Reference Study: Gray Fox

Larry Blomquist

Gray foxes can be found throughout most of the southern half of North America, from southern Canada to the very northern parts of South America. The common names for Urocyon cinereoargenteus are gray fox, grey fox, and tree fox. (Most research materials I have reviewed refer to them as gray foxes.)

During my years of wildlife observation I have seen more gray foxes than red foxes. That could have a lot to do with the areas I commonly hunted, which are in the southern United States. When I have hunted in Canada, Montana, and many of the mountain states of the west, I only saw red foxes and not that often.

The most common small- to medium-size predators I have observed are bobcats with coyotes right behind. During my many hunting trips, including spring hunts for turkeys and summer hikes in the forest, I usually carry a video camera. I have filmed 30 or more bobcats, but only four gray foxes and 2 red foxes. My experience has shown that foxes move much faster than bobcats, giving you much less time to get a video camera out, turn it on, and focus in on these animals. One of my best memories was watching a mother red fox that had a den about 200 yards behind our home near our pond. For several weeks we watched her raise three pups. The mother fox would often sit on a high berm watching the pups play around the edge of our pond.

As I often do when writing, I often recount memories I have experienced in the past, so I will do one more. I do not think I have ever written or told this story, but my very early experiences in taxidermy included a gray fox. I began my experience with taxidermy at the age of 11 taking the Northwestern School of Taxidermy correspondence course. Small mammals, mainly squirrels, were my favorite and most common subject. During my second year of taxidermy my father came home with a gray fox a friend of his had shot. Everything I mounted in those days were completed with wrapped excelsior bodies as I had learned from my lesson booklets.

When I was a 13-year-old in the seventh grade, I selected taxidermy as my science fair project. In my display I used this mounted gray fox, a gray squirrel, and a flying wood duck. I won the school competition, then the regional competition, and went on to the state contest for my age group. There I won the first place medal for my division as a 7thgrader. I think I lucked out by having judges that loved hunting and anything that dealt with wildlife. They questioned me for about 20 minutes and even came back with more questions before their decision. This early event in my learning stages of taxidermy was strong motivation that eventually lead to my lifelong profession. The above photo is one of several of that adventure passed on to me by my mother many years ago. Those were the days of short hair, skinny belts, and thin ties.

Gray foxes appeared in North America during the mid-Pliocene around 3.6 million years ago. The first fossil evidence found was in Arizona in Graham County, along with contemporary mammals like a giant sloths, an elephant-like Cuvieronous, a large-headed llama, and early small horses. Genetic analyses of the fox-like canids confirmed that gray foxes are a distinct genus from red foxes (Vulpes). Genetically, gray foxes often cluster with two other ancient lineages, east Asian raccoon dogs and African bat-eared foxes.

Gray foxes range from 30 to 44 inches (76 to 112.5 cm) in total length and the tail measures 11 to 17.5 inches (27.5 to 44.3 cm) in length. Gray foxes typically weigh 8 to 15 pounds (3.6 to 7 kg), although exceptionally large ones can weigh as much as 20 pounds (9 kg). Gray foxes are readily differentiated from red foxes by the lack of black markings of the lower legs and the stripe of black hair that runs along the lower middle section of the tail. The ears of a gray fox are shorter than those of a red fox. In contrast to all red foxes, Vulpes, and related Arctic and fennec foxes, gray foxes have oval (instead of slit-like) pupils.

The ability of a gray fox to climb trees is shared only with an Asian raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) among canids. Its strong, hooked claws allow it to scramble up trees to escape many predators, such as domestic dogs or coyotes, or to reach tree-bound food sources like squirrels. It can climb branchless, vertical trunks to heights of 50 feet and jump from branch to branch. It descends primarily by jumping from branch to branch, or by descending slowly backwards, much as a domestic cat would do. Gray foxes are nocturnal and make their dens in hollow trees, stumps, or appropriated burrows during the day. Such gray fox tree dens can be located 30 feet above the ground. Gray foxes are omnivorous, solitary hunters. They frequently prey on eastern cottontails, although they will readily catch voles, shrews, and birds. In California, gray foxes primarily eat rodents, followed by jackrabbits and brush rabbits. In some parts of the western United States, gray foxes are primarily insectivorous (feeding on insects, worms and other invertebrates) and herbivorous. Fruit is an important component of the diet of gray foxes and they seek whatever fruits are readily available, generally eating more vegetable matter than do red foxes. There are no major range-wide threats to the species, but extreme habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation may be problematic in regions where human habitation is increasing rapidly and habitat is converted for agricultural, industrial, and urban uses. Gray foxes, however, are overall relatively adaptable and have become increasingly common even in urban environments. Grey foxes have been involved in some large die-offs due to canine distemper virus in parts of their range, and may also be affected by canine parvovirus and rabies.

Credits for research sources.

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