Over the years only a few mammals have proved difficult to see in the woods around my home. Foxes are near the top of that list.
Just this week I spotted an animal on the road that seemed just a bit too big and bushy-tailed to be a cat. It was a red fox. As I approached, it trotted into the woods about 50 yards, then stopped and returned my stare. We studied each other for about 30 seconds, then it disappeared deeper into the woods.
My interactions with red foxes are usually brief encounters along a country road. That's why I appreciate readers who send me photos each spring of red fox pups playing outside a den visible from their back porch. Sometimes reds truly qualify as backyard wildlife.
Gray foxes, on the other hand, are more elusive. In fact, I often find myself describing them as "ghostlike." They seem to appear and then vanish right before my eyes.
My most recent encounter with a gray fox took place about a year ago one evening at dusk. I glanced out a window overlooking the backyard and noticed it scavenging at the compost pile.
A few minutes later, a cottontail in another part of the yard caught the fox's attention. The rabbit noticed the fox at the same moment and froze. A forewarned prey usually escapes a predator, but still the fox gave chase. The cottontail bounded away in a series of zigzag hops.
The natural history of red and gray foxes reflects their canine ancestry. Like all canids, foxes are opportunistic carnivores, but they'll eat just about anything when food is scarce. And like most members of the dog family, foxes store surplus food in shallow holes they cover with leaves and dirt. They mark these caches with urine and return later when hungry.
The bulk of a fox's diet consists of rabbits, mice, rats and other small rodents. In spring and summer they supplement this basic diet with birds, eggs, insects, frogs and snakes. In the fall they eat fruits such as grapes, cherries and persimmons. And in winter they'll even eat carrion and garbage if they get hungry enough.
Foxes have few natural predators. Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks can kill adult foxes, which weigh just 6 to 12 pounds. Cars and trucks are their greatest enemies.
The breeding biology of red and gray foxes is a study in monogamy. Males and females mate for life, though they go their separate ways each fall and reunite each winter.
Foxes mate once each year between late January and mid-March. A red fox pregnancy lasts about 50 days, a gray fox's 50 to 60 days. Between late March and early May, four to six pups are born.
The male is a good provider for both the pups and his mate. He brings food to the den while the pups are too small for the female to leave them alone. The pups grow rapidly and venture forth from the den when four or five weeks old. Both parents then teach the pups to hunt.
The female weans the pups at about eight weeks. In late autumn the family breaks up, and each member goes its own way until pairs reform in January. Young foxes can breed their first winter.
Despite their similarities, red and gray foxes differ in a number of important ways. Red foxes sport bushy, white-tipped tails. Salt-and-pepper gray foxes wear courser, black-tipped tails.
Gray foxes are native to the hardwood forests of North America, while many biologists believe that red foxes were introduced from Europe in the mid-1700s. Presumably, they were introduced to provide the aristocracy with a favorite sport -- fox hunting.
Reds adapt well to human environments; they call farmland, old fields and forest edges home. Grays, on the other hand, are forest dwellers, well adapted to climbing trees. The long, sharp, curved claws on their front feet enable them to shinny straight up a tree trunk and jump from branch to branch. This skill probably explains why grays eat more birds than reds.
Differences aside, foxes are a wary breed. It's a good day anytime you see one in the wild.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.