Thursday, September 24, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The gray fox – the dog that can climb trees

The red fox is one of the most common mammals on the Niagara Frontier. It has adapted well to the presence of humans and can be found in a number of habitats, from woods to farmland to developed areas. Despite its abundance, it is rarely seen because of its mostly nocturnal activities. But, if you have an overnight or early morning commute as I do, you will certainly see them. Not a day goes by that I don’t see at least one when driving across the county.

The gray fox can climb trees. (PHOTO COURTESY
Its cousin, the gray fox, which also is a creature of the night, is not so common. A number of factors, such as its more secretive ways, its aversion for human activity and the fact that we are at the northern edge of its range contribute to that. In all of life I’ve seen only a handful of these dogs in Niagara County.

An attractive wild dog

If you’ve ever seen a red fox you know that they are fairly small for a canine. The gray fox is even smaller than that. They are 30 to 40 inches in length (counting the tail) and weigh 7 to 13 pounds.

They are very attractive animals. They are primarily a grizzled dark gray with white to ashy gray underparts. There are small splotches of red in their fur, usually around the neck and accenting the legs and tail. Their face is a patchwork of black, white and red.

A hunter of the brush 

One reason that there are so few gray foxes in the county is their propensity for brushy areas. They aren’t as keen on open areas and farm country as coyotes and red foxes are. Even the open woodlots that can be found throughout eastern Niagara County farmland don’t make good gray fox habitat. They prefer thickly wooded and lush areas, brushy places if you will, and aggressively hunt that terrain, going after rabbits, mice, squirrels, and voles. They are omnivorous and will eat apples, wild grapes and acorns to supplement their diets.

An ancient dog

The gray fox is a prehistoric creature and one of the oldest canines. The fossil record shows that they first appeared over 3.6 million years ago and shared North America with giant sloths, small wild horses, elephant-like beasts, and the large-headed llama. This little critter somehow outlived all of those giants.

The dog that climbs trees

If you ever see a fox way up in a tree, you are not hallucinating.

The gray fox is unique in that unlike all other canines, save the Asian raccoon dog, it can climb trees. It is a very good climber and does so for hunting, escape from predators (like coyotes), and rearing its young – they will have dens in hollow logs and brush piles at ground level, but have also been known to maintain dens in tree hollows up to 20 feet off the ground.

The gray fox can climb because it has deeply curved claws and a bone and muscle structure that allows their forearms to rotate, which makes for an excellent grip. They grip and hug the tree with their front legs while they push upward with their back legs. They will then walk along branches and limbs. To get down, they do as cats and slowly climb down backwards (hind legs first).

Gray foxes are extremely interesting and beautiful creatures. If you hope to track one down for a photo op, two public areas where they can be found in eastern Niagara County are the Lockport Nature Trail (which is bordered by brush to the east and is also a hundred yards from a vast expanse of brush) and Golden Hill State Park, which has a large brushy area frequented by pheasants and rabbits. Good luck in finding them -- if you ever get the chance to see one, count yourself lucky.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where gray foxes climb trees better than he can. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 24 September 2015 East Niagara Post

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