As far as canids go, the fox is one of the most beautiful and one of the most elusive. Even the most avid outdoors enthusiasts rarely catch a glimpse of this fluffy hunter. Perhaps that’s where the notions of the sly, tricky, and clever fox originate from.
The gray fox is very adept at the art of trying hard not to be seen. I’ve only come across the gray fox once in my almost 50 years, and she was quite the foxy lady!
The fox has the reputation of being an agile, ruthless hunter. Yet it still maintains a sort of awe with its magnificent appearance.
They are popular mascots and adorn everything from children’s clothing to high-end home décor. They’re even characters in movies and the subject of poems and songs.
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The gray fox’s binomial name is Urocyon cinereoargenteus. It’s a proud member of the genus Urocyon and the family Canidae.
There are only two species in this genus. The gray fox and the island fox. It was named by 19th-century naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1857. Baird was also the first curator of the Smithsonian Institute.
The name Canidaerom the Latin “canis,” meaning dog. Members of the family Canidae are all dog-like carnivores. Known as canines, this family includes domestic dogs, wolves, foxes, and jackals.
Origins and History
The gray fox has origins in the United States since the mid-Pliocene era, around 3.6 million years ago.
The first fossil record of the gray fox was found in Graham County, Arizona. The fossilized remains were found alongside other mammals. These mammals comprised of giant sloths and early small horses.
Other fossil remains were found in two California cave sites. These confirmed the gray fox in the late Pleistocene period (129,000 to 11,700 years ago).
Further evidence shows that the gray fox migrated to the Northeastern US. This was evident during the Medieval Warm Period, about 950 CE.
The gray fox has a long-standing and storied history in the Americas. They have been hunted incessantly, even up to the present day. In the 1970s, their pelts were highly prized to be used as fur trim on coats and boots.
Are Silver Foxes the Same as Gray Foxes?
No. A silver fox is a melanistic form of a different species, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).
Melanistic means the higher production of melanin which causes the darkening of tissues. This makes the animal have darker skin and fur. While there are some varying color morphs of the gray fox, silver is not one of them.
The gray fox is a medium-sized dog-like creature with a long, lanky body and short legs. They range in size from 30 to 44.25 inches (76 to 112.5 cm), weighing 8 to 15.5 pounds (3.6 to 7 kg). They have thick fur and long bushy tails that make up about a third of their body size.
The gray fox has a salt and peppered face and a distinct black stripe down its back and tail. Most of their bodies are also salt and pepper, with an orange or red collar, chest, and feet. Their bellies are usually white.
They have a smaller-shaped head with a short, pointed muzzle and pointed ears. They have oval-shaped pupils. Their eyes are rimmed with black that goes out from the corners and down towards the mouth.
There is very little sexual dimorphism in gray foxes. The females are just slightly smaller.
There are a few color morphs in the gray fox, but these are not common. One is the white morph, which is white with pink noses. The other is leucistic, meaning a lack of pigment but not albino. This morph is usually a lighter tan color with white patches on the chest and belly.
Geography and Distribution
Gray foxes are abundant in North America. They range from a few provinces of Southern Canada through the entire United States. They’re also found throughout Central America. You can find them in northern parts of South America into Columbia and Venezuela.
They were once the species with the largest population and range in the United States. But they’ve been increasingly outnumbered by the larger, more dominant red fox species.
They are not as common in the mountains north of the Rockies. They made a comeback in states where they were once heavily hunted and exterminated.
Gray foxes prefer secluded habitats away from human populations. They gravitate towards brushy, wooded areas, often near water.
If they venture nearer to humans, it is in areas where farmlands are backed up to forests. Here they can hunt in both the forest and the farm. They munch on rodents that infest when crops and livestock are present.
Diet and Food Habits
Gray foxes are solitary hunters. They have a varied diet, preferring small mammals like rodents to make up the bulk of their diet. They will also eat birds and insects if necessary.
