They run, they bark, they prowl, they jump, they pounce, and one of them climbs trees. Northeastern North America is home to two, the red and the gray, both native, both common, both widespread. Given their near ubiquity, it seems peculiar that most of us see little of our handsome, wily native foxes.
One night recently I switched on the floodlights that illuminate our woodshed. What followed was open-air theater. One moment the stage was dark. The next a handsome gray and brown animal looking like some sort of delicate breed of dog stood gazing at me head-on.
This dog (for foxes are dogs, members of the mammal family Canidae) was a fox, and this fox was a gray. I knew because it had a four-colored face: salt-and-pepper gray on the forehead and cheeks, rusty brown ears edged in white, a white chin, and black marks on the muzzle. The sight of the animal gave me a thrill. Most of the foxes I've seen over the years have been reds.
I can number my gray sightings without using up my fingers, and I'm not sure why. My first inclination is to propose that grays are more strictly night-active then reds, but then, in broad daylight I once had the pleasure of watching a healthy gray fox stroll around the ranger compound at Fort Caroline National Monument in Florida, and when I visited a gray fox den that had been reported to me by a neighbor in New York, it was midday and one of the adult grays was just coming home from a hunt.
A typical red fox (I say "typical" because there are color morphs that look very different) is rusty red nearly all over, with white on the tip of the tail, a white throat, and black lower legs and feet. The tail tip is a good quick feature to look for. If the tail tip is white, it's a red fox. If black, it's a gray.
If I see red foxes, it's usually in spring or early summer, when the young are starting to make forays from the den and the parents have their paws full trying to keep them from trouble. Neighbors of ours have had red foxes raise young under their barn two years running. Four to seven pups or "kits" are usually born or "whelped." The pups' rumbles and chasing games provide our neighbors with much entertainment.
Red and gray foxes have a good deal in common, but there's one thing the gray can do that the red can't: climb trees. It's a rare thing for a dog. Indeed, our gray fox is the world's only canid known to run and shinny up trunks in search of prey or safety.
In winter, fox tracks are common sights in the snow. They tend to occur in straight lines, the hind and fore feet creating a sort of connect-the-dots drawing. You can often tell red and gray fox tracks apart without trouble. Reds grow extra fur on their feet in winter, so their prints tend to be fuzzy, the four pads on each foot and the claws sometimes barely making impressions. The gray fox has a less woolly foot. Its prints tend to be clear.
Ed Kanze owns and operates The Adirondack Naturalist Company, offering full and half-day excursions into the Adirondack Mountain wilderness. He is a licensed naturalist and lives with his family in the Adirondacks. His column runs weekly in Saratoga Wire
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