Northern Minnesota phenology for February 2014: Gray Fox

By: John Latimer

The warming earth has brought many new animal species to northern Minnesota. Several new species of birds are routinely seen throughout the area. Cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers have taken advantage of the warmer weather to expand their range northward.  Opossums are expanding their territory to include north central Minnesota. More recently in the Itasca County region we have been witnessing the arrival of the gray fox.

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. It was there about an hour. CC-licensed to John McClure
This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. CC-licensed photo by John McClure

The gray fox has been widespread in North America ranging from southern Mexico to the southern reaches of Canada. In the United States they can be found nearly everywhere with the exception of the Great Plains and the mountainous west. In Minnesota they were limited to the hardwood forests of the central and southern portions of the state. Over the past ten years my own observations and those of others have confirmed their presence in the northeastern corner of Minnesota.

The gray fox is a small, rather short-legged canid with mostly gray fur on its back and sides. The neck is reddish from the ear to the shoulder and there is a white streak running from the bottom of the muzzle down between the front legs. Most gray foxes weigh between seven and fifteen pounds so they are generally smaller than the red fox. Both foxes are about three feet long. Nearly a third of the length is made up of a rather handsome tail. Separating the two species can be troublesome since the red fox can be quite gray depending on its genetic background. Perhaps the gray foxes’ most distinguishing feature is the black tip on its tail, contrast this with the red fox and its white tip and identification can quickly be confirmed.

The gray fox is a bit shyer than its cousin the red fox. It prefers the woods and dense underbrush. Its strategy for escape is to dash into thick cover and hide, unlike the red fox that likes to run. It will establish territories away from red fox and avoid areas of farmland whenever possible. Crevices in rocks, hollow logs, and abandoned dens of other burrowing animals are all potential sites to locate a gray fox.

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. It was there about an hour. CC-licensed photo by John McClure
This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. CC-licensed photo by John McClure

One truly astonishing thing about the gray fox is its ability to climb trees. It grasps the tree trunk with its forelimbs in a hugging gesture and then digs in with the long sharp claws on its back feet and scampers up the trunk. Using this technique it can climb nearly any type of tree from a limbless, smooth barked aspen to the furrowed trunk a basswood. One was reported resting on a limb fifteen feet up in a saguaro cactus.  Once among the limbs of a tree it is quite adept at scampering about.

This habit of retreating to the safety of trees rather than running has made it undesirable as a quarry in the English tradition of fox hunting with hounds and horses. It is also of little value as a furbearer since the fur is rather coarse. The gray fox has few natural predators. Bobcats and lynx in this area pose the biggest threats. Coyotes and red fox would attempt to take them but the gray foxes’ ability to climb trees and the ready availability of those trees makes it difficult for these larger canids to capture them. Whenever possible the gray fox avoids the territories of red foxes. Bald eagles and great horned owls might snag a young kit from time to time but for the most part the gray fox is free to wander the forests unmolested.

Gray foxes eat a diet of meat during the winter. Most of the meat comes from cottontail rabbits and small mammals such as voles, mice, and an occasional shrew. As the weather warms their diet expands to include insects, grasshoppers and butterflies seem to comprise most of this. During the summer as much as 70% of their diet may be fruits and nuts. Though they wouldn’t turn away from a meal of poultry a well maintained coop should be enough to discourage them. All things considered these lovely foxes should be welcome immigrants into the north.

 

From the phenology notebook:

February 4, 2012:   This is the first gray fox I have seen this far north. It bolts across the road scales a 15-foot drop to a swamp and disappears on the full run into the tamaracks. The rest of the day I can’t get my mind off the fox but the day is one for the birds. Chickadees are singing their “Fee Bee” song for the first time, and I hear a downy woodpecker drumming to establish territory. There is a rough legged hawk sitting on a power pole along County Road 330. A good friend reports seeing a robin in his crabapple tree, no doubt a bird that has decided to stay the winter up here. I spotted a flock of white winged crossbills among the white spruce at Itasca Community College. Flocks of pine grosbeaks are stealing gravel from the county roads. Back home the raven pair that lives in the tree farm appear to be in their courtship mode, and a northern shrike is trying to capture lunch from the birds coming to the feeders.

 

February 13, 2002:   A Minnesota DNR deer specialist reports that three deer have moved from their winter area back to their summer area. He has 51 deer collared and has lost only one all winter, that one was taken by wolves. Not all deer migrate, but among those that do some travel as far as 25 miles.  Six miles appears to be the average. Typically they move in January and then return to their summer range in March. There isn’t any hard and fast rule for why or where, though they prefer a winter area with overhead cover. It provides protection from snow as well as reduces heat loss. Deer typically travel to the areas that they learned from their mothers. In fact they often return to the 20 acres where they spent the winter or summer the year before. In the winter of 1995-1996 one doe traveled 22 miles in two days bounding through 3 feet of snow the whole way. Bald eagles are returning to the north. Many do not make an effort to migrate, but among those that do most settle along the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities to spend the winter months. Pussy willows are starting to open and the red osier dogwood stems are intensely red.

 

February 26, 1988:   I saw my first skunk of the spring today. I was beginning to think this might be the first February without a sighting. Ruffed grouse are bouncing and swaying among the birch boughs as they dine on this year’s flower buds. Typically they would be eating the flower buds of the aspens but every few years the aspens infuse their buds with some foul tasting chemicals to prevent the grouse from eating them. The birch buds are smaller and not as nourishing so the grouse have to spend more time eating them. That means a longer time to be exposed to their enemies, and that means greater predation. It’s part of the cycle of ups and downs in the overall grouse population. Along the edge of the prairies the horned larks are starting to migrate north. I seldom see them here in the Grand Rapids area but those who live in Brainerd and Bemidji are quite familiar with them.

 

John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work.  John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods.  This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal.  It is printed with the author’s permission.

MyMinnesotaWoods

The University of Minnesota Extension Forestry team.

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2 Comments

  1. John, I have enjoyed listening to your program for a new of years on KAXE. While working with Rick Christensen on the railroad, I understand that you happen to be his carrier (I also deliver the mail on the Lake Vermilion. mail boat route in the summer – Jun thru Aug). The reason I’m contacting you is that we have had a couple of gray foxes coming into our bird/deer feeding stations the past couple of weeks. The only downsides to this is that the flying squirrels have seemed to have gone missing (supper for the foxes?) – what to ypu think? — P.J. Ryan

  2. John,
    Last year, at the Woodland Conference in Bemidji, I agreed to observe natures happenings and submit reports.

    Well, I did not see anything or hear anything and in due course even forgot the place to report what I did see.

    Well, on April 14, last month, driving in rural Aitkin driving past several wild rice paddies, they were full of swans. Small white swans.

    I always considered swans to be solitary birds, so it was a surprise. How many? Maybe 500, 1000, more? Less?

    I have no idea. I regretted not stopping to take a picture.

    Anyway, I thought this might be of interest.

    Brian R