Arrived home at dusk one evening to find a young Gray Fox mousing in the yard. Beautiful animal.
A few years ago we gave up the pretense of a suburban lawn. Waaay too much work, and never cared for it anyway. Replanted with a no-mow grass and let it grow, then let the rest go back to wild. Almost immediately the wildlife returned.
It’s been nice. We have:
- Flying Squirrels
- Owls in three varieties
- Birds of all kinds, those normally only found in the woods
- Black Bears
That’s just what we’ve actually seen. The bear we missed, but he left several calling cards.
This fox seemed to be hunting mice. He would hide under the bushes for a bit, then make a pass across the grass, ears alert. But there was a rabbit hunkered down just a pounce or two away, looking rather nervous. Foxes do favor rabbit on the menu. At the first opportunity he shot off into the brambles unnoticed.
I grew up running around in the woods, and spent most of my life in or near them. Still, it was only about ten years ago that I saw a fox for the first time. Now we see them all the time.
It was once believed that Gray Foxes and Red Foxes were closely related, even interbreeding. Red Foxes are not necessarily red. They have gray color phases. Actually, they come in all sorts of colors.
But a recent genetic study revealed Red Foxes and Gray Foxes are not related at all, at least not in the last 10 million years. That’s when Gray Foxes diverged from other canines, and they’ve been a separate species ever since, distinct from all foxes, dogs, wolves, etc.. This makes them the oldest lineage of dog still living. Very interesting articles here and here if you care to read more.
How different are Gray Foxes from other dog-like creatures? Well, for starters they climb trees like cats. Strong hooked claws let them clamber straight up a trunk, often hunting birds and squirrels among the branches, and will bed down on a limb or the crook of a tree 30 feet off the ground. They’ve been known to kill Red Foxes, and drive them from their territory.
This part of Virginia is hunt country. They still hold fox hunts on horseback every Thanksgiving from an old Episcopal church I pass every day.
A good friend is Master of the Hounds. Some mornings in the Fall I pass him on shoulder of the road when he’s out exercising the dogs, the pack roiling around him like a single convulsive, whimpering, twitching organism. I have to slow to a crawl, wading through the pack. He leans in and we exchange a few words. A lanky hound stands with paws on the doorsill as we talk. The hound leans in, too, sniffs the interior and investigates the back seat, curious what I might be hiding inside.
These days, the hunters are dying out and the foxes are returning. Former farm fields are reverting to woods, which favor the Gray Fox generally, and over the Red in particular. Grays like forests, Reds like fields. I expect we’ll continue to see much more of them. Fine by me.