Gray fox are widely distributed in the United States. This fox prefers brushy or forested habitats and is unique in that it is a skilled tree climber. Gray foxes have small ranges and commonly take advantage of whatever type of food is available at the time. Gray foxes are often more aggressive than red foxes, and an abundance of gray foxes will prevent an abundance of red foxes in the same habitat.
The gray fox is often confused with the red fox because the gray has rusty-red fur on its ears, ruffs, and neck. Overall coloration is gray, and the darkest color extends in a suggested stripe along the top of the back down to the end of the tail. The belly, throat, and chest areas are whitish in color.
Gray foxes appear smaller than red foxes. The shorter leg length and stockier body are deceptive. Many gray foxes weigh about the same as red foxes in the same habitat types. Males and females both weigh 8 to 11 pounds, on average. Weights are often about 8 pounds in southern states and nearer 11 in northern states. Compared to red foxes, grays have shorter muzzles and shorter ears, which are usually held erect and pointed forward. Many grays stand about 15 inches tall at the shoulders, and overall lengths are around 40-44 inches, including a tail of 12-15 inches.
The claws on a gray fox are strong. They are not retractable. Gray foxes have dark eyes with elliptical pupils. They have 42 teeth, including four canine teeth. Both male and female gray foxes have a scent gland under the skin on the top of the tail.
Gray foxes are thought to mate for life. The breeding season extends from January to May, with peak periods around the first of March. Gestation varies from 51 to 63 days.
Most gray foxes breed and raise litters during their first year of life. There is one annual litter, and three or four pups is a common litter size. Male gray foxes bring food to the denned-up females and assist in teaching the pups to hunt.
Gray foxes are seldom seen because they are normally active only during the night and because of the brushy habitat they frequent.
Grays are very territorial. These home ranges are usually one square mile or even less. Because gray foxes might spend years or even their entire life in this small range, they soon learn their ranges very well. Traveling habits are erratic, as the gray fox seems to wander within its territory seeking food. This species will eat a variety of foods, including whatever is available at the time. If food is abundant, gray foxes will become fatter and heavier than usual.
The tree-climbing ability of gray foxes is unique. Grays can climb trees that are straight up; they do not require leaning trees to climb. These foxes will climb trees at times to escape predators, and they also climb because they just seem to like to. At times, gray foxes will climb trees to take a nap in a sunny location, and they have been known to hide or sleep in hawk and owl nests. Rarely, gray foxes will also raise their litters 20 or more feet above ground in a hollow tree. Gray foxes climb trees headfirst, and they have the ability to descend a tree either tail first or headfirst.
Gray foxes use dens more frequently than red foxes. These dens are usually underground cavities, and the same dens are often used year after year. Dens seem to be used more frequently by gray foxes in northern locations. Cold weather and deep snow hamper gray foxes; a likely explanation is that the dens provide more warmth for the northern grays.
Weight: 10 pounds
Length: 42 inches, including the tail
Mating season peaks in March
Gestation: 51-63 days
Litter size: 3-4 pups
Can climb vertical trees
Considered old at 12 years
Dispersal distances of young gray foxes are small. Most young grays relocate and select new home ranges within a mile of their birthplace. For that reason, high densities of gray foxes can sometimes be found in suitable habitats.
Although gray foxes have a keen sense of smell, they seldom track prey species. The preferred method of hunting is to wander this way and that until a victim is heard or smelled. The gray fox will often stalk and pounce upon the prey. Meat items frequently eaten by gray foxes include rabbits, mice, squirrels, rats, and insects. Game birds are frequently eaten, including quail, turkeys, and ruffed grouse. Nesting adults are frequently killed, and all ground nests are vulnerable within the territory of a gray fox. Grays will eat carrion and vegetation, including virtually all fruits, nuts, and berries.
Gray foxes are present in all states except the northern and western mountain states. Their ranges has been expanding for a number of years.
Gray foxes contribute to the overall health of prey species by keeping the prey species controlled. They are usually very beneficial to man because of their preference for wild foods. The number of rodents eaten outweigh a very rare visit to a farmyard where a chicken might be vulnerable. In southern states, good numbers of cotton rats are eaten. These rats do prey upon quail nests, so the net effect might be that the grey foxes also serve the quail in spite of the fact that they also eat quail and rob nests, as well.
Gray foxes are able to resist mange. A more important disease of grays is distemper, which is oftentimes fatal. This disease can decimate gray fox populations whenever there is opportunity for contact between individual animals. Gray foxes are also susceptible to parvo enteritis, rabies, roundworms, tapeworms, lice, and mites.
Some of the worst enemies of gray foxes are dogs. Significant numbers of grays, particularly juveniles, are killed by dogs before they escape to a hole or are able to climb a tree for safety. Mountain lions kill grays, as do golden eagles. Coyotes are also serious predators whenever the two species share the same habitat.
Gray foxes are considered old at 12 years of age.