By Meghan McCarthy McPhaul
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 suit-coat and tweed knickers. It is the not-as-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.
Gray foxes did not exist in many parts of northern New England, at least in recent history, but furbearer harvest records in both New Hampshire and Vermont indicate that they’re expanding their range. “The last ten years, there are some records of gray foxes being trapped in Coos County [New Hampshire’s northernmost county], which is not historically a stronghold for them,” said Eric Orff, a wildlife biologist and retired long-time furbearer biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “It’s an animal that’s on the move. They’re seeking new territory, moving north.”
This shift could be partly due to habitat availability. While red foxes prefer open fields, gray foxes do well with a mixture of forest and old fields bordered by brushy edges. That perfectly describes the setting beyond our yard–and in much of northern New England, where farmland has reverted to forest.
The gray fox’s curved, semi-retractable claws and flexible front legs may also give the animal a literal leg up over its 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 shares 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 Fish and Game departments from people concerned about spotting the normally secretive foxes, said Orff. “June is the fox month.”
June may be “fox month” for wildlife officers, but all traces of my neighborhood gray foxes have disappeared: without tracks pressed into snow, I don’t know much about their wanderings.
Some of the game camera images from late in the winter show two foxes together. Perhaps that means there is a den nearby, and gray fox pups will soon be out with their parents learning to hunt. I hope that next winter, I’ll find more fox tracks around the old apple tree.
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer. She lives in Franconia, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. 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