Gray Fox at Greyledge, Phippsburg
Our dog definitely has spring fever. He has been rousting us out of bed between three and five in the morning. He yips, bellows and yodels until we have no choice but to let him out, fearing that maybe, just maybe, he's fussing about some other need. Once out, he doesn't tend to any business besides racing around the yard, nose hard to ground and singularly spring crazed.
Another early sign of spring is the calls of breeding foxes. They have a hard, sharp yap that cuts through the deep spruce woods at night. Our dog has been announcing this in the wee hours. A few nights ago, at the dog's insistence husband got out of bed then turned on the exterior lights to see what was going on. My husband has a thing about motion acitivated perimeter lights on our house. He loves to have the place fully illuminated. He's not paranoid about robbery or anything; he just loves lights. Like giving our property the name of "Greyledge," to him the lights give our little dump a satisfying palatial feel. Our house is festooned with banks of lights to rival a night football game, and he keeps adding more! He and I are usually esthetically simpatico, except about the lights. "For God's sake! This place is lit up like a penitentiary yard!" I crab. The only time I am okay with the glaring lights, is when there actually is something in the yard.
The criminal in the yard of "The Big House" recently was a gray fox, at least that's what my husband said it was. I didn't see it because I was in bed wishing the lights would go out and the dog would shut up. My sleepy brain thought he said "gay" fox which lead to all sorts of bizarre dreams. My husband is not a wildlife guy and I've never seen a Gray fox here, so when I woke up, I figured it was a small 'g' gray fox that was yapping and snuffling bird seed out of the snow. Over the next few days, I saw tracks around the house and other spots where some fox had been grubbing seed out of the deep freeze. Foxes start breeding between the end of January and the end of March. At this time of year, to hear them mate calling in the night is common.
Recently, at two in the afternoon, my neighbor called. "Quick! There's a fox coming up the road to your house!" I would not have looked a wildlife gift horse in the mouth and asked what kind of fox it was, even if the question had occurred to me. I'm immensely grateful for the scouts I have out there who alert me in a timely way! Out the door I ran, still in my bathrobe, natch. Actually, I snuck out the door, so as not to frighten off whatever was coming.
I crept around the back of my car, being very careful not to make a sound and praying for my dog to keep his big mouth shut. I heard the fox call twice, closer each time. The fox's second yap was so close and loud that I thought, "I hope it's not rabid, because it's going to jump into my lap." I really hate it when foxes jump into my lap when I'm wearing my good bathrobe! I saw the fox just as it came around the stone sign at the end of our drive that says "Greyledge." Through the camera's viewfinder, I saw immediately that it was a gorgeous, Gray fox, no lights required.
Grey foxes are not common in Maine. Their range is throughout the southern half of North America and some parts of southern Canada to northern Venezuela and Columbia. To photograph one that hasn't been lured by calling (I swear, I didn't) or by trapping is unusual. They aren't seen as often as Red foxes because they are more reclusive and nocturnal in their habits. Gray foxes tend to be active from the late evening until dawn. There is evidence that they are on the increase in southern and western Maine, though. The Department of Fish and Wildlife pelt tagging records from 1998-2004 more than doubled for Gray foxes. Gray foxes were once the most common fox in the east. Human advancement allowed the Red fox to become more dominant, though Gray foxes remain dominant in the Pacific states.
Grey foxes and the closely related Californian Island foxes , an endangered species, are the only two living members the Urocyon genus, the most primitive of the living dogs, or canids. Remarkable among other types of dogs, the Gray fox is one of only two dogs that climb trees (the Asian Raccoon dog is the other)!
A close cousin, Red foxes are slightly larger than Grays which run a pound lighter than Reds in the range of 7-13 pounds. Gray foxes look bigger though, because they are stockier. An excellent climber, its body proportions make sense. Its relatively short legs lower its center of gravity, and its forelegs have greater rotational ability than that of any other member of the dog family. It can reach around tree trunks or limbs while the long, curved claws of its hind feet enable it to grasp and push. They readily climb trees and jump from branch to branch while hunting arboreal food sources or escaping predators. The Gray fox descends by jumping or descending down the tree trunk backwards as cats do.
