Shannon L. Ruby discusses foxes in Florida

Red Fox (Taz)

Vulpes Vupes

Question:  I live in a rural area and thought I saw a fox in a tree, nearby?  Is this possible, or can you explain what the animal might have been?  K. Hudspath, Lehigh Acres, Florida.

Answer:  Your eyes have not failed you, a fox it was.  The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargentus) is often referred to as the "tree Fox".  The gray fox is an attractive member of the dog family, Canidae.  Although common in Florida, the gray fox is often inconspicuous due to its secretive habits.  It is the only fox that regularly climbs trees to evade predators and to hunt its own prey.

The gray fox is a salt and pepper gray on its upper body.  A black line extends from the corner of its eyes to its neck and its nose and sides of its muzzle are black.  The sides of its neck, back and legs, the underside of its tail and the base of its ears are a bright reddish-orange.  The coloration sometimes causes the gray fox to be mistaken for the red fox, but it lacks the black feet and white tipped tail.  The tracks are also different.  The gray fox leaves tracks with proportionately larger toe pads and smaller overall foot size than those of the red fox.

The gray fox ranges from Canada to Panama and is found in almost all types of habitats.  In Florida, it occurs statewide, except for the Keys.  The fox prefers habitat with dense cover in thickets, forests or swamps.  It eats small mammals, insects, fruits, acorns, birds and eggs.  The fox is an excellent mouser and has been known to prey on small farm animals and birds.  The fox may have canine distemper and more rarely, rabies.  The gray fox may dig holes in yards, so the use of sentry dogs or bright flashing lights may help alleviate the problem.  Foxes may become a problem when fed by people.

The gray fox climbs in a scrambling motion, grasping the tree trunk with its forepaws and forcing itself higher with the long claws on its hind feet.  Besides being able to leap from branch to branch in pursuit of prey, it also uses its perch to ambush victims from above.  On the ground it can reach speeds of up to twenty eight miles an hour for short distances.  This solitary animal is most active after sundown and very early morning hours.  It usually makes its den in hollow logs or in ground burrows.  They may also live beneath boulders and even under buildings in some secluded area or where foxes have become acclimated to people.

Most female gray foxes mate in their first year.  Breeding season ranges form late January to March and may be heralded by fierce battles among males.  Gestation takes about fifty-five days, after which females produce three to seven dark brown blind pups.  The male stays with his mate and helps care for the young.  The pups are weaned around six weeks and begin to hunt with their parents when they are three months old.

The gray fox has adapted well to urban environments.  They actually can be found in almost any developed area with some degree of vegetation cover.  However, urban foxes have a higher incidence of canine distemper than those in the wild due to their proximity to stray dogs.  This is one reason the fox should not be relocated.  The gray fox is protected and may not be trapped or destroyed.  A permitted wildlife trapper can remove nuisance animals.  So, if you think you see a fox in a tree, take a second look and know it could be.

Gray Fox


Shannon L. Ruby is the Natural Resources/Agriculture Agent with the University of Florida/IFAS and Lee County Extension Service.






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