Minnesota is home to four species of wild canids: gray fox, red fox, coyote and gray wolf. Moreover, of these four species, the gray fox is perhaps the least observed and understood of the four. Commonly mistaken as red fox, gray foxes are very unique and interesting mammals.

The smallest of our wild canids, adult gray foxes stand about 15 inches high at the shoulder. From nose to tail, a gray fox doesn’t quite reach four feet in total length and rarely attains a dozen pounds in weight. The largest gray fox ever recorded weighed only 19 pounds.

Gray foxes differ from red foxes in many ways, including pelage coloration. For those unfamiliar with the gray fox, it’s easy to understand why some people confuse the two species. Both, for example, have red in their coats. However, it is only the red fox that is mostly red in color, whereas the gray fox can best be described as having a salt-and-pepper coat.

The salt-and-pepper coloration extends from the top of its head, back, sides and tail. Accented with a black streak down the center of the top of its tail and ending as a black tip, along with handsome red ears and ruffs and white undersides, the short-muzzled and short-legged gray fox is a striking looking fox indeed.

Interesting about the gray fox is its Latin scientific name, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Its genus name, Urocyon, is a combination of two Greek words that refers to its bristly-haired, dog-like tail. Its species name translates roughly as ashy-silvered, which of course is a good description of the gray fox’s coat.

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Curiously, this cat-like fox climbs trees. No other canid can climb trees with as apparent ease as the gray fox can. Gray foxes are known to literally climb trees, not just scramble up trees, sometimes scaling relatively branch-free, smooth-barked trees such as aspen and birch in order to escape predators or pursue prey. The gray fox has also been observed sleeping on the branches of trees, hiding or sleeping in old raptor nests, and even raising their families inside of hollow trees a dozen or more feet above the ground.

The diet of gray foxes is wide and varied. Small rodents such as mice and voles, chipmunks, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, tree squirrels, cottontail rabbits, and snowshoe hare are all hunted and captured by these swift mammals. Keen ears, eyes, and noses, not to mention being fleet of foot and highly intelligent, make these small foxes formidable, skilled and very capable predators.

Other prey of gray foxes includes small birds, bird eggs, frogs, snakes, insects, and insect larvae such as beetle grubs. Also eaten is a host of wild fruits, berries of all kinds, nuts and seeds, and sometimes domestic crops like sunflower seeds. And though gray foxes have little difficulty in securing food, they’re small enough to be prey items themselves. Gray foxes have to remain vigilant at all times, as they sometimes are captured by predators such as bobcats, coyotes and wolves.

Pups, which are born during the spring between the months of March and early May, are at the age by August to begin tagging along on hunting forays with their parents. It is during these important times that pups learn where and how to capture prey, as well as becoming familiar with their parents’ home range. Eventually, however, the pups mature, find mates and establish their own breeding territories.

Just recently while driving home from errands in town, a gray fox darted across the highway in front of me. Closely behind the fox were three smaller foxes, no doubt her pups. Thankful that they crossed where they did and not a moment later, I was able to pull over to the side of the road and watch the foursome cross an open hayfield. Their tales flowed behind each of them like bushy balloons.

Gray foxes are rarely seen, yet fairly abundant here in the Northland. Mostly active at nighttime, these attractive little foxes sometimes make appearances in the broad daylight, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.