The gray fox with prey.
Photo by Jerry Ting
The gray fox is a New World native. It ranges from southern Canada to northern South America. Fossils of the animal found in Arizona have been dated back to 3.6 million years. It’s one of the oldest living members of the canid family.
West Texas is also home to the native kit fox, and the non-native red fox. But the gray fox is the region’s dominant species. A mature gray fox can reach a length of almost four feet – with a tail up to 18 inches long – and typically weighs in at less than 15 pounds.
The fox has a gray back, with rusty red fur around its face and legs. You can identify by its tail – which is triangular, with a black mane or stripe.
Joseph Reed is a retired hydrologist and a lifelong Midland-area resident. As a child, he saw gray foxes on the farm. Now, he’s seen them move into town. He first saw them in his Midland neighborhood in the 1990s. He’s been able to study them at close range.
“About five years ago, a family of foxes had a den behind a chimney over on a two-story house roof behind my house, and so I started photographing and documenting the raising of that family. I watched four more families of foxes raised behind that chimney.”
In the city, the gray fox is diversifying its diet. Reed has analyzed and photographed the scat.
“It will have a combination of fur and bones and feathers – obviously they’re preying on mice and birds. I’ve got a photograph of one that had food wrappers in it – so obviously they were foraging in the garbage bins.”
Gray foxes are generally nocturnal. But in the city, where large prey is scarce, parents can find the task of feeding their young a full-time job.
Reed has the foxes hunt his yard in daylight. And while the gray fox is generally a solitary hunter, he’s also watched a couple hunt together – appearing to coordinate their efforts.
Gray fox are monogamous. Gestation lasts for just under two months, and in West Texas, pups or kits are typically born in February or March. The average litter is three kits. Reed has seen the young in singles, pairs and triplets.
A coyote or wolf wouldn’t make its home on the second story of a house. Gray fox, alone among their canid kin in North America, have the ability to climb. Equipped with strong claws, the fox will use its climbing ability both for flight and to forage.
“In walking one morning early in the morning, I walked into a cul de sac and saw a fox running in front of me, and as I continued to walk into the cul de sac, he turned around and watched me for a few minutes, then he just darted up into a tall oak tree, went out on to a large branch and just stood up there and watched me as I walked around the bend of the cul de sac. ”
Why are gray foxes settling in Midland? Reed says in part because Midland itself is growing, expanding into formerly rural habitat. Plus, abundant sources of food make the city attractive – especially in times of drought.
City residents should notify authorities if a fox is stumbling or drooling, or if the animal charges a person or pet. These can be signs that the animal is rabid. But a healthy animal poses no threat.
Chances are good that you may see one yourself. Driving at dawn or dusk, take a second look if you glimpse an animal with a long streaming tail.
“Keep your eyes open and don’t just assume it’s a cat – take a hard look at it. More than likely it’s a fox, running across the road.”