A Furry Surprise

Adult Great Horned Owl, Southeastern © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

When I saw the two ears just above the edge of a large nest forty feet up the cottonwood, I thought to myself “a Great Horned Owl is already on the nest in late January”. I gathered our birding group and set up the spotting scope and was surprised to see the “ears” were not the feathered ear tufts of a Great Horned Owl, but the furry ears of a Gray Fox high in the tree enjoying the winter sun. I had often seen foxes relaxing on low branches of willows and other small trees but this one won the prize for tree climbing.

The Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), may be at the top of the tree because it is at the bottom of the canine food chain. A very atypical canid, Gray Foxes are adept climbers and may climb or roost in trees to escape coyotes. Many years ago, as a wildlife rehabilitator, I had the chance to raise both a young Gray Fox and a young Red Fox in North Central Texas. I would let them out in our large nature center auditorium to play and a rousing game of tag often ensued. The Gray Fox was no match for the long legged Red Fox in a straight race, but whenever the Red Fox got close the Gray would go arboreal across chairs and tables and outmaneuver his pursuer.

Gray Fox © Daniel J. Cox, Natural Exposures

Although the overall color is mostly gray, the rufous on the shoulders of Gray Foxes sometimes misleads people into calling them Red Foxes. Gray Foxes seem to be a charming mix of dog and cat. They only weigh about as much as a big house cat, 8-10 pounds, with short legs and a long snout. They make a variety of chirps, barks and yips that sound anything but doglike. Like a Coyote, they are efficient predators on mice, birds, lizards and large insects and will eat fruit in season. Their ability to climb, rare among canids, allows them to reach fruit high in the tree. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I don’t see them often. But now that I have a better search image, I’ll be checking all the old raven’s nests I see for those telltale ears.

Sheri and Tom (Southwest)

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2 Responses to “A Furry Surprise”

  1. Don L. Watson says:

    Very interesting article! I saw a gray fox once near Marquette MI many years ago. It saw me first and was darting to a large deciduous tree when I glimpsed it. Up it went in a flash and disappeared, leaving me wondering how a fox could scale the tree trunk with such ease.

  2. Tom didn’t mention that one of the catlike things about Gray Foxes is their retractable claws. The claws of Red Foxes get blunted by constant contact with the ground, but those of Grays stay sharp for digging into bark.

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