Posts Tagged ‘grey fox’

The Nest Raid

gray fox family

The snow fell in April, swirling in the soft spring breezes before coating the greening grass. Winter was breaking. Though the air was chill, the sun’s soft angles spoke of what was to come.

An Angus cow licked her newborn in the hill pasture. Robins sang in the black cherries. Trout anglers moseyed along country lanes to their favorite holes.

No one seemed to be thinking of the great chills of January and the tropical swelter of July.  The banal, sweet time was coming. The dogwoods would be in bloom. The Forsythias were already casting their diminutive yellow plumes, and a few redbuds were showing theirs.

And the meadow fox nursed her new litter. They were whelped a den dug at the base of a fallen oak. Four little gray foxes whined and whimpered over her swollen mammaries. Three were little vixens, and one was stout little dog fox that strongly resembled her father, who had been removed with a night hunter’s bullet on a distant November night.

Her new mate was a young fox, but over the late winter, he had become a maestro at running the country lanes for wily old cottontails. He had knew how to punch hard into the coverts of greenbrier and multiflora rose and force the hard holding rabbit into the open for a winter coursing.

But now that he had a mate and kits to feed, he was forced to try other avenues. He was hunting for five now, and he begun testing out his techniques as an arboreal hunter.

He had learned to climb up high in then canopy and raid fox and gray squirrel dreys.  In late winter, the squirrels would have their young in those dreys, and they were quite tasty and nutritious for a fox family.

He also raided every songbird nest he could find.  But only now,  as the sun began to work its way back to shining high at this latitude that the birds were laying enough eggs to be worth the trouble.

But as his young grew, he needed more eggs and more meat. When they were three weeks and sucking their mother really hard, he began his nightly egg hunt. It was a warm day in late April, and some of the hen turkeys had taken to brooding their nests in the undergrowth.

One old hen laid her speckled eggs along a cottontail lane. She didn’t seem to care that these lanes sometimes filled with predators. She’d fought off her fair share of raccoons, skunks, and opossums.  She knew that they really didn’t want to deal with a mad dinosaur mama with sharp claws and a piercing beak.

Even a fell boar raccoon would back down from her defense, and she knew that she had this power. So she sat smugly upon her eggs, almost daring some beast of the field to molest her brood.

On this warm day in April, the meadow fox’s mate went on an daylight raid. His mate needed food, and his babes needed milk.  He thought of darting along a well-known stand of autumn olive, where the towhees nest, but as he slunk along the trail, his nose caught wind of many eggs, big eggs, and they were lying out on the ground!

He changed his approach and began a jovial saunter towards the egg scent. He smelled a turkey, but his youthful inexperience led him to assume that these were stochastic variables.  He just knew there eggs and they were on the ground and they were going to be good food.

He came within ten feet of the nesting turkey hen.  She clucked a warning from her nest.  The fox thought it odd for a turkey to be clucking from such a thick covert. He cocked his head at the sound, turning his prick ears to catch the source of the sound.

He stood there for 90 seconds or so. Then he began his jovial jaunt towards the egg scent.  He made no more than four or five steps forward before the covert exploded with angry feathers.

The great turkey hen was upon the fox.  Her thick claws tore at his side and her sharp beak hammered him hard.

So surprised was the fox by this development, that he screeched and then ran.  The dinosaur mama held tight on his tail as he raced down the cottontail raid.

Then she turned and strutted back with the cautious calm of an Old West gunslinger. One could almost see her blowing the smoke off her pistol as she strolled out of town.

So that nest raid failed, but all was not doomed for the fox family. That night, many young, quite naive cottontails filled the lanes. The dog fox could catch several of them through the night. This supply of naive young rabbits would go on through the summer. No more would he have to climb trees and raid birds nests for survival. His family’s hunger would be sated on the tenderest of rabbit meat.

And so the young foxes grew up in the soft days of spring. They were weaned on regurgitated rabbit, and they played like kitten-dogs in the sun shine.

These were the rosy days of childhood. All made possible by a enterprising father, who wasn’t afraid to try raiding new sources of prey.

Read more about the saga of these gray foxes’

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I put out a little gray fox urine over the buck musk, and a fox came and made a visit. Judging from the squat, this one is a vixen.

I put out the Moultrie 1100i, which gets better footage than the little Primos Workhorse:

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Schreber's Gray and Virginia foxes.

Schreber’s Gray and Virginia foxes.

“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.






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I got a great close-up of a nice gray fox on the Moultrie 1100i. Such a beautiful animal!


I will be honest with you: I’ve not spent a lot of time watching gray foxes. I’ve seen only one gray fox in the wild with my own eyes.

