A fox in the headlights

A fox in the headlights

One night long ago I was driving along a dark road in Woodstock when my headlights caught a fox along the side of the road. For a moment it stood frozen in the light, then turned and jumped over a stone wall back into the dark woods. My mind quickly ticked through the options for what I was seeing. It clearly was the size and shape of a fox, but it was missing the typical red color of the foxes I had seen before. And, then I realized I had gotten a glimpse of the elusive gray fox.

When we consider a fox most of us automatically think of the red fox with its handsome reddish coat, black legs and ears and long bushy tail. The red fox is active most any time of the day and is the species we usually see running across a field or sneaking about the backyard.

The gray fox has many of the characteristics of its showy relative but prefers to hunt at night and is therefore seen less frequently. Despite their similarities they are different species in different genuses, with gray foxes in the genus Urocyon and red foxes in the genus Volpes.

The gray fox doesn’t wander too far from its forest territory and prefers deciduous woodland thickets and swamps. The red fox prefers a mixture of forests and open fields and “transition” zones of edge habitat between field and forest for both denning and hunting. The red fox is also comfortable in suburban and urban areas whereas the gray fox is primarily a forest dweller, another reason we see the red fox more frequently.

The gray fox is slightly smaller than the red fox and its snout is not as long. The length of the adult gray fox is between 30 to 44 inches (including the tail) with both sexes about equal in size. Red fox adults are 30 to 54 inches long (including the tail) with the males slightly heavier and larger than the females.

Along with being smaller in size, the general differences in appearance are that the gray fox does not have black on its feet and usually has a dark stripe running the length of its tail.

Here are some facts about the gray and red fox provided by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Wildlife Division.

  • Both foxes have pointed ears and an elongated snout. The gray fox’s snout is shorter and more cat-like in appearance than the red fox. They both carry their long, bushy tail horizontally. The gray fox is somewhat stout and has shorter legs than the red fox. Its coat is mostly grizzled-gray.
  • Confusion can arise when trying to distinguish from the reddish-brown color a gray fox has on its neck, back of its ears, a band across the chest, back surfaces of the legs and feet, sides of the belly and the under surface of the tail. Its cheeks, throat, and most of the underside are white. The upper part of the tail, including the tip, is black.
  • Breed season for both foxes is from January through March, although the gray fox tends to breed two to four weeks later than the red fox. After a gestation period of 51 – 53 days the female fox gives birth to a litter averaging four or five pups.
  • The gray fox usually dens in dense brush, cavities in stumps and trees, rock crevices or under out-buildings such as barns and sheds. Red foxes will often improve on an abandoned woodchuck burrow or dig their own. They too will find a home in a crawl space. Foxes like to have more than one den to call home and will move their young if they are disturbed or threatened. The pups won’t emerge from the den until they are about four to five weeks of age, after which they begin to play outside the den entrance.
  • Both male and female foxes care for the pups, sharing the duties of bringing food and guarding the den. The pups are weaned at about 12 weeks and begin joining the adults on the hunt. By the fall, the young are on their own and will usually breed during that next spring.

The gray fox has one skill the red fox does not. It can climb trees and even jump from tree to tree. It has retractable hooked claws that allow it to scramble up a tree to escape predators such as dogs and coyotes as well as to reach food sources located in trees.

Both red and gray fox are omnivores with a varied palate and will dine on a variety of food sources such as mice, voles, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. They will also eat fruit, corn, nuts, insects, birds, eggs, amphibians, reptiles and carrion. Red foxes have been known to store excess food by covering it with soil, grass, leaves or snow and urinating to mark the location.

The vocalizations of foxes are what you may expect from a canine with various barks, howls and whines. They also make a short “yap” sound and a combination of screeches and long howls. One of the more startling sounds is their raspy single syllable scream or bark.

So, have you ever seen a gray fox? I have, and it was an experience I hope to have again soon. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Our region provides diverse habitats for many interesting animals, including the fascinating and beautiful gray and red fox. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy and pass on this place we (and creatures great and small) call home.

Information for this column was gleaned from the CT DEEP Wildlife Fact Sheet on the gray fox and the red fox as well as other online guides.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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