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Out In the Woods – The Shy Gray Fox Can Climb Trees

Gray fox in a tree

Gray foxes live in our woods, but they’re hard to spot.

Photo: Todd Fitzgerald via iNaturalist

By Kevin McKeon, Director, Mousam Way Land Trust

Recent snowfalls reveal fresh tracks on the new snow, evidence of the many critters busily foraging throughout the forest. Walking along Sanford’s many trails, one may often see what appears to be medium-sized dog tracks that were actually made by a fox.

The red fox is more common in most of the eastern United States, easily identified by their red back, black ears and stockings, and the white tip of the tail. The gray fox is slightly smaller and shorter, with a silver-gray coat and a shorter, more cat-like face.

Unlike the grays, which are averse to human contact, red foxes have successfully adapted to human encroachment into their territories, learning to forage among human-created food wastes, chickens, and small rodents. In rural areas where both red and gray foxes exist, the gray fox is dominant, possibly due to their superior food foraging abilities in the wild, even though the red will usually win combat.

The gray fox has been chasing woodland mice for over 3.5 million years. It is the oldest member of the canid, or dog family, and has a distinctive black stripe along its tail and a more cat-like face. Found in both North and South America, it is sometimes called the “tree fox.” It is one of two canids in the world that can climb trees; the other is the Asian raccoon dog. The gray’s strong, hooked claws are retractable, like a cat’s, and their wrists can supinate (turn inwards), allowing them to scramble up trees to escape dogs or coyotes, or to reach tree-bound food like nuts, berries, fruit, birds and their eggs, and insects. It can climb over 50 feet up a tree trunk, and usually descends by jumping from branch to branch like a squirrel, but also by slowly crawling backwards like a house cat. Gray foxes can also be found foraging along the edge of a field for some of their favorite food, grasshoppers and crickets.

Grays are about three feet long and weigh 9 to12 pounds and are very shy and secretive. Stealthy folks might be lucky to find one napping in the fork of a large tree, where they often forage, or on a big rock, next to their den. The gray fox makes its den in rocky crevices, caves, hollow logs and maybe 30 feet high up a very large tree in a hollow. They’ll sometimes enlarge a woodchuck burrow for a den, too. They use dens only during mating and raising young.

The gray fox mates for life, having one to seven kits a year. Kits begin to hunt with their parents at the age of three months, and have permanent teeth at four months, when they’ll begin foraging on their own. The family stays together until the autumn, at which time the young reach sexual maturity and disperse. It’s at this time that the young are most vulnerable to predation from owls, bobcats and eagles. After becoming more wary, gray foxes will bedevil the mice, rabbit, and insect populations for four to six years, but in captivity they live to be 14 to15 years old.

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