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From the Fall 2018 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
During the day, gray fox are easily distinguishable from red fox by their color. While their sides and underbelly are rusty red, the majority of the fox is salt-and-pepper gray with a black streak down the ridge of their tail. Gray fox are generally smaller, more agile and wiry than red fox.
“The gray fox is more adapted to the deciduous forests of the Eastern United States, whereas the red fox adapted to prairies,” says biologist Vince Evelsizer. He notes both are found throughout the nation, and the two are not exclusive.
Barking Up the Right Tree
Due to their small stature, gray fox are susceptible to predation and competition from larger animals like coyotes. To avoid confrontation, the fox makes a quick exit and climbs a tree. Gray fox have longer and more hooked claws than their red relation, and use these to grip tree bark. Although an effective strategy, the process can be rather comical. First, the fox hugs the tree, gripping bark with its claws. The hind legs are not capable of rotating to hold on in the same manner, so they are used to push against the tree and propel upward. The resulting motion is a series of upward scoots that continue until the fox can dismount the trunk and stand on a branch. To get down, the process is reversed if the trunk is straight, but if it’s bent the fox may run down the trunk.
Less than Red Hot Numbers
Although not yet endangered or threatened in Iowa, gray fox populations have steadily declined since 1980. Red fox populations have also declined, but not to the degree of the gray fox. The cause of the gray fox population drop hasn’t been determined, but suspect causes include disease, competition with rising raccoon populations and habitat loss from urban development. A coalition of Midwest states has recently initiated research into similar declines throughout the region.
Iowa has a hunting season for both red and gray foxes between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, with no daily bag limits or possession limits. While the gray fox season could possibly close in the future, hunting is not considered to have a major effect on their population. Most fox that are harvested are caught incidentally, and few hunters would specifically target them because there is not extensive demand for gray fox pelts. During the 2016-2017 season, only 19 gray foxes were harvested.
Fox in the Henhouse
As habitat loss pushes gray fox closer to urban areas, that could create some trouble for keepers of backyard chickens.
“They’re almost more of a cat-like critter than a canine,” says Evelsizer. He says that although fox are crafty, properly constructed henhouses and enclosures drastically reduce their success. A roof or a wire ceiling on a chicken enclosure keeps foxes from jumping or dropping inside, but basic chicken wire may need reinforcement to stand up to a fox. Still, Evelsizer says fox are not the main predatory concern.
“Mink and weasels are very aggressive, and they’re small enough to fit through holes in most basic wire fencing,” he says. Foxes are opportunistic hunters, and regularly eat everything from grasshoppers and fruit to rodents and lizards.