A fox is often associated with being cunning or sly, perhaps a trickster. Sometimes they are also thought of as being swift and adaptable. Foxes are members of the Family Canidae which also includes coyotes, wolves and dogs. Foxes are found throughout much of North America. There are two species found in this area the red fox, Vulpes (Latin for fox) vulpes, and the gray fox, Urocyon (Greek for “tailed dog”) cineroargenteus (Latin for “silver” or “gray”).
The gray fox is native to Connecticut and they appear to be more catlike than other species in their family. They are the only member of the dog family that can climb trees. Their semi-retractable claws aid them in climbing in their attempt to hunt prey or escape enemies. They can also rotate their forearms and grasp a tree while pushing up with their hind feet. By either jumping or by backing down like a cat or bear they can get down from trees.
Gray foxes are somewhat stouter and have shorter legs than red foxes. They do not usually den underground preferring to den in dense brush, cavities in stumps and trees, rock crevices or under buildings. Gray foxes inhabit more dense deciduous forests.
Red foxes dig dens, enlarge woodchuck holes and will often den under decks and sheds. Red fox dens may have tunnel systems 25 ft. long. Since they are so adaptable foxes are common in urban and suburban areas where they take advantage of human food sources. The red fox in CT is a hybrid. The European red fox was introduced in the 1750s and bred with the native red fox. Red foxes hunt at dawn and dusk and can be seen throughout the day therefore they tend to be more commonly observed. They are also active all year and do not hibernate. Gray foxes are more shy and secretive and are nocturnal hunters. Foxes have great eyesight and are very fast. They can run up to 45 mph. Foxes, like cats, have vertically slit pupils that helps the eye to regulate light and focus sharply.
Except during breeding season foxes are generally solitary. Many foxes are monogamous, meaning they mate for life or a breeding season. Both parents, the female “vixen” and the male “dog”, “reynard” or “tod”, will care for the young that are born March/April. They have a litter size of 1-11 with an average of 4-5. Litters are sometimes divided between dens to avoid predators. Foxes are born blind and open their eyes after about 9 -12 days. The young, called pups, kits or cubs, are threatened by small carnivores and birds of prey – hawks, owls and eagles so they remain close to their den for about 12 weeks. During this time they play with their littermates and learn basic survival techniques from their parents. A group of foxes is called a “skulk”, “leash”, “pack” or “earth”. The pouncing technique to capture prey is learned at an early age. After this they join their parents for outside hunting forays. By early fall they leave to begin their adult lives and they often breed the first winter.
At birth red foxes are gray or brown and by end of first month their coat is reddish, but you may see color variations – golden, reddish-brown, silver or even black. Red foxes have black legs and ears, white underside and a long white-tipped tail. The white tip on the tail seems to be the best way to differentiate between the red and gray fox. The gray fox has a gray coat with whitish belly, throat and chest. It has rusty red fur on its ears and around its neck. The gray fox has a shorter muzzle and ears and a black tip on its tail. Both, unlike the coyote, run with their tail held horizontally. Their long bushy tail helps keep it warm by wrapping it around their body.
Gray foxes are seasonally omnivorous: winter diet – small mammals, mostly cottontails and rodents; summer diet – birds, reptiles, amphibians and the eggs of these and insects, mainly crickets and grasshopper; fall – acorns, apples, grapes and corn.
Foxes are territorial and stay in an area as long as food is available. Coyotes will not tolerate foxes in their territory and are one of their predators along with bears, wolves and humans who hunt and trap foxes for their pelts.
Foxes are vocal animals and each individual has its own unique voice. They communicate to their relative with various barks, howls and whines. They do not vocalize as a group as coyotes do. They will urinate on trees and posts to announce their presence and have scent/musk glands on their muzzle and tail to communicate their individual identity. They will also use their tail as a signal flag to other foxes when danger is lurking.
Healthy foxes pose virtually no danger to humans and we can coexist without any problem. People should be aware that any animal appearing sick or acting abnormally should be avoided. Foxes can carry the organisms that are responsible for mange, rabies and distemper. They will also prey on small livestock and small cats and dogs.
How you can help.
1. Be a responsible pet owner by having your pet vaccinated and not allowing them to run free off your property. Keep cats indoors and dogs on leash, even on your property, at night.
2. Never leave food for animals outdoors.
3. Protect your livestock with secure housing and fences.
4. Close off spaces under decks and sheds so they do not den there. Use unnatural odors to keep them away.
5. If they are in your area use loud noises to frighten them away.
6. Become better educated about wildlife in your area and observe only from a safe distance.
If there is a legitimate problem contact your local animal control officer or police department. DEEP can also be contacted to learn more or report a problem.
Wildlife Fact Sheets Red Fox & Gray Fox
Just for Kids: Sly As A Fox
Animal Diversity Web