Gray fox

A gray fox takes one last curious look before diving into its den under a neighbor’s deck.

On Earth Day, I was talking to my neighbor Val from six feet away in her driveway, when a little gray fox trotted past. It was a beautiful creature—grizzled gray with cinnamon accents and a billowy black-tipped tail.

I followed, and found it peering into an avocado orchard where a worker below was blocking its way. It stared at me, deciding, then wheeled and disappeared through a hole in the fence into my neighbor Lon’s yard.

I have never before seen a gray fox, at least alive. My husband and I have a motion-activated camera in our avocado grove. We have seen a parade of wildlife come to the water bucket: coyotes, bobcats, opossums, skunks, raccoons, barn owls, great horned owls—but never a gray fox.

The gray fox is typically active at night, dawn and dusk. This was well before sunset. Was it out because it has pups and was on the hunt?

Four years ago, in June, we found a dead gray fox that was a nursing mother. Neighbors gathered around her, heartsick that the pups were somewhere, waiting for her return. I sent photos to experts, who theorized the fox had likely eaten a poisoned rat. Rat poison not only kills rats, but also the natural predators that eat rats. It causes internal hemorrhaging—a terrible death.

I thought about those pups for a long time. Bill Leikam, a fox expert and co-founder of the Urban Wildlife Research Project told me, “There’s a bit of a bright side that many do not know. Gray foxes, both male and female raise their young together. So, in this case since she died, the male will then take over and try to raise his litter to adulthood. I can say from personal observations that there was a period of mourning both with the pups and the male of the family, but the male would do his best to carry on.”

The pups or kits are generally born in April. They mature fast. By early November, they are ready to strike out on their own. Once a fox finds a mate, they usually pair for life.  

Gray foxes are anciently related to dogs, coyotes, wolves and jackals. While they look like a dog, they behave in some ways like a cat. Gray foxes have retractable claws that enable them to clamber up trees where they lie in wait to ambush rats, mice, lizards and insects. Leikam recalled watching one parent teaching his pups to climb. “I was by a stand of eucalyptus trees. I saw a male fox with four pups about six months old. The parent demonstrated leaping and clawing up the tree. The four young ones made mad dashes, scrambling, climbing and chasing each other.”

Their short legs are an advantage for traveling through thick scrublands. UC Santa Barbara-based researcher Kevin Lafferty shared camera trap photos taken at night off Paradise Road, where gray foxes are more common.

The gray fox was the ancestor to the island foxes of Channel Islands fame. One theory is that the Chumash brought the foxes over from the mainland as pets. “They are calm and so darn cute,” Lafferty said. “You can see it happening.”

Island foxes trace their origins to at least three females from the mainland, according to research by Ben Sacks of UC Davis. The island foxes date back over 10,000 years and have been well studied. But mainland gray foxes have not. “It remains a mysterious animal from the research point of view,” Sacks said.

Fortunately, the gray fox is somewhat adaptable, given the need for wildlife to adjust to urban encroachment. But they are rarely seen.

I wondered if my neighbor had ever seen the fox that disappeared into his yard. “Yes, there are two of them,” Lon told me. “They are living under our deck, although recently we have only seen one.” This made me a little anxious. I knew in the past he had used poison to protect his vineyard from rats.  He invited me over to see the fox hole the animals were using to get under his deck.  

I could see why the foxes like Lon’s lush, bushy landscape. It was beautiful and offered lots of cover. Yet I couldn’t help but notice old rat poison stations that languished among the grape vines. So, I asked.

“Oh, I don’t use rat poison anymore,” Lon said. “I don’t need to. The foxes take care of the rats. And I like the foxes. I like watching them.” His wife Dori agreed, “All the excitement helps to make the days go by. We are truly thankful for our furry friends that have decided to make our house their home.”

Good neighbors.

(2) comments

BKRich

I enjoyed your article. I recently photographed a beautiful grey fox in my back yard. I'd love to share it. I live in Fresno California, in the middle of town in a community called Old Fig Garden. My home was built in 1920. We are the oldest masterplanned community in california, and we have a variety of mammals living in our urban neighborhood. I have seen what I had believed to be a red fox, but the guy I captured on my phone is definitely a grey. 2 days later while feeding our cat around 8am, I saw another fox that was definitely a red fox, but perhaps just had more of the cinnamon accents you described. Anyway, I have determined that he is working for me, along with my cat, in helping eradicate the rat problem! Truly a cool creature.

Nancy Baron

Hello. Thanks for your comment. I am so sorry. I missed this. I just went back to this article to send it to a neighbour. And saw this. If its not too late I would love to see the picture(s). Also what is a masterplanned community? Sounds like something I should know about. Best way to reach me is my email. baron@nceas.ucsb.edu I am not even sure how this works so hopefully this will reach you.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.