They round out their meat intake in true omnivorous fashion with corn, nuts, berries, and fruit. Seasonally, they will snack on grasshoppers and crickets.
Gray foxes are nocturnal creatures. They prefer to hunt and explore under the cloak of darkness. They are usually only seen at night or at dusk and dawn.
They spend daylight hours hiding in their burrows. They create dens in rocky crevices, hollow logs, or the abandoned burrows of other animals. Sometimes they seek shelter in tree hollows.
Unlike other fox species, the gray fox is very solitary. They do not form communities with other foxes. They are monogamous and only socialize during mating season. This is when they have paired up to raise their young.
Their territories are rather small, at less than four miles. These territories overlap each other, so there is some interaction between other foxes. They are aware of each other and respect each other’s boundaries. They rarely interfere with one another.
Competition with other species
The territories of the gray fox and the red fox overlap in many areas. And while they do have similar diets and eating habits, they do not seem to interact much in the wild. The red fox is the larger of the two and seems to be the dominating species in most habitats.
In recent years, though, the gray fox numbers have begun to increase. Perhaps their tree climbing adaptations and omnivorous palate are contributing to this.
Gray foxes also share the same habitats as coyotes and are on the losing end of that battle. Coyotes are much larger, more aggressive, and more opportunistic. This gives them an advantage over the foxes.
This battle for territory is even more evident in areas where humans have encroached. The gray fox prefers isolation, and the coyotes don’t seem to be bothered either way.
The lifestyle of the gray fox is isolated. It lives without the hustle and bustle of a widespread community.
They pair up, raise their young, move along in solitude, and then start the cycle again. When in the family group, they are affectionate and playful. The parents tend to their young very closely, teaching them the ways of the world.
Communication and Calls
Even though they may not commune together, gray foxes interact with each other. They leave their trace throughout their territory, letting others know of their presence.
They mark their food sources and territory with highly scented urine. They also communicate through their tails, pointing them up in the air like a flag to alert them of danger.
To look at a fox, you may think, “What does a fox say?” But it’s probably not what you would imagine.
They emit a variety of sounds, from mating yips to snarls, barks, and screams. They will ward off predators with loud screeches and growls and evade them by escaping to the trees. Gray foxes may be small, but they have big voices and know how to use them!
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Mating and Reproduction
Gray foxes are mostly monogamous. But there have been documented instances of a male having more than one female partner.
They pair up in the fall and breed in the winter. The female, called a vixen, will gestate for about 53 days. Litters of 4 to 5 pups or kits are born in April or May.
The parents share the duties of caring for their young. The mother is in charge of finding and preparing the den. The father does most of the hunting to feed the pregnant mother and the kits. The kits are nursed for nearly a month, then fed solid food the father provides until about 4 months.
They are then taught how to hunt by their father, practicing stalking and pouncing skills. They are not fully independent until about 10 months. At this point, they are considered mature and leave the den to seek out their own families.
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Growth and Lifespan
Kits are born with their eyes closed. They are completely dependent on their mother for protection and food at this stage.
They are about 4 inches (10 cm) long and weigh only about a quarter of a pound (.11 kg). These tiny kits are nursed by their mother for 4 weeks, and then they begin to sample solid foods. By 12 weeks, they are foraging on their own.
The first year of life for the gray fox is full of exciting new experiences and lots of learning. The kits go from helpless to fully independent at around 10 months. The average lifespan of the gray fox is 12 to 16 years, with captive foxes living a few years longer.
The gray fox has impressive tree climbing capabilities. They have partially retractable claws. These claws allow them to be able to scamper up trees without any difficulty.
They are the only canids that have this skill. This ability has earned them the nickname “tree fox,” and is why they are often mistaken for large cats.
Population and Conservation Status
Populations of gray foxes have fluctuated greatly over the past century. They were once hunted and exterminated with fervor. Their beautiful pelts were a hot commodity for some time.
