A Tree Climbing Fox

September 14, 9 am.

This week I am focusing on the Common Gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. We were able to capture one on our video cam recorder and I had the good luck of having a young one visit our land and got one photo of it with my phone. The other photos are from Wikipedia! This mostly nocturnal, or at least twilight loving canid can be hard to see but is fairly common where there is tree cover. There is a very good reason for this which I will get into shortly. There are only two species of this genus in California, the other species, which is the Island Gray fox, Urocyon littoralis, is only found on the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara. The Gray fox can weigh up to 13 pounds and be 44 inches long from tail to head

The only other fox we have in Mendocino County that can get confused with the Gray fox is the Red fox, Vulpes vulpes. The Red fox is slightly larger with a white tip on its tail which the Gray fox does not have, it has a black stripe and a black tip on its tail. There are other major differences between these two kinds of foxes beginning with the habitat preferences, though these can overlap at times. The Red fox is a fox of grasslands, agricultural areas, and more wide-open fields, whereas the Gray fox prefers foraging in wooded areas rather than in open environments. This is because the Gray fox has a neat trick that separates it from other canids or dogs, it has curved claws that allow it to climb straight up trees! It is the only dog that feels comfortable in a tree and may choose to sleep or even den in a tree cavity. My research found that Gray fox dens have been discovered as high as 20 to 30 feet above the ground.

Another difference between a Red fox and a Gray is that the Red foxes are more likely to eat chickens. Gray foxes prefer hunting rodents, especially woodrats, which is what our video shows, though they hunt a variety of small mammals, such as rabbits and will eat birds, as well as large amounts of insects like grasshoppers and crickets. They are more omnivorous than the Red fox, eating a lot of fruit and berries. This time of the year fox scat has blackberries in it, whereas earlier in the year the scat consisted of mostly manzanita berries. They also love apples, persimmons, and nuts. We may have Red foxes on the mitigation lands but have not yet seen one. They have been seen and photographed along the Russian river in Ukiah. 

The Gray fox has a small bark like a dog and the one that has been at my house has even barked at me. Mating occurs in January or February, then after about 53 days, one to seven young are born. The male feeds the female while she takes care of the blind and mostly hairless pups for at least 1 to 2 months before they venture out of the den. They disperse at 5 months old to hunt on their own.

These foxes were luckier than the other species of fox in North America, in terms of the fur industry, because their fur is not soft but stiff and wiry. It was not valued for coats or clothing, plus they stayed out of farmers ire by not eating or hunting domestic animals and keeping rodents at bay. When I think about our valley, with its riparian corridors of oaks, cottonwoods, ash, willows, and alder trees, I see a good a habitat for the spry Gray fox. The abundant rodents, lagomorphs (rabbits), grasshoppers, berries, and other fruits out here are also a good indicator that we have a wonderful environment for the Gray fox to live in.