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PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE A red fox on the prowl. Note the white-tipped tail. PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE A red fox on the prowl. Note the white-tipped tail.

Pa.'s fantastic Mr. Foxes

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 by BUD COLE Special to The Press in Social News

The red fox and the gray fox are both commonly found within the readership area of the eight Lehigh Valley Press weekly newspapers.

Breeding begins in late January and continues into February. Foxes, although widespread are nocturnal, which allow them to live out their lives hidden from view. People are not generally out and about when the foxes are most active, so observation is usually limited to a chance sighting.

Foxes have been used in folklore throughout the ages. The fox has an important role in the source of the common phrase "sour grapes." It comes from an Aesop fable.

In Aesop's story, a hungry fox observes a ripe bunch of grapes growing high on a grapevine, but as hard and as often as he tries, he cannot reach them. Tired and frustrated the fox comforts himself by deciding that they are probably sour anyway. Today, "sour grapes" is used to describe similar actions taken by people who do not fulfill their goals.

Aesop gave human characteristics to animals like the fox in order to teach lessons about human behavior and morality. Over the years, phrases such as "clever as a fox" and "dumb like a fox" have been used to compare the fox's qualities to similar human behavior.

Although I've had few personal experiences with foxes during my many days afield, I do feel fortunate to have observed both species not far from my suburban Northampton County home. While all but one of my encounters was with red foxes, I did make a positive identification of a gray fox while it cautiously passed within 30 yards of my tree stand just before sunset a few years ago. Both species are found throughout Pennsylvania, although, the more aggressive gray fox becomes the dominant species in areas where their ranges overlap.

The red and gray fox belong to the same family as the domestic dog. They are the smallest members of the dog family, "Canidae," which also includes coyotes and wolves. Foxes have short legs, long narrow snouts, upright triangular ears, dog-like bodies, thick fur and long bushy tails. They are fast runners and are able to swim if necessary.

Foxes are extremely fine predators with acute senses of hearing, sight and smell. They are solitary hunters, eating whatever is most readily available. This characteristic known as "opportunistic feeding" varies with the areas they inhabit. The diets of the red and gray foxes are similar. Their prey includes insects, beetles, grasshoppers, mice, shrews, moles, rabbits, groundhogs, squirrels, other small mammals and domestic cats (yes, outdoor kitties quickly end up on the local fox, coyote and great horned owl menus). They will take game birds, songbirds and chickens when the opportunity exists. The loss of our wild pheasant populations has made the freshly stocked pen-raised pheasants released for small game season by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and local hunting clubs an easy meal for a hungry fox.

A fox's diet includes vegetation such as wild grapes, berries, apples, cherries, pokeberries and various grains. When live prey is unavailable they will feed on road kills as well as on animals that fall victim to severe winter weather. Both species will bury parts of their prey to be consumed at a later time. Foxes have few enemies, but they do suffer from parasites and diseases.

Red foxes rarely use a den in winter. They choose to sleep out in the open coiled up in a ball with their bushy tails wrapped around their bodies and heads for warmth. The gray fox, on the other hand, will spend short periods of time in a safe haven until the return of milder temperatures.

The red fox is the most common of the two fox species in the Lehigh Valley. Its keen senses and its ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats allow it to live close to human populations without being noticed.

A red fox's weight varies from 8 to 12 pounds. The body length ranges from 22 to 25 inches with a 14- to 16-inch tail. The fur is generally a rusty red to reddish brown that becomes slightly darker on the back. The legs, feet and erect ears are black. Its white-tipped tail is a quick way to distinguish it from the gray fox. The tail appears as though the red fox accidentally dipped the tail's tip in a can of white paint.

The reds are commonly found in farm areas near woodlots and streams. Dens include enlarged groundhog burrows and hollow logs. The underground dens have several openings. The female gives birth to her young following a 51-day gestation period. Litters may range from four to seven pups. The mother nurses the pups for about one month. Both the mother and father provide food for the litter until the pups can find food on their own. The pups remain with the parents until fall when they leave the parents.

The gray fox's weight ranges from 7 to 13 pounds. Its body length varies from 21 to 29 inches in length with an 11- to 16-inch tail. The gray fox's fur is less showy than that of the red fox. The coat is a brownish gray and black with a long black stripe down the length of its black-tipped bushy tail.

The gray fox prefers rugged mountainous habitats. Grays tend to den underground or in protected openings in a rocky outcrop. Breeding begins in late February or early March. The young are born after a gestation period of 63 days. Litters range from two to seven with an average of four pups. The gray fox is the only member of the canine family with the ability to climb trees.

Look for these secretive members of the dog family during future outdoor activities. Perhaps you will be one of the lucky few who catch a glimpse of one of our wild canine neighbors.

That's the way I see it!

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