Trappers drove their numbers down considerably. They were also a nuisance pest for farmers. They were encouraged to be slaughtered for hundreds of years.
We’re just starting to understand the role predators play in a balanced and sustainable ecosystem. And thankfully so. Creatures such as the gray fox need to be respected, and we need to coexist with them.
They are not endangered in most areas. In fact, they are classified as “least concern” by the (IUCN). This is good news for the gray fox!
Threats and Predators
You’d think that in the 21st century, we’d be overhunting animals for fun, but alas, fox hunting still exists.
Yes, even in the United States, over 140 fox hunts are organized yearly. The goal? To chase foxes on horseback with dogs and kill them. Not for food, not for their pelts, just for the sake of killing them.
The largest threat and predator of gray foxes are humans. Humans cause the most harm to the gray fox populations. We do this by hunting, trapping, poisoning, or decimating their habitat.
They do have natural predators as well. These include coyotes, bobcats, golden eagles, and great-horned owls.
Their ability to climb trees and their elusiveness has helped them escape predators. They are also quite fast, running at speeds of up to 28 miles (45 km) per hour!
Despite being classified as pest, they have a very important role in the ecologic system.
They are not vermin; they are predators of vermin. They eat voles, mice, shrews, rats, etc., that cause harm to crops and can carry disease to livestock. And while they may grab a chicken or two, it’s mostly out of desperation or opportunity.
The poisoning of rodents has led to the deaths of many predators, including birds of prey and foxes.
This leads to the thought of, are we humans helping too much? Does our intent to take matters into our own hands lead to more destruction? In some cases, definitely. The food web is an intricate design of nature. And when we disrupt it, we often cause more harm than good.
The fox is at the top of the food chain as a tertiary consumer. It eats the next level down on the chain, which feeds off the next level down, and so forth.
Without the top of the chain, the system breaks down and is no longer sustainable. The fox keeps their food web in check, adding to the perfect balance in its ecosystem.
So instead of viewing the fox as a problem, we should appreciate all they do for us. They help to keep a balanced, healthy environment in which we can all live.
There are protections in place for the gray fox in Ontario, Canada. But in most places, they are not endangered.
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- Foxes have many symbolic meanings in cultures around the world.
- Gray foxes are the only canid species with a natural range spanning North and South America.
- Gray foxes can climb trees, dig burrows, and swim! They will often use these skills to capture their prey.
- The gray fox uses its long bushy tail as a blanket to wrap around itself in the winter.
- An adult gray fox can jump up to 18 ft (5.5 m)!
- They appear to only drink water when eating white cedar berries. These berries are toxic. It is thought that drinking water while eating them makes them easier to swallow.
Why are gray foxes important to the environment?
Gray foxes are a top predator in their food web. They help keep rodents and other small mammals under control.
What does a gray fox sound like?
The fox has several vocalizations, and you’re more likely to hear a fox than to see one. They have distinct mating yips, alarm screeches, and warning growls. They also emit a terrifying scream that sounds a lot like a human child.
Can a gray fox be black?
The black morph of the fox is a very rare occurrence. This type of melanistic fox coloring only makes up about 0.1% of the population and does not occur in gray foxes. It is a color morph of the red fox.
Gray foxes have black markings on their back and tail. These markings can be quite large, making the fox appear more black than normal. This change in coat occurs seasonally and regionally.
Is the gray fox rare?
No. Although gray foxes may not be a common sight due to their elusive nature, they are not rare. They are outnumbered by other fox varieties. But their population is healthy and thriving.
As their natural habitats diminish, they are forced to adapt to less ideal domains. This often brings them closer to human contact.
Are gray foxes friendly?
The gray fox is extremely curious, and this is often translated as friendliness. They are not aggressive towards humans unless threatened. Like many other animals, this friendly nature usually gets them into bad situations.
No matter how friendly a fox may seem, please remember it is a wild animal. Minimal human interaction is best. Never feed or attempt to pet any wild creatures.