“Their Foxes are like our silver haired Conies of a small proportion, and not smelling like those in England.”
–John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia, 1624.
This sentence is the first description of a gray fox in North America. It is not a flattering portrayal. A “silver-haired cony” is not a reference to a rabbit, as I thought originally. A cony was a term used for someone who is easily fooled. A “silver-haired cony” is reference to foolish women of the court, who would put wreathes of silver in their hair. So what Smith is saying in that sentence is that the gray fox is like a foolish noble woman and easily caught. The reference to “not smelling” could be the fact that gray fox lacks the skunky red fox odor, or it could be further reference to the fact that these foxes don’t scent out an area and are easily captured.
Nearly fifty years later, a traveler in New England by the name of John Josselyn wrote of a “jaccal” that roamed the New England countryside. Seeing this animal was a “shrew’d sign” that there were lions roaming about, an idea that he probably gleaned from reading some text about jackals in the Middle East or Africa and their tendency to scavenge off of true lions. Josselyn describes the fox is being the “colour of gray Rabbet” and that it is somewhat smaller the (red) fox. Josselyn goes on to say that that the native eat this animal because its doesn’t smell as strongly as the English fox, and that its grease was could be used for anything that one used fox grease for. Josselyan concluded that jaccals were “very numerous.”
As far as I know, Josselyn was the only person to confuse the Urocyon with the Old World jackals. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else but in his work.
But both Smith and Josselyn were describing an animal that was quite different the canids that both had known in England. Smith wisely tried to compare the animal to the English red fox, while Josselyn, who was quite confused by the fact that New England had both red and gray foxes, had no real place to put this animal other than to call it a “jaccal.” Josselyn knew that New England had black foxes with some silvery hair, and it probably wouldn’t have occurred to him to call this animal a fox, because it might confuse the reader. The fact that the Urocyon has “cinereoargenteus” as its scientific name is at least an allusion to the fact that mixing up silver foxes and gray foxes was a common error. (And it still is today!).
The German zoologist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber was the first to give the gray fox a scientific name. He called “Der Grisfuchs” Canis cinereo-argenteus, which is where we get the current name, but he also named another similar fox “Der Virginische Fuchs,” Canis virginianus. The images Schreber included were of a gray fox that he put together from observing a pelt sent to him from America, and the Virginia fox is based upon an image made by Mark Catesby. Up until that time, Catesby’s image of the Virginia fox was the only way this animal was known in Europe. So Schreber believed there were two foxes, and because he based the image the gray fox upon a pelt he actually handled, we call this animal a gray fox today and not a Virginia fox. Because Catesby didn’t create a very accurate depiction of a gray fox, we are now stuck with this terrible common name. If he’d produced a more accurate image, Schreber would have realized the Virginia fox and the gray fox were the same animal, and we’d be using the name “Virginia fox” for this animal.
Considering that most true foxes are gray in color, there isn’t a worse name for it. And it’s made even worse when we now know that gray fox isn’t a true fox at all. It’s not even one of those South American “false foxes.” It’s actually a very divergent and perhaps most primitive canid, which last shared a common ancestor with the dog family some 10 million years ago.
This animal is actually something that we North Americans should celebrate as a true unique native species, but it’s a secretive animal. Compared to red foxes, there is virtually no good literature on them. It’s like we missed this animal entirely when we were thinking charismatic North American fauna.
It’s true that these canids were a huge disappointment for the nouveau-riche tobacco planters in Virginia and Maryland, who wanted proper running red foxes for their hounds to chase. The reds would give the dogs a good run, but the gray ranger would just shoot up a tree. So this animal never became part of Southern lore, and even though the Confederate soldiers marched in gray uniforms, you would be hard pressed to find any reference to them as “gray foxes.” During the American Revolution, the South Carolina guerrilla Francis Marion was called the “Swamp Fox,” which certainly would be a reference to the gray fox. But even Mel Gibson couldn’t play him as Francis Marion, because Marion was a slave-owner who took severe vengeance against African Americans who assisted the crown in any way.
I think this animal needs a total makeover. I think we should stop calling it the bland name of gray fox and switch it colishay, which is the sort of mountain Pennsylvania name for the animal, or go to something like Catesby’s “Virginia dog.” After all, the old name for white-tailed deer is “Virginia deer,” even though they are found over a huge swath of the Americas, and we call the only native marsupial a “Virginia opossum,” though it ranges down into Mexico and Central America. Many old texts call the bobwhite the “Virginia partridge”– which is a better name for all the New World “quail.” They behave much more like the partridges of Europe than the often migratory Coturnix. So we could have a “Virginia dog” too.
I don’t think there is much that is fox-like about this animal. Because it climbs trees, it’s very similar ecologically to a small cat species. They are also much more aggressive in defense of their territories than other small canids are. If one hears the calls of one its own conspecifics or a red fox, it will come tearing in with all the gameness of a terrier.
We’ve renamed all sorts of wild dog species in recent years. When I was a child, I saw a documentary about the Simien jackal, which we now call an Ethiopian wolf, because one genetic study found it closer to the Holarctic wolf than to any other canids. However, more recent genetic studies have found it a bit more distantly related to that species than we had thought, but the name still sticks. African wild dogs are often called “painted wolves” or “painted dogs” in order to avoid confusion with feral domestic dogs in Africa, and the same has been done with the use of the word “dhole” for the Asiatic wild dog and for much the same reason. The golden jackals of Africa have been split into two species, one of which has been called the African wolf, but a more recent study suggests that all “golden jackals” of Africa are actually much more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to golden jackals in Eurasia. There is now a move to call these African coyote-like animals “golden wolves.”
I think it’s important that we have distinct names for animals to avoid confusion. We have this in their scientific names, but the common names are often trickier. But if we’re revising common names in canids now, I don’t see why we don’t go with renaming the Urocyon. It is a really unique animal. It should have a much better name than “gray fox.”
As is the case with so many native North American mammals, we are living with the legacy of quality of bad images, zoological illiteracy (our “robin” much more like a blackbird than the true robin), and the tendency for Europeans to project Old World lore onto creatures that have nothing to do with the Old World species. Josselyn’s “jaccal” is but one example. Another one would be the fact that the French fur trade sold our large native marten’s pelt as polecat fur, which in French went by the name of “fichet.” American colonists heard that word as “fisher,” and we’re stuck with that name for what is basically an arboreal cousin of the wolverine.
I think you could get more people interested in study the Urocyon if it had a punchier name that reflects its truly unique evolutionary history. This is a lineage of dogs that is found only in the Americas. It’s not rare, but it is endemic.
So whether colishay or Virginia dog, it can’t just be called the “gray fox,” the homely stepsister to the charming red Reynard.