The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Outdoors

February 9, 2013

Red and gray foxes are very elusive

CAMERON — Last week I described the wary nature of the wily coyote.  I hear coyotes often, but very seldom see them. The same can be said of red and gray foxes, though they are even more elusive. I never hear them, and only occasionally do I see a red fox trotting along the edge of the woods. Sightings of gray foxes are even rarer, and the views are invariably ghost-like — here one moment, and then gone.

If you’re lucky enough to see a fox, it’s easy to distinguish the two species. Both weigh in at 7 to 11 pounds, but reds usually look bigger because of their thick luxurious fur. The rusty pelage contrasts sharply with a white-tipped tail and black stockings (legs and feet). Gray foxes have a black-tipped tail, gray back, and cinnamon sides.

Each spring a reader or two sends me photos of red fox pups playing outside a den visible from their back porch. When pups first leave the den, they often spend several days playing just outside the entrance. Red foxes sometimes truly qualify as backyard wildlife, and maybe some day I’ll be able to write about such an experience.

Gray foxes, on the other hand, are more elusive. They seem to appear and then vanish right before my eyes. Unlike red foxes, which prefer open fields and forest edges, grays prefer the cover of the forest. In fact, they are so well adapted to forest life that they readily climb trees. Their sharp, curved claws permit them to grip tree trunks and climb to branches where they easily raid bird nests in the spring. On warm summer days, they often lounge lazily on large horizontal branches.

The natural history of red and gray foxes reflects their canine ancestry. Like all canids, foxes are opportunistic carnivores, but they’ll eat just about anything when food is scarce. And like most members of the dog family, foxes store surplus food in shallow holes they cover with leaves and dirt. They mark these caches with urine and return later when hungry.

The bulk of a fox’s diet consists of rabbits, mice, rats, and other small mammals. In spring and summer they supplement this basic diet with birds, eggs, insects, frogs, and snakes. In the fall they eat fruits such as grapes, cherries, and persimmons. And in winter they’ll even eat carrion and garbage.

Foxes have few natural predators. Coyotes and great horned owls can kill adult foxes, but speeding cars and trucks are their greatest enemies. And when fur prices spike, hunters and trappers in many places can take as many as they want. A quick survey of wildlife agency websites in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan revealed that these states have no bag limits on foxes.

Since 1986, pelt prices peaked at more than $29 for red foxes and more than $43 for grays. On the other hand, pelt prices have some years dipped below $10.

The breeding biology of red and gray foxes is a study in monogamy. Males and females mate for life, though they go their separate ways each fall and reunite each winter.

Foxes mate once each year between late January and mid-March. A red fox pregnancy lasts about 50 days, a gray fox’s 50 to 60 days. Between late March and early May, four to six pups are born.

The male is a good provider for both the pups and his mate. He brings food to the den while the pups are too small for the female to leave them alone. The pups grow rapidly and venture forth from the den when four or five weeks old. Both parents then teach the pups to hunt.

The female weans the pups at about eight weeks. In late autumn the family breaks up, and each member goes its own way until pairs form in January. Young foxes can breed their first winter.

Winter is a good time to watch for foxes because they are more easily seen against a snowy landscape. It still requires keen eyes, but seeing a fox means it’s been a good day a field.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV  26033, or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.com

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