Glimpses of Foxes

 

When we first moved to our home on the Black Mountain Preserve in 1992, I was excited at the prospect of possibly seeing bobcats around the house, but it never crossed my mind that there might be foxes present as well. As it turned out, the bobcats surprised us by being so plentiful and tame, visiting our bird feeder and our pond regularly, and sometimes even taking little naps in broad daylight in full view of the house. And the foxes? They surprised us too, but in a different way. We have learned that the foxes are here because we have had a glimpse of them from time to time, but we have also learned that they are shy and elusive and quick to disappear if they think they are seen.


One of our first encounters with gray foxes occurred when we had been in the new house for only a short time. Still working on finishing the house, Chuck installed a motion detector beside the back porch. That same evening, the light flipped on; we rushed to the window and were delighted to see not one but two foxes trotting along the driveway beside the house. We thought we would now get to see foxes every night. But we had to think again. As far as we can tell, the foxes have never again made the mistake of activating the motion detector. Possibly they have deserted the area around the back porch altogether. Or perhaps they are still here but have learned to keep out of reach of the motion detector.

Gray foxes are dainty little carnivores about the size of a small dog. Their size can range from six and a half to ten pounds, with an occasional very large individual weighing as much as fifteen pounds. Compared their cousins the coyotes, they have relatively short legs and are not especially good at long distance running. Some authorities believe that their short legs are an adaptation for climbing trees, which is something gray foxes do easily. What they lack in speed, gray foxes make up in agility. They are able to thread their way quickly through the tangled brush of our foothill chaparral. They occur in Oregon, California, all of the southern states, much of the Mid-west, and south into Mexico. They are considered to be quite common in our area. Their coats are pepper-and-salt gray. If you happen to see a gray fox, look for the median black stripe down the total length of its bushy, black-tipped tail.

All the authorities agree that gray foxes are active chiefly at night or at dawn or at dusk. This has been borne out by our few experiences with the animal here on Black Mountain. On two occasions this past spring we were lucky enough to see a fox near the preserve gate very early in the morning, well before sun-up. In both instances, the fox had something furry in its mouth-perhaps a rabbit-and was walking purposefully across the road toward a ravine on the south side of the mountain. We speculated that he or she was carrying fresh meat to kits in a den. Both foxes (or was it the same fox twice?) walked with the heads-up posture that you sometimes see in a domestic dog that has just done something of which it is very, very proud.

An exception to the rule about gray foxes being active only at night or at dusk occurred at the Sierra Foothill Conservancy office on Black Mountain one quiet day last winter when Jim Carl, our associate director, alone in the office, observed a fox devouring manzanita berries for the space of a half hour or so. Three manzanita bushes grow only a few feet from the office door, and the fox worked methodically to strip them bare.

And now a word about Red Foxes. Red foxes are close relatives of Gray Foxes but they are considerably larger, normally ranging in size from ten to fifteen pounds. Their coats may be reddish or gray or even black but their legs and feet are always black. The tail is tipped with white. In California two populations of Red Fox are widely separated geographically-one in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada and another in the western part of the Sacramento Valley. Only the montane Red Fox is native. According to California Mammals by E.W. Jameson, Jr., and Hans J. Peeters (University of California Press, 1988) in the nineteenth century a population of the eastern Red Fox was introduced into the lowlands of the state. These animals are believed to have descended from foxes that were either released or escaped from fur farms, and they most closely resemble Red Foxes from the north central plains states. The native population in the Sierra Nevada are considered to be rare but they are more common to the north, in the Cascades.

I think it would be interesting to know whether other SFC members have seen gray foxes here in the foothills. If you have something to report about local fox sightings, you can e-mail me at Pratherpeg@yahoo.com. We'll publish our informal findings in a future edition.

 

-Peg Smith