By James Masek, Wildlife Biologist I
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is the only member of the dog family (Canidae) that regularly climbs trees. This unique skill is utilized to evade predators and hunt for food. Also known as a tree fox, the gray fox will climb a tree in pursuit of prey. The fox will also use the tree as a perch and ambush its prey.
The gray fox inhabits forested areas throughout Alabama. These areas tend to be heavily wooded with a thick understory, which is in contrast to the open forest and field habitat preferred by the red fox. The gray fox is a solitary animal which primarily hunts after nightfall and spends the days within its den. The den is usually located in hollow logs, ground burrows, under boulders, and occasionally in tree cavities.
The gray fox is a medium sized canine about the size of a small collie. The fur of the fox is a grayish color on the back with reddish brown legs; dull yellow on the sides; and whitish throat, cheeks, and midline of the belly. The sides of its muzzle and lower jaw have a distinctive black patch. The tail has a blackish stripe on upper side and a black tip. The black-tipped tail is a major distinguishing characteristic from the red fox whose tail is white tipped. The gray fox is omnivorous, meaning its diet consists of numerous items. Food varies widely with season and availability. For example, the winter food consists primarily of small mammals such as rabbits, rats, and squirrels. However, the summer diet consists primarily of fruits and berries such as persimmons, blackberries, acorn, and insects.
The breeding season for the gray fox begins in late January and continues on into March. The gestation period last about 53 days with the litter size ranging from three to seven pups. The male fox stays with his mate and helps care for the young. Initially the pups are blind and helpless, but they grow rapidly and are weaned within six weeks. By three months, they leave the den to hunt with their parents. Although more abundant in Alabama than the red fox, reported sightings of the gray fox are infrequent. Is this because of the solitary nature and nocturnal behavior of the gray fox? The next time you encounter a fox take a good look at the tip of the tail, as the odds are it will be the dark color of Alabama’s “tree fox.”