NATURE NOTE – 60                                                                               January 14, 2023

Welcome back to NATURE NOTES – 2023.

Introduction:  We are often aware of certain animals that are in our area all year around even though we don’t see them much.  I would include in this group…

Our Current Topic:  Foxes

We have two species of fox in this part of the state:  the more common Red fox and the more uncommon and elusive Gray fox.  Interestingly, these two similar mammals are not closely related.  They are not only different species, but a different genus as well.  They are, however, in the same family (Canidae) as wolves and that canine on your couch.  Let’s explore these two critters.

The Red fox is the one commonly seen as road kill along a highway or perhaps trotting off in the distance knowing you are there and knowing that you can’t follow it.  This animal (Vulpes vulpes) has a variety of color variations, but they all include a rusty red coat, pointy ears, a sharp snoot, and the most important characteristic, a white-tipped tail.  There is a darker color and a silver color, but they all have the white-tipped tail.  Weighing 6-14 pounds, this species is NOT native to Virginia.  It is native in areas out west and farther to our north, but it is generally believed that our Virginia population came from European Red foxes (it is native there) that were brought here and released several hundred years ago by those who wanted to participate in fox hunts.  There are records of Red fox releases in Eastern Maryland, and biologists believe these migrated to Virginia and eventually the Carolinas and Georgia as the Gray fox was displaced by habitat change caused by growing settlements and farms in former heavily forested areas.  The Red fox is more prone to live in open or agriculture areas than the Gray.  The Red fox is also found in suburban settings from time to time.  While it is mostly a nocturnal animal, it is more active in the daytime than the Gray, and thus more likely to be seen.  It does not hibernate; again adding to the chance it will be seen in the winter.  This is the fox that is the cunning and elusive one that employs a number of tricks, such as backtracking, or using waterways to throw off the pursuing dogs.  It is also quite curious.  It uses old ground hog burrows, rock ledges, or abandoned barns for its den.   The young pups are born in March-April, and by fall they disperse to be on their own.  In the fall the older males will wander miles from their original den. They are omnivores, meaning their diet is not only meat (small mammals, birds, larvae, reptiles, etc.) but also fruit, berries, and nuts - especially in the late summer and fall when these foods are easily available.  While they do eat ground-nesting wild birds and eggs, this does not seem to be a major food source.  They will, however, take advantage of unprotected domestic poultry. 

The Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is about the same size as the Red, but with a different coloration.  The overall color is a salt and pepper gray with a prominent black streak along its top and tail.  The tip of the tail is always black.  There may be some rust color in some animals, making identification a little tricky in poor light or with a fast moving animal.  And it is nocturnal. This fox is native to all of North America, but since it prefers heavier, more densely forested areas, or swamps, it is less likely to be seen and has been forced to retreat from some of its earlier range that is now more open, such as farm land.  The movement of coyotes into the east may also have had some impact on the decrease of the gray fox as well (See NATURE NOTE #26).  One of the unique things about the Gray fox is its ability to climb trees.  It can both leap from lower branches to higher ones, or using its feet and legs, shimmy up the trunk to escape a ground threat.  Like the Red fox it is an omnivore that eats a variety of small animals as well as fruits – especially persimmons in the fall – nuts and berries.  There seems to be less of a tendency for the Gray fox to go after food near humans due to its need for dense habitat.  It too births 4 or so pups (or kits) in early spring and by late summer they are on their own.  Its den is often in a hollow log or higher up in a hollow tree, as well as a ground burrow created by some other animal.

Both of the above species are among the more common carriers of rabies, and should be avoided if there any strange or unusual behavior is observed, such as not being afraid of humans, appearing paralyzed or being aggressive.

Foxes don’t have many predators other than humans – as hunters or vehicle operators on the highway.  Very small pups might be prey to larger hawks or owls.

Neither of these animals is considered threatened or endangered.


As with many other animals, it is hard to suggest that you take your scouts “out to see a fox”.  However, that opportunity may present itself in some setting when most unexpected.  Nature has a way of doing that.  Just knowing a little bit about these elusive animals might better prepare you to enhance that experience if it comes along.  I can assure you that a group of scouts seeing a fox in the wild will generate some excitement.  Take advantage of that excitement and do what you can to encourage their interest in nature.  Expose. Engage. Encourage. Excite. Educate. That’s your job as a scout leader.  Good luck. Some of this information might also be used by a scout for Mammal Study Merit Badge (Requirement 4).

Let me know any of your thoughts at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bob Garst