Gray Foxes Spend Summer with Lakeside Volunteer

Both red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) live in the Kansas City area.  Lakeside Nature Center is more likely to admit red foxes because they have adapted better to the urban environment.  Gray foxes prefer to live in wooded areas and fairly open brush land. 

This summer, however, a landowner brought two beautiful fox kits to the Center.  Everyone who saw them fell immediately in love with these six-week old playful charmers.  The kits spent the summer with an experienced rehabilitator learning to hunt and care for themselves.  These foxes turned out to be picky eaters.  Contrary to the stories of foxes in the henhouse, they turned their noses up at chicken.  Just as the reference books predicted, they preferred rabbits, mice and rats to any other food.  Interestingly, they also ate fruit, vegetables and insects.

It is easy to distinguish gray foxes from their red cousins.  A fox’s most noticeable attribute is his gorgeous full tail.  Gray foxes have gray tails with a black stripe on the upper side and a black tip, while the red fox has a white-tipped tail.  The grays are generally a bit smaller than the reds; they weigh about 10 pounds and are about 40 inches from nose to tail. 

Gray foxes have an unusual ability; they climb trees.  If tree branches hang down or if the trees are leaning to one side, the foxes are up in a flash.  Their strong, hooked claws allow they so scramble up the trees.  To descend, they jump down from branch to branch.  Foxes may climb out of pure curiosity or to get food or to hide from dogs or to lie on the branches and bask in the sunlight.

Each spring, gray foxes build dens in hollow logs, under rock piles or in hollow trees.  In fact, in Texas fox dens have been found 30 feet above ground in large hollow trees.  On rare occasions, they will make a nest in a pile of brush or on the ground.  They fill the dens with grass, leaves or shredded bark to make a comfortable nest for the babies.  The litter of three to six kits is born after an eight-week pregnancy.  For the first week or so, the vixen stays in the den with the pups while dad does the hunting for the entire family.  Later on, mom hunts at night and nurses the babies during the day; the father takes care of the litter during the night. 

When the babies are about a month old, they begin to venture outside.  While mom and dad watch carefully, they play around the den.  Almost anything can be a toy; bones, horse droppings, leftover food, sticks and leaves.  Although the parents dispose of droppings and spoiled food, the play area looks untidy.  When foxes change dens, the parents bring the playthings along with them.

  • The kits start hunting with their parents when they are ten weeks old or so.  By the time fall arrives, they are on their own.  The next spring, these fox kits will establish families of their own.

  • Some more facts about gray foxes:

  • They love fruit.  In summer and fall, nearly 30% of their diet is persimmons and acorns.

  • Gray foxes are important predators, helping to control rodent populations.

  • Like all canines, they love to roll in smelly messes.

  • Gray foxes can run as fast at 26 miles an hour, though they slow down after the start of the sprint

  • Foxes are monogamous and both parents tenderly care for the kits.  The species is very playful – you will often see Mom and Dad romping with the babies.

  • If food is plentiful, a fox will bury the surplus.  He returns to his food cache from time to time, even if he is not hungry, to look at and play with the contents.

Photo by FOLNC Volunteer, Wayne Allen