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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Reclusive foxes can sometimes be hard to spot around Kentucky

For centuries foxes have been held in special regard, ingrained in the folklore and language of many counties.

Beautiful, with luxuriant fur at its best in winter, foxes are celebrated for being crafty, smart and resourceful. The slang expression to be “crazy like a fox,” roughly translates to mean “seemingly foolish, but in fact extremely cunning.”

The slang “foxy,” popularized in 1970s music and film, was a term used to describe “an attractive, sexy woman.”

But like many species of wildlife, foxes are in fact quite shy and reclusive, not at all like their image in popular culture.

Beautiful, with luxuriant fur at its best in winter, foxes are celebrated for being crafty, smart and resourceful (Photo Provided)

Beautiful, with luxuriant fur at its best in winter, foxes are celebrated for being crafty, smart and resourceful (Photo Provided)

On Central Kentucky farmlands, the red fox is sometimes observed foraging for mice, voles and other prey at hay cutting time in the summer. The gray fox is less likely to be seen, as it is usually nocturnal and prefers remote woodlands.

Foxes are probably most often observed on rural roadsides, and unfortunately many become road kill, trying to cross busy highways.

There are four species of foxes in North America, but only two are native to Kentucky — The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). County distribution maps show that red and gray foxes have not been documented in all Kentucky 120 counties.

“We’re working with trappers and biologists to document their occurrence (in counties where their presence has not been confirmed),” said Laura Palmer, furbearer biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Red foxes occur more widely throughout Kentucky. Gray foxes are less abundant in the western counties.”

Here’s some life history details on both species:

Gray Fox

Gray foxes are slightly smaller than red foxes and are much darker in color. They are less likely to live near humans. Their overall coloration is best described as a salt-and-pepper gray with a dark streak extending down the back, along the top of the tail and ending in a black tail tip.

Gray foxes have hooked claws and are excellent tree climbers. They sometimes walk up a leaning tree in the forest and sit in the crotch of a tree (Photo Provided)

Gray foxes have hooked claws and are excellent tree climbers. They sometimes walk up a leaning tree in the forest and sit in the crotch of a tree (Photo Provided)

Adults may weigh 7 to 15 pounds, but their shorter legs and shorter fur make them appear smaller.

Gray foxes have hooked claws and are excellent tree climbers. They sometimes walk up a leaning tree in the forest and sit in the crotch of a tree. They prefer large, secluded tracts of woodlands.

Gray foxes eat mice, rabbits, birds, eggs, and insects. They also consume a significant amount of wild fruits such as persimmons and grapes, and sometimes agricultural crops.

Gray fox home range sizes vary considerably, depending on habitat quality, population density and the reproductive status of individual foxes. They mate once a year during January and February. The gestation period is 59 days and pups are born in March through April. Three to five pups are born in a den, which may be only a hollow log or tree stump.

During the late fall and early winter, gray foxes establish new home ranges.

The average life expectancy is one to two years, with few living longer than six years in the wild. The annual mortality rate may be as high as 50 percent.

Red Fox

The red fox is the most widely distributed canid (wild dog) in the world. Some researchers believe there were no records of red foxes occurring in the eastern U.S. south of Rhode Island before the European red fox was introduced for sport hunting during Colonial days.

The red fox is named for its reddish coloration. The tail, body and top of the head are all some shade of yellow-orange to reddish-orange. The undersides are light, the tips of the ears and lower legs are black, and the tail is bushy with a white tip.

Adults weigh from 7 to 15 pounds, but males in good habitat can be larger.

Like many wildlife species, red foxes prefer a diversity of habitats rather than large tracts of one habitat type. Preferred habitats include farmland, pastures, brushy fields, and open forest stands, where they frequently hunt the edges.

Red foxes eat a variety of prey, but mice, meadow voles, and rabbits form the bulk of their diet. They will also eat insects, birds, eggs, fruits, berries, and fresh carrion.

Red fox home ranges may vary in size with the abundance of food, the degree of competition with other animals, and the diversity of habitats. The average home range is between 1,000 and 5,000 acres.

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foxes have high reproductive rates. The gestation period is about 52 days and pups are born during late February through April. An average litter includes five pups, which are born in a den that the adults dig themselves or that was dug by another animal. Female red foxes are often called vixens and young referred to as kits.

Males bring food to the female until the pups can be left alone. The life expectancy of a red fox is about five years, but all fox species have a high mortality rate.

For information on fox hunting and trapping seasons in Kentucky visit: www.fw.ky.gov.

Coyote / Fox Interaction

Although coyote/fox interaction in Kentucky has not been extensively studied, some researchers in other states believe the range expansion of coyotes has had an adverse impact on fox populations.

Biologists in Illinois noted that as coyotes become more abundant, red foxes were sometimes displaced. Gray fox populations do not seem to be affected. Because gray foxes have the ability to climb trees, it is possible for them to escape from coyotes.

They believe there was a decline in foxes following the colonization of coyotes into an area. Foxes apparently avoid core home ranges of coyotes to avoid contact with the stronger predator. Their studies concluded that foxes are not eliminated but become less common when coyotes invade their territory.

1Art Lander Jr.Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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6 Comments

  1. foxwrites says:

    “They believe there was a decline in foxes following the colonization of coyotes into an area.” This is why we need a robust wolf population in the United States to control coyotes and stabilize all populations of wild canids. Humans have made a mess of it.

    • chris guess says:

      In recent years there has been an abundance of accounts and documentation of wolves hunting/killing for sport. This includes elk herds, buffalo, cows, sheep, deer, and domesticated hounds are being found dead at the tree and bay points when the hunter arrives. As long as you don’t get an upper management fish and wildlife position, hopefully the problem will stay isolated in the northwest region of U.S. and Canada.

  2. Jacqueline Lackey says:

    Seen a grey fox Oct. 23 2017 Jefferson co. Fisherville Ky 40023

  3. Leveda B. Hayes says:

    Observed a red fox walking along path near Barren River Lake, near the Scottsville Water Treatment Plant.
    Beautiful! Approximately 2:30 PM (CST), March 20, 2017

  4. Therese russo says:

    We live south of Somerset KY and have been observing a female grey fox for the last 4 years. In the spring she brings her babies up (or they’re following her) they eat the black sunflower seeds that fall from the feeders. It’s remarkable!

  5. Therese russo says:

    She’s in our yard right now!

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