Cat or Dog? The gray fox is a member of the dog family, Canidae, like red fox, coyotes and wolves. But it behaves more like a member of the cat family with its unusual and useful tree climbing skill to escape predators, find safe resting spots and obtain food. They have been observed 32 feet high! Extremely sharp, curved, semi-retractable claws and short, powerful legs make them well-adapted. Once in a tree, they can jump from branch to branch, and are so agile, they can descend head or tail first. Hence, they are also known as the tree fox.
Similar to a red fox in shape, gray fox are gray (surprise!) with a distinct, black back stripe. They are about 35-40 inches long, with about 1/3 of that length being a long, bushy, black-tipped tail. They stand about 12 inches at the shoulder and weigh 8-14 pounds. The backs of their ears, sides of their neck, underfur, legs, and feet are a yellowish buff. The dog-fox, or male, is slightly larger than the vixen, or female. On the rare occasion you hear a gray fox “talking”, you may be treated to a bark, growl, snarl, squeal or harsh-sounding screech that is very identifiable.
Brushy, Forested Homes This unique creature is distributed in suitable habitat from southern Ontario and Quebec, through the United States except for the Washington, Idaho and Montana area, and down Central America into Venezuela and Columbia. Compared to red fox which have a more northern distribution, gray fox avoid open habitats and have more difficulty navigating deep snow. Their northern range edge is likely limited by climate, especially harsh winters.
In Minnesota, suitable gray fox habitat entails deciduous forests, woodlands and brushy habitats. They are most common in the transition forest from the southeast to the northwest, and into the southern area of our northeast boreal forest. Special habitat features that benefit them as cover, especially for den use, include fallen logs, woody debris and piles, standing snags, hollow trees, rocky outcrops, burrows dug by other animals, or soil suitable for burrowing.
For Better or Worse Gray fox choose life-long mates. Size of their home range, which can be up to four square miles, depends on habitat quantity and quality, season of the year, geography, and whether they are a dog-fox or vixen. Their scent glands and urine are used to mark the portion they actually protect, known as their territory. Mating occurs in late winter, likely peaking in February in Minnesota. After about 53 days, an average of four pups, also called kits or cubs, are born in a den in April or May. They are raised by both the dog-fox and vixen, particularly playful and taught to hunt at about four months. In late summer or early fall they venture out on their own, becoming mature to breed at 10 months. They typically survive 6-10 years in the wild.
Bedtime Snack As predators, gray fox have keen eyesight and even better senses of smell and hearing. They are primarily nocturnal, hunting at night and alone, but may be active in day or seen basking in the sun. Their vertically oriented pupils allow them to see well at night. By stalking and pouncing, they feast on small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels, and especially cottontail rabbits. Small birds, eggs, carrion, reptiles, amphibians and even newborn fawns, are also eaten. More omnivorous than other canids, they also ingest plants, berries, wild grapes, apples, nuts and insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles. When food is plentiful, they are known to bury and mark it for a later snack.
Critters to Beware The most common predators on gray fox in Minnesota are likely coyotes, wolves and dogs. Coyotes may have an especially negative affect, but when wolves are present to push coyotes out, gray fox may benefit. Others predators include bobcats, great horned owls, and humans. Diseases such as distemper and parvovirus, and parasites such as heartworms, are also causes of death.
Fancy Fur In Minnesota, gray fox are managed with an annual, regulated hunting and trapping season. This year it opens October 15 in the north furbearer zone, and October 22 in the south furbearer zone. Both zones close March 15. No daily, season or possession limits exist. Though the gray fox’s coat is attractively marked, it is coarser and less lavish than the red fox’s. As reported by licensed fur dealers in the 2014-2015 season, Minnesota fur prices for 237 gray fox pelts averaged $14.17, compared to $20.41 for a red fox pelt. To get a sense of the harvest and number of hunters and trappers utilizing gray fox, an estimated 1,186 hunters harvested 816 gray fox in the 2015-2016 season, and an estimated 1,035 trappers harvested 1,902 gray fox in the 2014-2015 season. This compares to 4,150 hunters harvesting 3,780 red fox, and 2,012 trappers harvesting 6,040.
Doing Well Though once threatened in parts of its overall range from over hunting and trapping, gray fox populations are generally stable today, with a conservation status of least concern by the World Conservation Union. In the eastern and southern United States however, there is a sense they are declining. While here at home, they’ve had an upward population trend since about 2000, especially in the northern part of Minnesota. Trappers report they are now more common than red fox in many areas. Minnesota’s forest landowners can help ensure gray fox population remain strong by managing for brushy and forested deciduous habitats that are healthy, have young to old age patches, a diversity of native forbs, shrubs and trees, plenty of prey, adequate denning sites, and clean water sources.
Thank you to John Erb, Minnesota DNR Furbearer Research Biologist, for contributing information and passing along photos for this article.