But these are the most stunning of wild dogs. Such fluid movers!

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“Just sniffing the sardines you left out!”

These foxes have such fluid movement. Domestic dogs, in general, are such more clunky when they move when compared to the wild ones– especially a wild one that can climb trees.

They travel along this edge of the pastureland because rabbits frequent the access road.

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The new Moultrie 1100i managed to capture a gray fox or “colishay” as it came by to feed on sardines.

I’ve had no luck with this species and trail cameras. They are very easily startled by flashing red lights and clunking sounds that some of the other models provide.

gray fox

I kind of new I had these clips when I saw this in the access road just above where the camera was set.


There were quite a few tracks, and some even show the main diagnostic trait for a gray fox track:


You can clearly see the imprint of the long, hooked claws that gray foxes use to climb trees. Climbing trees is a good way to access bird nests, and it’s an even better way to escape coyotes.

Those of you who have seen my earlier attempts to get this species on a trail camera know that most of the videos were a split second image of a fox running away.

This new camera is going to be doing a lot of good.

Maybe I’ll get a sasquatch!

Well, even a coyote or another image of a bobcat would be nice.

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A few weeks ago I came across some gray fox tracks in the sand. They were very small, as you can tell by the comparison with the SD card.



(Don’t give me hell for where the SD card was made!)

I’ve been trying for two weeks to get one of these young gray foxes on trail cam video, but I haven’t had any luck.

Until this week:


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This is a mutual bark off! (Yes.  The fox is barking back– very raspily!)

Remember that gray foxes and their close cousins, the island foxes, aren’t really foxes. They are actually the most primitive of all wild dog species.  The lineage to which these creatures belong is estimated to be around 10 million years old, the oldest of all extant canids.

The Kemmer cur in this video is of a strain of the greater mountain cur type. There are several strains of mountain cur that are well onto their way to breed formation. They still have an open registry system, which registered all dogs that can be proven to have 75 percent Kemmer ancestry with white papers. However, they still allow dogs with less than 75 percent Kemmer ancestry to be registered with green papers. And the green paper dogs can breed to the white paper dogs.

Curs are often called hounds, but it’s slightly in error. They may have hound ancestry, but they are actually meant to be multipurpose hunting dogs in ways that beagles, foxhounds, and coonhounds typically aren’t. And many of these curs can be used to herd livestock and hunt and retrieve birds. Their ancestry includes whatever dogs could live on the frontier, including those of the Native Americans, those of British and Irish working farm dog and hound stock, and those of German working farm dog and hound stock. (I’ve noted how much some of these dog look like rustic pinscher-types, like the rare Austrian pinscher.)

These two animals are truly made in the USA. At one time, most Americans knew what gray foxes were, and they hunted them with dogs very similar to this Kemmer cur.

But now they both might as well be from Siberia.

Curs are often thought of as mongrels, which is the result of a terrible bastardization of the English language. Curs were the dogs of small farmers in the British Isles. They weren’t standardized or “improved” within the nineteenth century dog fancy system, so they were considered dogs of “low breeding.” Because they weren’t within this system, they might as well have been totally randomly-bred mongrels. But they weren’t.  Some strains of these dogs have been established and maintained for many generations, and many breeders were very careful in selectively breeding their dogs.

The most famous cur was the dog in Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller. That particular dog was probably more of a black mouth cur, which is the cur-type that was common around the Gulf Coast states and Texas. The dog in the film version of Gipson’s novel was a Labrador cross named Spike.

No one really seems to know much about either canids in this video. Four of the six small canids native to North America are gray. Two of these, the swift and the kit fox, are actually foxes– that are very closely related to the arctic fox.  The gray and island foxes aren’t in that lineage at all, and where gray foxes and kit and swift foxes live near each other, it is very common for people to misidentify them.

So curs aren’t mongrels, and gray foxes aren’t foxes.

What a confusing language we have!





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Gray fox on the fence

These things can really climb. They have very claws that are like crampons.


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Our mystery neonatal canid is a newborn gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).

Both normal red and cross phase red foxes and gray foxes are born this ashy gray color. The way to tell the neonates apart is to look at the nails. Gray foxes have long, curved nails, which they utilize in their well-known arboreal habits. Gray foxes are so at home in the trees that some people call them “tree foxes.”

Of course, the other way to tell them apart is to look at their tails. All red foxes, regardless of phase, have white-tipped tails. Gray foxes never do.

I should note that I have some issues calling a gray fox a fox. They are not true foxes at all.

The two canids in the genus Urocyon are thought to represent a primitive line of the dog family that retained the ancestral carnivores’ ability to climb trees.

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