the kits are weaned – and hungry. With so many mouths to fill, the parent foxes, mostly nocturnal, are more likely to venture out on hunting excursions during daylight hours. And that leads to a surge of calls to Northeastern Fish and Game departments from people concerned about spotting the normally secretive foxes, said Orff. “June is the fox month.”
“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, according to Adirondack naturalist Tom Kalinowksi. “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”.
Photo courtesy Florida State University’s Habitat Tracker.
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer. She lives in Franconia, New Hampshire. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org.