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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jan 9, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugYou might have wondered about my absence from this column space for the last few weeks. I am sorry if you missed my column, but I broke my right wrist.

Being “very” right-handed, writing a column using two fingers of my left hand was not going to work, in spite of any good will on my part.

At least I broke it while hiking on the Canyon Trail at Placerita, so it was accomplished doing something I like, in a place that I love. It’s a good reminder that however smooth the trail is, it is always a good idea to look where you walk – especially on the down slope. A stone was in my way; I went flying and extended my hand to break my fall. If I had a walking stick, it would have been helpful, but of course it was hanging in my coat closet.

It’s also a good idea to hike with a partner, because with a broken right wrist, you cannot drive your car home. It is also difficult to blow your nose or brush your teeth, as I found out in the weeks afterward.

grayfox2Now that the cast is off and I can accomplish things again, I’m writing about the gray fox. This is an animal that is plentiful, not endangered – but we rarely see it. Why is that?

First, it is crepuscular, which means it comes out around sunset and sunrise, so you might not be on the trail at that time of day. It can also be nocturnal.

It is interesting to learn it can climb trees, so even if you hear some noise, you might not think about looking up, and you will miss it. It is the only animal in the dog family that can climb a tree. It climbs by grabbing the trunk with its forepaws and scrambling up with the long claws on its hind feet. Once it reaches the tree canopy, it jumps from branch to branch. It can also wait for prey sitting in the tree.

It comes down the tree by descending slowly backward the same way your cat would do it.

I find the term “gray fox” a little misleading because there is a strong reddish cast to its coat. What we call the “red fox” is more prevalent on the East Coast, and there is one easy characteristic that pinpoints the difference right away: The red fox has black stockings; the gray fox does not.

At one time, the gray fox was the most common fox in the East, and it can still be found there, but the red fox has taken better advantage of the human development of the land where agricultural areas are now prevalent. The gray fox can be found from Southern Canada to the northern part of South America (Venezuela and Columbia). It is not found in the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains or eastern Central America.

You might have seen the smaller Channel Islands fox (Urocyon littoralis) on the islands off of Ventura. It is assumed a gray fox reached one of the Islands a long time ago and the breed took a different evolutionary path in order to survive the harsher living conditions on the islands. All the same, both are members of the genus Urocyon, which is the most primitive of the living canids.

grayfox1They appeared 3.6 million years ago. Other animals around at the time were the giant sloth, the elephant-like Cuvieronius, a large-headed llama and early small horses – all of which have disappeared. But the little gray fox is still around and doing very well, thank you. Scientists found they lived in the same time period when they discovered fossil evidence on a ranch site on Graham County, Ariz. They must have had a joyful day when they made this discovery!

Even more extraordinary, the gray fox migrated to the north of the United States in association with the Medieval Climate Anomaly warming trend. Around A.D. 1000, the Vikings settled in Greenland, but the warming trend was 200 to 300 years later – so how did the gray fox come here? Did it come from Russia to Alaska? Your guess is as good as mine, but it is intriguing.

Genetically, after chromosome testing, it was shown the gray fox is also associated with two ancient lines: the East Asian raccoon dog and the African bat-eared fox. When I read things like, this my imagination goes wild, and I try to imagine those trips and connections in faraway lands a long time ago.

I will stop dreaming about all of the unanswered questions and cover a few things we know for sure about the gray fox.

Male and female look the same, but the female is somewhat smaller. A black stripe runs along the bushy tail, which ends in a black tip. They have a black muzzle and look like a small dog with short and powerful legs. Adults weight 7 to 11 pounds. They are from the dog family and mark their territory with their feces and urine. You might never see a gray fox on the trail, and you might rarely see a coyote, but you can be sure you will see plenty of coyote scat. Fox feces are smaller and sometimes glossy, depending on the last food they have eaten. They are less plentiful than the coyote scat, but once you have identified it, you will be able to recognize it again. Google “gray fox scat.” You can look at photos that will do a better job than my best description. Often you will not see the animals, but being able to identify scat is an art that can tell you what came by when you were not watching.

grayfox3Females reach maturity when they are 1 year old. Breeding season starts in February until March. The father will take care of the female and bring back food to feed his family while the female stays with the pups. They have from one to seven pups, and when the pups are 3 months old, they can start hunting with the parents.

The family lives together until the fall. Then the kits are sexually mature and become independent of the parents.

Gray foxes are solitary during the winter. Their life span is 6 years in the wild and 12 years in captivity.

They are omnivores, so they can eat many different foods: berries, nuts, insects and rabbits, and they are useful to the environment because they eat many rodents. The gray fox will bury its food if he has a surplus and will mark the spot with urine so he can find it later on.

In area of dry chaparral like Zion National Park in Utah, the gray fox survives just fine by being insectivorous and herbivorous, so it can be resourceful. Even in different climates, fruits and berries are important parts of the diet.

The main predator of the adult gray fox, I am sorry to say, is man. But the pups must hide from hawks, eagles, owls, bobcats, coyotes and dogs.

A gray fox likes to sun itself up in a tree and sleep in a hollow tree or an abandoned burrow. May be you have walked past his hidden place without knowing it, but I am happy to report that they are doing fine. Their population remains constant and is not threatened. I wish them long and happy lives.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    I really did miss you, glad you are recovering from the broken wrist.

    We live in a rural area and the gray fox is a sometimes visitor.

    A large and very old walnut tree a few feet outside a window of our house has limbs close to the ground. To our very great surprise, as we watched a fox last year he had no trouble getting right up into the tree for a nap. Glad he hangs around, there is more than enough for him to eat, though he must catch it for himself.

  2. Evelyne Vandersande says:

    Thanks Melissa, that is so neat to read. I wanted to ask you at time time of the day you saw that. I am trying to find out if the grey fox is only crepuscular in area where people would be a threat. What is your experience ?Thank you so much for sharing this, that was quite a sight, I am sure.

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