Published July 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Gray fox is seldom seen Minnesota canid

news northland outdoors birding

news northland outdoors birding

This past spring while driving to work one morning, a fox darted across the highway in front of my vehicle. The animal wasted no time to get from one side of the road to the other. It was a small and beautiful little fox, which I recognized immediately as none other than a gray fox.

Minnesota is home to four species of wild canids – red fox, gray fox, coyote and gray wolf. Moreover, of these four species, the gray fox is perhaps the least observed and least understood. Commonly mistaken as red fox, gray foxes are unique in their own right.

The smallest of our wild canids, adult gray foxes stand about 15 inches high at the shoulder. From nose to tail, a gray fox doesn’t quite reach 4 feet in total length and rarely attains a dozen pounds in weight. The largest gray fox ever recorded weighed only 19 pounds.

Gray foxes differ from red foxes in many ways, including pelage coloration. For those unfamiliar with the gray fox, it’s easy to understand why some people confuse the two species. Both, for example, have red in their coats. However, it is only the red fox that is mostly red in color, whereas the gray fox can best be described as having a “salt and pepper” coat.

The salt-and-pepper coloration extends from the top of its head, back, sides and tail. Accented with a black streak down the center of the top of its tail and ending as a black tip, along with handsome red ears and ruffs and white undersides. The short-muzzled and short-legged gray fox is a striking looking fox indeed.

Interesting about the gray fox is its Latin scientific name, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Its genus name, Urocyon, is a combination of two Greek words that refer to its bristly haired, dog-like tail. Its species name translates roughly as “ashy-silvered,” which, of course, is a good description of the gray fox’s coat.

Last summer I enjoyed observing a gray fox family living alongside and within a pile of stored plastic culverts (of all things) next to a woodland on the outskirts of the city of Bemidji. Near other equipment, buildings and homes, the vixen gray fox seemed unconcerned by the human disturbance and activity surrounding her.

From time to time throughout the summer months, I’d spend a few minutes and watch her and her growing litter of four pups laze about or roughhouse with one another. Though her pups were generally oblivious of me, the vixen was well aware of my presence, but would tolerate me if I remained motionless at no closer than 30 yards from her den.

I was fascinated by her patience, not so much with me, but with her rambunctious pups. For the little rascals were constantly wrestling with each other, causing a stir like youngsters typically do – snapping, rolling around, tugging, growling and yapping about with nary a care in the world.

To my delight, I once saw a brave-hearted pup bite its mother’s tail, which she clearly did not appreciate as she let the precocious little pup know her displeasure by emitting such a sudden and loud bark that the pup scampered away in fright. Yet, often as it was, mother fox basked in the dappled sunlight alone, while her pups played together nearby.

Curiously, this cat-like fox climbs trees. No other canid can climb trees with as apparent ease as the gray fox can. Gray foxes are known to literally climb trees, not just scramble up trees, sometimes scaling relatively branch-free, smooth barked trees such as aspen and birch in order to escape predators or pursue prey. The gray fox has also been observed sleeping on the branches of trees, hiding or sleeping in old raptor nests, and even raising their families inside of hollow trees a dozen or more feet above the ground.

The diet of gray foxes is wide and varied. Out of curiosity, I spent some time late last summer investigating the culvert den-site of the gray fox family. Bones of small mammals were scattered on the ground, including those of cottontail rabbits and squirrels. I also found parts of chipmunks, mice and voles, and a few unidentified bird feathers.

Other prey of gray foxes includes small birds, bird eggs, tree squirrels, frogs, snakes, insects and insect larvae such as beetle grubs. They also eat a host of wild fruits, berries, nuts and sometimes domestic crops like sunflower seeds.

Pups, which are born during the spring between the months of March and early May, are at the age by August to begin tagging along on hunting forays with their parents. During these important times, pups learn where and how to capture prey and become familiar with their parents’ home range. Eventually, however, the pups mature, find mates, and establish their own breeding territories.

Gray foxes, though rarely seen, are fairly abundant here in northern Minnesota. Most active in the darkness, it’s no wonder this beautiful little fox goes relatively unnoticed as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

Tags: