Get to Know the Gray Fox

Author: Rosalyn Jackson, Sky Island Intern

Gray foxes are small mammals native to North and Central America. Their species name, cinereoargenteus, roughly translates to “ashen silver” which appropriately describes their beautiful, silvery-gray fur. This species used to be the most common fox in North America prior to human colonization and deforestation. The red fox is now more common, and the gray fox can be quite elusive and difficult to see in the wild. 

Indigenous Significance: 

Foxes play a variety of roles in folklore of Indigenous cultures of the Americas. Most often they are viewed as a trickster companion to Coyote – a male Coyote spirit. This perception is rooted mainly in Southwestern and Mexican tribes. In some tales, foxes are wise and benevolent symbolizing the gift of anticipation, observation, and stealth. In the oral traditions of the Blackfoot and Apache tribes, they are connected to the element of fire and the sun. In the Northeast, Midwest, and Plains areas, the fox is seen as a diminutive, clever spirit that guides people and animals in need and for the arrogant or selfish – punishing and teaching lessons. Among the Andean tribes of South America, the fox is sometimes depicted as a bad omen or a greedy and mean-spirited thief. The fox is also a familiar clan animal for many Indigenous social groups. 

Description: 

This species of fox has a coat of silvery gray fur, a black-tipped tail, and reddish fur covering the chest and legs. The pupil shape of this species differs significantly from other foxes. While most foxes have slit-like pupils, like cats, the pupils of the gray fox are oval-shaped. The foxes grow to approximately 3 ft. long and usually weigh between 8-15 lbs. Their maximum lifespan is around 16.2 years. 

Habitat: 

Gray foxes are fascinating animals, however, sightings of them tend to be rare. This species of canine most often lives in densely forested habitats, preferring deciduous forests or particularly rocky and brushy areas. Some populations prefer coastal bluffs and higher elevations to lower surrounding areas. 

Predators: 

Adult gray foxes generally do not serve as prey or a natural food source to many wild predators. However, they are occasionally hunted by golden eagles, coyotes, bobcats, or lynx. Kits (or pups) may also be hunted by coyotes, great horned owls, or large hawks. 

Diet: 

Gray foxes are omnivores, which means their diet consists of both plants and animals. Most of their diet consists of rodents (e.g., rats and mice), rabbits, and hares. The rest of their diet varies regionally. In some areas, they may rely more on insects and plants, whereas in others, they may eat more birds or amphibians. Regardless of region, gray foxes are particularly fond of fruits and will eat them eagerly when the opportunity arises. 

Interaction with Humans: 

Like other fox species, hunting and trapping by humans has affected gray fox populations. Habitat loss caused by wildfires human development also greatly impacts the gray fox. This species is less adaptable to urbanization than red foxes, and development of their natural habitat tends to impact them more severely.  

Humans have not historically domesticated gray foxes, except in cases where the animal needs help or has been trapped for purposes of observation. Gray foxes require special care in zoo settings because they need the same diet and space to hunt and hide as they would in the wild to thrive. 

Behavior: 

Scientists believe that the gray fox is monogamous with pairs often remaining together for multiple years. Additionally, they will form family groups that include their offspring, parents, and extended relatives. Young females are more likely to remain with the family unit for longer periods of time than young male foxes. Families of gray foxes tend to be most active at night, dawn, or dusk. During the day, they retreat to their den, which is usually located in either a hollow tree or burrow. Another common hideout would be an area surrounded by shrubs and brush. 

Reproduction: 

The breeding season of this species varies regionally. After mating, the gestation period of the female is a little under 2 months long. The female gives birth to a small litter of babies, or “kits.” Only 3-5 gray foxes will typically be born at a time. When the kits are around 3 months old, they start learning how to hunt, and after 4 months they begin hunting on their own. The kits generally stay with their family at least until they reach sexual maturity at around 10 months of age. 

Fun Facts: 

  1. Tree Climbing – Unlike other canines, gray foxes can climb trees! The gray fox is the only member of the canine family that can easily climb. This ability is extremely useful when escaping predators or hunting for food. 
  2. Dens and Burrows— Gray foxes will use their long claws to dig a den, or they may live in abandoned burrows of other small mammals. However, it is more common for their dens to be in hollow trees or logs, rock piles, or crevices between and under cliffs. Sometimes they can even find refuge in the lower forest canopy among the concealing shrubs and brush. 
  3. Channel Island Fox– Though they are now a different species, scientists believe that the closely related Channel Island Fox originally descended from the gray fox. This unique species lives only on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Genetically, it is the closest relative of the gray fox. 
  4. What Fox are You? – Gray foxes have been given the nicknames “tree fox” or “cat fox” because of their specific behaviors, mannerisms, and their physical appearance. 

Have you seen gray fox around your home? Check out our Sky Island FotoFauna interactive map to see where volunteers are reporting gray fox sightings across the region. 

Sources: 

SkyIslandAlliance.org

Native-Languages.org

iNaturalist.org

AnimalDiversity.org

WildlifeScienceCenter.org

JustFunFacts.com