By Caitlin Bell
Imagine you and your family are taking a weekend hike in the Bay Area. You meander around a curve in the trail and come face-to-face with a grayish, dog-like animal. Before you clutch your spaniel to your chest and tell you children to head for the hills, take a closer look – it might not be a coyote – it could be a gray fox.
Range and Identification
Ranging from southern Canada to northern South America, the gray fox was once the most dominant fox species in the U.S., but has recently been replaced in much of its eastern range by the more opportunistic red fox. In California, however, the gray fox is the more common species, and it can be found in woodlands and agricultural areas across the entire state. Gray foxes can be distinguished from coyotes because they are much smaller (gray foxes weigh about 10 lbs. while coyotes can weigh up to 40 lbs.) and have a more pointed, delicate muzzle. In addition, the gray fox lacks the black legs of its closer cousin the red fox.
Behavior and Diet
Besides its tongue-twisting scientific name (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), the gray fox has several unique characteristics. Gray foxes are thought to be the most primitive type of canine in the U.S., and can climb trees to escape predators like coyotes. Gray foxes are omnivorous, and enjoy eating acorns, berries, and insects in addition to small animals like rabbits, squirrels, and mice. Active mostly in the evening and early morning, gray foxes are crepuscular.
Gray foxes are monogamous, meaning that male and female foxes form a partnership that lasts for the length of the breeding season each year. The foxes dig a nest burrow, or use another naturally-occurring hollow, which they line with fur and leaves. The baby foxes, called kits, are born in early spring. Both parents share the responsibility of raising the kits, which remain with their parents for three months while they learn to hunt.
Conservation Status and Relationship with Humans
Unlike the larger coyote, gray foxes do not prey on livestock and are rarely a threat to pets or children. In fact, gray foxes benefit humans because they eat pest animals like squirrels, rabbits, and mice that feed on crops and grain. Because gray foxes are so common in North America, they are classified as a species of least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. However, gray foxes are more sensitive to habitat loss than the more adaptable coyote and red fox, and increasing human development may cause problems for the gray fox in the future.
If you spot a gray fox, observe from a distance and enjoy the encounter! You are lucky to witness this special member of the Bay Area’s ecosystem.
Photo credits (from top to bottom): James Martin Phelps, Quick Eye Photography, Caitlin Bell.