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The Tree Climbing Fox


Wildlife and the Outdoors


The Tree Climbing Fox


By Rick Claybrook, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources


          The gray fox (Urocyon cinereogentus) is a secretive animal inhabiting primarily deciduous forests. It is seldom seen due to its nocturnal nature and preference of staying close to dense protective cover during the daytime.

          The gray fox, a member of the dog family, possesses a unique trait that sets it apart. The gray fox is anatomically adapted to climbing. It has sharp, curved claws that aid this ability. The gray fox has been observed climbing vertically by grasping a tree trunk with its fore feet and pushing upward with the hind feet. The fox also climbs by jumping or scrambling from one tree branch to another. The fox descends from a vertical tree by backing down or simply running head first down a sloping tree.

          There are anatomical differences between the gray and red fox (Vulpes vulpes). The gray fox has shorter legs than the red fox and is not a fast-paced runner, preferring not to run when it can be avoided. When pursued too closely by its enemies, the gray fox will quickly seek refuge in a tree, take to heavy cover or “hole up.” Early European settlers, dissatisfied with the gray fox’s unsporting conduct of climbing a tree or holing up when being hunted with hounds, introduced the European red fox into some New England colonies during the 1700s. The red fox’s crafty ability to outwit foxhounds and hunters alike is legendary. Recent studies have shown that the old world and the new world red foxes are the same species.

          The gray fox is somewhat smaller than its red cousin. The adult gray fox weighs 7 to 15 pounds with the males generally being larger than the females. Gray foxes measure about 45 inches in length from tip of nose to tip of tail and stand about 15 inches in height at the shoulders.

          True to its common name, the pelage, or fur, is a grizzled salt-and-pepper gray on the upper portion of the body. Its prized long, bushy tail has a pronounced black dorsal center stripe ending in a black tip. The throat, chest, belly and the inner sides of the leg are white in color. Portions of the neck, flanks, face and ears are reddish to rufous colored, giving the gray fox an overall distinctive look. Molting is annual from early summer through fall with prime pelage being from late November into February.

          The gray fox is an opportunistic feeder and dines on what is most readily available. Although a skillful predator, it is just as content to fill up on acorns, wild plums, pokeweed berries, or other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Agile climbing abilities greatly help the gray fox to obtain food items that are out of reach of land-loving animals. The fox, as with all canines, has an excellent sense of smell, hearing and eyesight, which help locate prey and detect danger.

          The gray fox ranges across the deciduous forests of the southern United States and northward to Washington State and Southern Canada to Northern Venezuela and Columbia. The fox is active year-round and has a home range that may exceed 10 square miles. Its range varies seasonally depending on food availability, breeding and females with young.

          Gray foxes breed during February and March. During this time the paired male and female stay in close proximity, communicating by barking to one another. Three to six pups are born in the security of a den after about a 53-day gestation period. At birth, the young weigh about 4 ounces and are almost hairless, with eyes sealed shut. Eyes open when they are 10 to 12 days old.

          The young stay close to the den site for the first three months of life, gradually exploring further out into their new world under the supervision of the parents. Parents and young form a close social structured unit as the pups are taught the secrets and skills for surviving in the wild. After the young leave their parents, family members still associate with each other on an infrequent basis.

          Gray foxes have a relatively long life span of 8 to 10 years in the wild. Across its range, the noted enemies of the gray fox are the dog, coyote, bobcat and wolf. The gray fox’s secretive life style, adaptable skills and omnivorous eating habits gives this species a distinctive advantage to cope and survive in its natural world.

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