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Red and Gray Foxes

Red and Gray Foxes

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

A red fox and cubs. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A young pup gray fox. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Sleek body, red fur, black legs, and white tipped tail are typical for the red fox. The gray fox shows greater variation with an overall gray coloration having tints of a red and black hair mix. Visit the Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive north of M-46 and follow the Ranger Trail to the Red Pine Interpretive Center to see one of the most beautiful gray fox mounts I have seen. Explore the learning stations to see hundreds of animal mounts. Harold Moody prepared a large portion of the “live mounts.”

Red foxes are small animals weighing 8 to 15 lbs. Gray fox are slightly lighter but appear to be the same size. Fur fluff gives foxes a larger appearance. 

A young pup gray fox. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Both red and gray foxes are found in the region, as are coyotes. Domestic dogs sometimes roam our region. Foxes try to stay hidden and one of the best clues to their presence are tracks about the size of a cat’s. The main difference for a cat track is the lack of claw marks. Cats retract the nails when walking. Fox claw marks are evident except on hard surfaces. They can be difficult to separate from coyote tracks and are basically impossible to separate between the two foxes. Coyotes’ two front nails might be closer together and the footprint might appear more oval. I think fox tracks are more rounded like a cat’s. This is a precarious judgement call and is best used in conjunction with other identifying characteristics. 

The gate and position of the tracks helps with identification. Coyotes are larger and have greater distance between tracks when walking. Foxes walk with footprints more closely spaced from side to side creating a straighter line. It is not a perfect straight line but it helps separate coyote from fox tracks. When walking your dog, notice the side to side distance between footprints. 

I sex the foxes by following tracks until they urinate. Like domestic dogs, females squat and urinate between their tracks. Males lift a leg and pee on objects. 

Nature niche habitat provides some identification aid but must be used with caution. Open farm country with scattered woodlots is utilized more frequently by red foxes and they are the ones I see most frequently. Gray foxes spend more time in forests and are the only member of the dog family able to climb trees. They often sleep in trees and are most likely found on branches near the tree trunk. They blend well with bark color. 

One of the most interesting features a red fox possesses are scent glands by the anus. One is above and two are to the side of the anus. They release a scent by rubbing the gland against objects. Recently one left its distinctive gland odor at the field/forest border at Ody Brook. Fox odor has a skunky smell but it is different from a skunk’s in that it is weaker and does not permeate the entire area. The scent remains in a confined space that we can walk into and out of quickly. When my nose picks up the scent, I quickly walk out of it. I stop and walk back through it where in a matter of feet I walk out of it again. 

At night I smelled a skunk near our bird feeders and the smell permeated the entire area. When I was walking our dog in the field, we came upon the fox odor and Kyyo became extremely interested in the animal. He investigated with great intent. When we entered the skunk smell, he showed moderate interest. 

This is the time of year when mating occurs and young will be born in dens in about two months after mating. In late March to May birthing occurs for a few to 10 young. Fox kit survival depends on food abundance. When the litter is large, the chances of starvation increase. When young eyes open and their activity increases so does behavior dominance. The larger kits will get most of the food and smaller ones will not grow well. As size increases, the smaller ones will be more likely to die if food is not adequate for all. 

Old woodchuck dens are often used. The fox will excavate it to widen the entrance and lengthen it to about ten feet. Sometimes they dig a den and they are often under a fallen tree. Watching from a distance is great fun. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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