Red foxes and Gray foxes have similar vocalizations; the Red fox barks more, but the Gray fox barks louder. They both have a sharp, slightly rasping voice that my husband, "The King Of Light," thinks sounds like a seagull. Obviously, the Gray fox has a grizzled, gray peltage. A quick way to tell the difference between the two in the field is the stockings. Red foxes have pronounced black stockings which Gray foxes do not. Millenniums ago they gave that up after they kept destroying their stockings on tree bark.
In addition to its mostly gray fur, the Gray fox has a black stripe down its back from the neck to tail-tip, which is dark unlike the white tip of the Red fox's tail. Its feet are rust colored whereas those of the Red fox are black. The cheeks, throat, inner ears and most of the underside are white. Gray foxes have a shorter, rounder snout that looks more cat-like than the Red fox. Though the two species have overlapping ranges, they do not interbreed.
A possible explanation for the apparent increase in Gray fox populations is regrowth of forests. This fox is more a denizen of woodland and swamp, while the Red fox is more at home in open fields and edges. Gray foxes eat more eggs and birds than Reds do, but their highly developed tree climbing skills probably have more to do with escaping predators like domestic dogs and coyotes.
More omnivorous than other foxes, the Gray fox eats carrion, insects, birds, turtles and their eggs, and invertebrates. They eat more vegetable material than other foxes which includes fruits, berries, and nuts. They do eat cats, though rabbits and rodents are their favorites. Our Black spruce woods host thundering herds of Red squirrels and chipmunks which may account for why this Gray fox is in our yard. Though the Eastern Cottontail is the Gray foxes preferred food, the rabbit's scarcity in Maine may not support an increase in Gray fox numbers here. Foxes travel the same hunting routes, so it's likely that this fox will be back.
Another reason this Gray fox may like it here is that there are lots of den sites. Unlike Red foxes which dig dens into the ground, Gray foxes den in dense brush, cavities in stumps and trees, rock crevices or under out-buildings such as barns and sheds. We have big, piles of fallen spruce which have succumbed to wind and age, lots of rocky ledges and certainly some attractive out buildings. However, Gray foxes have not urbanized like Red foxes.
The gestation for foxes is about 50 days. The half dozen or so kits that will be born start playing outside the den a week later. They'll be out hunting on their own in another four months, so I'll be looking for more Grays around September. If they make it through the next winter, they'll start breeding their first spring.
Gray foxes aren't rare in the United States in general, but for some reason they have been intensively persecuted. Healthy foxes pose no danger to humans, but there is a perception of danger (see this link for a recent newspaper article about a woman bitten by a fox in Maine: http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/rabid-gray-fox-injures-woman-in-garden_2010-06-17.html). Gray foxes are especially susceptible to mange and distemper and can carry rabies. Between 1979 and 1980 at least 370,000 foxes were killed in the United States, many on the pretext that they constituted a threat to farm animals. In Virginia, removal of Gray foxes from a turkey farm was followed by an explosion of weasels (now there's a visual!) resulting in more turkeys lost than ever before! After the Gray foxes were reintroduced, the weasel numbers dropped.
Unlike other foxes, Gray foxes are not a valuable fur bearer. They have thin, coarse fur, unlike that of the more desirable Red fox which has a silky, dense coat. Nonetheless, during the six-years between 1998 and 2004 when the pelt tag numbers for Gray foxes doubled in Maine, the pelt price rose from an average price of $7-$14 per pelt to $10-$14. Considering the skill and time required to trap a fox, process the catch, then get the pelt to a fur dealer, it appears that either the trapper receives a very low wage, the gray fox pelt has very little value, or both. Even with the substantial increase in the average price offered for a Gray fox pelt, we in Maine lose ecologically on every pelt tagged. In neighboring Quebec, The Gray fox is listed as a threatened species, so to kill a Gray fox is illegal. We ought to consider taking the lead of our neighbors to the north and ban Gray fox killing in Maine.
Before caller Id, when telemarketers called, my husband always answered the phone with a cheerful "Greyledge!" Telemarketers would usually hang up, thinking they had connected with a business. But sometimes, they would continue,. "May I speak with the decision maker in the household?" My husband loved to mess with them and this inquiry left them wide open. "He's my gay lover and he's in Europe for six months, " he'd say. They always hung up, but we could just image them thinking "Damn, I should have known!. He said gay - ledge!" Call it "Gray" or "gay," killing Gray foxes should be a hate crime.