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Wild Thing: A ‘Tail’ of Two Foxes

Red and gray foxes are common cousins with varied histories.

By Nathan Rains

Mistaken identity, different pasts, English heritage — no, this isn’t a Charles Dickens novel but rather a closer look at two foxes. While many of us have seen a fox darting through the shadows at one time or another, did you know that we actually have two main species of fox here in Texas? They are often confused with and mistaken for each other, but despite some similarities in appearance, they have very different histories.

The common gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is native to Texas and is our most common resident. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is found throughout the southeastern United States; however, it is originally from England. It was brought over for sport hunting purposes sometime between 1650 and 1750. It was introduced to Texas around 1895. Red foxes actually occur on many continents and were even native to North America, but they were historically confined to our northern boreal forests.

Gray fox

The gray fox is named for its gray, salt-and-pepper coat. It has a white throat, cheeks and underbelly, reddish brown legs and a distinctive black-tipped tail. The red fox is primarily rusty red with a white underbelly, black ear tips and legs, and has a bushy tail with an unmistakable white tip. Both foxes weigh 7 to 11 pounds as adults.

Both species are also thought to be monogamous during the winter mating season. Mating primarily takes place in January and February, with litters born about 53 days later. Gray foxes average about four young, while red foxes average about six and occasionally have litters up to 12. Both foxes utilize dens, but red foxes prefer holes dug in the ground, while gray foxes will readily use hollow trees, brush piles and rocky outcrops. The family group, consisting of the parents and young, stays together eight to 10 months until the young reach maturity and are subsequently “shown the door.”

Both fox species are primarily nocturnal or at least crepuscular (most active in evening and early morning). Gray foxes prefer drier, brushy, rocky habitat. Red foxes prefer more heavily wooded habitats, as well as riparian zones and even urban areas. It’s not uncommon to find them right downtown, although they’re seldom seen because of their secretive, late-night habits.

Both foxes are opportunistic feeders but are primarily carnivorous and prefer small mammals as well as birds, eggs, insects, some berries and fruit.

The next time you see a fox darting across the road in your headlights before disappearing into the dark, maybe, like Charles Dickens, you can even say, “It was the best of times.”

 


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See more wildlife articles on the TP&W Wildlife page


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