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Tree-Climbing Foxes

The gray fox climbs 90-degree tree trunks and sometimes makes its den 30 feet off the ground.

By Penelope Warren

December 31, 1999, late afternoon, just hours from a new century. I had spent the afternoon slogging the caliche roads that wind through the vega between Laredo Community College and the Rio Grande, searching for the green-tailed towhee that Lily Engles had spotted there two days before. The bird would be a “lifer” for me — a first-time sighting — to add to my growing list. But the shadows of the tall arundo cane had begun to lengthen across the trail, and the first pops of firecrackers echoed across the water from the Nuevo Laredo barrios. No towhee. My feet began to drag, and the camera and binoculars around my neck weighed a pound heavier with every step. My feet were sore. My shoulders were sore. Drat, I had wanted that towhee. I had needed that towhee. Disappointment inflated to epic proportions. My new year was ruined. The whole next thousand years were ruined.

Just then I caught a flash of yellow-olive in the delicate sprays of leaves that still clung to a fallen retama. Green towhee! Yes!

So there I stood in the road, binoculars raised, spare hand ready on the camera, pishing at my prize. (Pishing is what birders do to get their quarry to come out and look at the silly human. Pshsh, pshsh, pshsh, etc.) I pished for perhaps five minutes, catching half-second glimpses of a brown back, a yellow-washed wing, the glint of a dark eye, the rust-colored crest … yes!

No. The rust-colored crown stripe.

I lowered the binoculars. The rust-colored crown stripe of an olive sparrow.

No green towhee for me. The year was ruined. I had half turned away when the paper-dry buffle grass rustled. It was probably a jackrabbit, I thought, or an early opossum. It certainly wasn’t a green towhee. The sound was coming toward me, though, not moving away. I could spare a moment.

Slowly, cautiously, out from cover came a young female fox. She stopped about 10 feet away from me, cocked her head to one side and stared. Her ears, curved at the tips like a cat’s, were the characteristic foxy red. A wide russet band ran across her chest beneath her white throat. Her face, tapering to a delicate black button nose, was silvery gray dappled with white. The same ash-colored fur covered her back and fluffed out to a wide, brushy tail.

She was beautiful. Very slowly, not to alarm her, I raised my camera. For the next several minutes, I crooned and babbled at her, keeping her eyes on me, snapping off frames till I reached the end of the roll. All the while she watched me with a calm, dark copper gaze that had no hint of fear in it. Finally, her curiosity satisfied, she turned once again into the brush, going back to her rest before the evening’s hunt.

I had seen foxes in the vega before and even on the LCC campus, but I’d never seen one that close or had an encounter so imbued with mutual curiosity and apparent trust. Like others I had seen, this one was officially a common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. That’s mixed Greek and Latin for long- or brushy-tailed dog-like creature of ashy-silvery color. “Gray fox” does just fine for you and me.

Gray foxes range throughout Texas, overlapping their more familiar red cousins in the eastern and central parts of the state and into the panhandle. Slightly smaller, on average, and more delicate than the red, the gray fox shows the characteristic russet color only on its ears and belly, and on a wide band running between white throat and chest. Except for black muzzle stripes and a black tip and “mane” on the tail, the rest of the coat shows grizzled gray, the ash-silver color of its scientific name. This varied pigmentation provides camouflage in the shady, wooded habitats the fox favors, helping to conceal it from its few predators and from the rabbits, birds, insects, mice and other small rodents that make up the carnivorous portion of its diet. Though the fox is credited by proverb and folk tale with grand-scale pillage and rapine in the hen-house, the gray variety does not seem to deserve such a bloody reputation. According to one study, only a single fox out of a sample of 42 had dined on chicken, only one other on quail and a mere two on mourning dove. Far from cheating the farmer and the hunter of their dinner, the gray fox has a decided taste for nuisance species, for fruits and nuts and the occasional vegetable. It has been known to consume corn, apples, acorns and pecans. In Texas, it shows a distinct preference for tart granjeno berries and the harder, smaller purple fruit of the sugar hackberry.

Gray foxes mate from midwinter into early spring, with litters of one to seven kits born after a pregnancy of 53 days. Maternity dens may be abandoned prairie dog or ground squirrel burrows, dug out and remodeled for the purpose, or rock crevices, hollow trees or logs, even protected spaces under brush piles. The mother remains with the kits in and around the shelter until they are weaned at about three months. The male fox does not share the den. He never strays far, though, and is a devoted mate and father. He feeds the vixen while she is nursing, and is a full partner in feeding and educating the kits. That education for a hunter’s and forager’s life begins with the parents bringing in dead prey. Later they will capture and return with live rodents or birds, so that the kits can make the kill themselves. As with cats, this is sometimes interpreted as torturing or playing with the victim. However, a streak of gratuitous cruelty it is not. Young foxes and felines must learn the connection between their hunting instincts and their stomachs. A fox or a cat hunts and kills by instinct, but must be taught that a dead mouse is food. A young carnivore that misses this lesson will not survive.

The gray fox has one survival trick, however, that is unique among all American members of the dog family. Every now and then, on a slow day, the local news runs a story about Rex the Amazing Tree-Climbing Dog, a canine superhero who manages to scramble a few feet up a sharply sloping trunk. Or Chiquita or Fifi mysteriously turns up on the roof of her family’s house, presumably via the overhanging pecan tree. (For some reason, no one ever thinks of a teenaged prankster with a ladder.) Unlike its domestic brothers and sisters — and completely unlike other foxes, coyotes or wolves — the gray fox not only climbs trees, but climbs them regularly. It accomplishes this feat by hooking its strongly curved claws into the rough texture of the tree bark. While the gray fox no doubt takes advantage of a sloping trunk or a low-hanging branch where it’s available, it has no hesitation about scaling trees that grow a daunting 90 degrees straight up with no branches for 10 or 20 feet. Once aloft, the gray fox moves about readily, and may travel from tree to tree where the canopy is continuous.

This talent gives the gray fox an obvious advantage in escaping its chief predators, domestic dogs and humans. But the fox also climbs to forage, sometimes for birds or eggs during nesting season, at other times for fruit or nuts. Additionally, trees provide safe places for a siesta during the day, or even a secure location for a penthouse lair. In East Texas, one fox was found denning in a hollow oak tree, more than 30 feet above the ground. The curator of the Laredo Community College Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center once came upon a family of four foxes — both parents and two kits — happily ensconced high in the fork of a venerable black willow tree on the banks of the Rio Grande. On another occasion, a friend’s husband spotted a gray fox in a neighbor’s tree in an upscale subdivision and called the local animal shelter to muster a rescue. He was reassured that the “trapped” animal could get down on its own (and was gently discouraged from calling the fire department).

With its legendary cleverness and adaptability, the gray fox is a highly successful species that can thrive in a wide range of environments. In Texas, its numbers have grown significantly in areas where coyote populations have been reduced through hunting and trapping. Like its larger cousin, and like opossums and raccoons before it, the gray fox has also found a niche in the urban wildscape where the human environment has expanded into its territory. Watch for a brushy gray plume disappearing among the branches of a pecan tree, or bright eyes peering down from a willow. It’s a bird! It’s a squirrel! It’s a … gray fox.

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