Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Tale of Two Foxes

Gray Fox Kits Interacting

Early this morning while at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, California, I came upon three young grey foxes approaching me without any sign of fear.  I had heard about the foxes here and the issue with people feeding them, slowly habituating them to humans and a dependence on handouts rather than hunting for themselves.

Why people are finding it necessary to feed them is not clear, whether they think they look malnourished, or even to entice them in order to take photographs, it is creating a problem, both for the foxes themselves and for people or children who might think it is okay to approach and possibly pet them.  As the foxes approached me a couple of people walked by with trash in their hands from snacks being fed to the foxes.  They said that is is an issue and in the past there has been signage, a person posted in the area and they even mentioned they have been relocated.  Well I think it is time to think about that again, because these three little foxes are going to have a hard time fending for themselves if this continues.

Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are small, secretive canines, and the only member of the family that can climb trees. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some
reddish fur, but gray foxes are noticeably shorter-legged and have a black-tipped tail, instead of white. Gray foxes are found in habitat with a combination of forest and brushy woodland.  Like red foxes, they also live near farmlands bordered by woods and have adapted to living in close proximity to humans. They need to live near water, choosing habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens.

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)

Gray foxes have several predators, most notably coyotes and bobcats, but great horned owls, golden eagles and cougars also prey upon them.  They are territorial among themselves, yet they may "time share" habitat with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of a mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.  They are not currently threatened as a species, but habitat loss as with so much wildlife requires them to adapt to living closer to human activity they would normally avoid.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them.  It normally is "rare" to catch a glimpse of a gray fox as they are "usually" on out from dusk until dawn.  They explore at a trotting pace, often through dense cover, pausing only to listen for prey or predators.  Keen vision, hearing, and sense of small help them hunt for a variety of birds, rodents, reptiles and invertebrates.  By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed protectors.  It is unfortunate the three foxes I encountered are more than likely not hunting as they should be.

Sometimes a gray fox will rest on a high branch or in the crotch of a tree.  To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs.  Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch.  Coming down is a bit is either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run!

I left the gray foxes and made my way around the park and the bay view trail and it is here I encountered a red fox pointed out to me by another photographer.  This fox looked very healthy and was hunting as it should be.  It was also not too concerned by our presence, but was keeping it's distance and going about it's natural behavior of spraying and marking it's territory, sniffing around and poking it's head down holes in search of rodents.  The other photographer moved on and I decided to stick around and slowly follow the fox.  I managed to get a few images, before it headed higher up into the hills and out of view.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have been introduced into California by people, so unlike the gray fox, they are not considered native and a threat to native populations of birds and other prey.  As much as it is beautiful to see this animal, one must also consider the impact of its presence in an area such as Coyote Hills and the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge.

Though it looks similar, it should not be confused with the native Sierra Nevada red fox, a threatened species found only in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.  Non-native red foxes were introduced decades ago for fox farming and fur farming.  Over time, these foxes escaped or were released.  These adaptable mammals have easily adjusted to coastal and valley ecosystems alike, where they actively prey on rodents, rabbits, reptiles, shorebirds, waterfowl, and other ground-nesting species.  Some species are at greater risk because they have not developed effective defenses against this newcomer.  Red foxes are not the only predators to capture and consume these imperiled species, but their predation is significant, their numbers are growing, and their range is expanding.

Red Fox
Red Fox watching a burrow

When food is abundant, red foxes are prolific, breeding during their first year of life and raising litters of four to seven pups annually.  Pups are born in the late winter or early spring - in concert with the birth of birds, small mammals, and other prey species.  They travel across roads, through culverts, and along flood control channels to hunt.  They build dens in golf courses, at parks, and along creek banks, even along the shoulders of busy freeways.

Many wild foxes live for several years.  As populations swell, young foxes disperse, often forming new territories many miles from their birth place.  This natural dispersal, supplemented by foxes illegally relocated by people, has significantly extended the range of these beautiful non-natives.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

This led me to think about New Zealand and the introduction of stoats in the 1880's to control the population of rabbits and hares.  They are now considered "public enemy number one" to New Zealand's bird population.  You can read more about it here.


  1. How Jackie, I posted on FB my encounter with 3 red foxes. I was riding my bike along the bay trail and saw 3 of them. I stopped and watched. One definitely headed out of Dodge, wanting nothing to do with me. One of the other 2 started to approach me. I just watched. The other one was in the distance. The bold one came right up to my front wheel and I carefully shooed it away. I cycled onward. Around another corner, I saw one on the road. I stppped again. This time to pulled out my phone to rake some pictures. A little later another one came along. Not sure if it was the same individual, but one of them came up to me again. Again I shooed them away. I didn't see the 3rd one. I showed the photos and chatted with a friend who is a veterinarian. She stated they were most likely waiting for me to feed them. I shooed them away because I wanted them to have a fear of people because if something bad happened that involved the foxes, they would be blamed and not the people :(

    This was back at the end of May before the AIDS ride. I hope people learn to just watch and not to interact with wildlife.

    1. Thank you Donna for your comment. Seems that red foxes are far more common than I had expected as this was actually my very first sighting "ever" of a red fox. Again, as beautiful as they are, they are an issue as a "non-native" predator and people who choose to feed them only contribute to the problem. I will check your FB posting for sure!


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