“I have noticed that many foxes, while crossing the open grassy valleys of central Alaska, carry their bushy tails turned up at an angle of about fifty degrees. Whether this is a possible shield against attack from the air, or a kind of lure to cause a swooping eagle to aim too high, is only a guess. Perhaps it is to keep the gorgeous brush dry and unsoiled.” –-Victor H. Cahalane, Mammals of North America (my grandfather’s old book, published in 1947)
Many people have heard stories about the sly red fox. They silently creep around urban and rural settings, snagging easy food, preying upon smaller mammals, and snagging the occasional berry or seed when available. While many people have seen foxes disappear from their periphery, enough to cause them to wonder whether it was really there or not, or see them along roadsides or in the flash of headlights, foxes rarely stay in one place for any length of time. This not only ensures the likeliness of finding more food due to covering more ground, but also reduces the chances of us humans getting many glimpses of this beautiful animal–an animal humans have hunted and trapped for its fur in all of its range for centuries. In my experience, gray foxes are even more mysterious. They are very uncommon in Maine, where I spent most of my life, and even where they were considered more common than red foxes in the foothills of the Californian Sierra Nevada where I lived for a year, I never saw one. I saw my first gray fox just the other day. But before I go into its identification, let’s start with the more commonly seen of the two foxes.
The Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes: When I lived between the Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges in northwestern Wyoming last year, this particular red fox made an unusual habit of lingering among human dwellings in order to hunt the Uinta ground squirrels that were just emerging from their long winter’s sleep under the snow (see my brief post about that nutty little rodent here). While we knew of no one that had fed this fox, she was remarkably courageous about being around humans in the middle of the day. While she left at least ten feet between herself and anyone else, she offered many opportunities for observation and photography. I loved having her around for the week that she remained nearby.
Notice those tall, pointy ears and the not very red coloring. Red foxes come in many colors (called different color “morphs”); there are gray morphs, silver morphs, black morphs, dark and pale red/orange morphs, and basically any color combination in between. Check out this website to see pictures of many of the different red fox morphs: Colour Genetics of Vulpes vulpes.
The Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus: Just the other morning here in my relatively urban backyard in southwestern New Hampshire, I had yet another amazing opportunity to observe another one of the members of the canid family. As I sat at my desk perusing readings for some classes at about 7:00AM, I noticed a dark movement through the window to my right. I immediately identified this mammal as a fox, but it looked a little “weird”–not like any morph of a red fox I had ever seen. This fox was definitely a fox, but it seemed smaller than the average red fox yet not as skinny as the gray foxes I had seen in pictures (the temperature was in the single digits F, so it was quite puffed up). This fox seemed to have every possible fox color in its coat with a back of a grizzled gray, its chin and chest of white, and its shoulders, legs, and parts of its head were classic red fox orange. The tail ended with a fluff of black and the forehead was topped with a triangle of black. I will admit that I assumed it was just a different color morph of a red fox since I doubted the likeliness of this creature actually being the reclusive gray fox, but I looked up photos of these two species (they are even in different genera!) and realized that, indeed, I had a visit from a gray fox!
“The gray fox is the only fox that is apt to climb trees. It may go up just to look around. When pursued by dogs, it sometimes leaps into the branches bounces from limb to limb and then hides quietly in the thick foliage. If the lowest branch is ten feet above the ground, it may “shin” itself up the trunk like a bear until it can hook a front foot over the first limb. Sometimes it uses a convenient fork just to rest and soak up the sunshine.” –Victor H. Cahalane, Mammals of North America
So, what’s the difference between a gray fox and a red fox, especially if it is a gray morph of a red fox?
The major differences between the visual characteristics of a red fox and a gray fox are as follows: gray foxes can climb trees, so if there is a fox in a tree, you can be sure it is not a red fox. The gray fox’s tail is tipped with black while the red fox typically has a white tipped tail (not always, however). As I noticed, the fur on a gray fox’s back is a grizzled gray with a black line extending from the top of its head down its back. Red foxes rarely display all those characteristics and are generally slightly longer and bigger in every dimension.