What's In Your Watershed: Gray Fox
When a Gray Fox Barks
by Bill Leikam – The Fox Guy, July 2015
With the loss of the litter down in Fox Hollow due to secondary poisoning, with Little One in seclusion, the female Dark Eyes and her mate Blue denned up in the big ticket in early March, and all of the other three females in the region failing to have a litter, I was uncertain as to what would emerge this year in contrast to last year. It was then that Dark and Blue were at serious odds with one another over territory.
Dark had to defend enough of the region so that his pup, he and his mate had enough food to sustain themselves. Dark didn’t like having another male sharing the area, especially one that had a mate, and one that would likely have a litter. Every time Dark saw Blue, he dashed off in pursuit of him. Finally, Blue simply grew tired of running from Dark, fighting with Dark; stressed day and night. He was forced to leave his “family” and find an area that was safe for him.
During the last couple of days in May, I decided that since no pups (aka kits) were to be seen at my trail cameras as expected, that I would do an in-depth search to try to locate a den. One way to detect the presence of one is to find an area where, contrary to expectation, the weeds are flattened and a small clearing has been formed. This is created by the pups chasing each other, wrestling, and making small, bowl shaped areas to bed down in.
After checking for several days in a number of areas, I finally stumbled upon a clearing beneath a tree. A well worn animal trail crossed it. I wondered if this area might be near a den. The second day that I visited this area, just as I walked into the clearing, the adult female Cute came from the thicket followed closely by a single pup that must have been nearly two months old. Immediately, the pup saw me and ran for the protection of its den, a wild rose bush thicket that was in bloom with pink roses. Cute sat near the den’s entrance watching me.
The following day I posted two trail cameras in the area and as a result have had the good fortune to not only record some wonderful video but also to find that Dark – the alpha male that chased Blue, from the region – was present.
He played with his pup, tumbled, and at times had to shake his pup from off his back. At other times Dark groomed his pup so as to keep him clear of all manner of vermin that infest these gray foxes and often become so thick that the pup’s ears became clogged with mainly fat ticks. Ear cleaning is essential for these foxes use their ears in the same way we use our eyes.
It was at about the same time that Cute began barking mainly in the city’s maintenance yard and in the evening. A gray fox usually doesn’t bark unless distressed by something. For instance, early in my study of these foxes, I accidentally came between a female and her three pups. At first she tried to get around me but there was no room for her to safely do so and nowhere for me to go either. She sat there on the road and barked at me until she grew tired, pulled her courage together, took a chance, and dashed past me.
At that time, I had no idea why Cute barked. What could possibly be stressing her out? There didn’t seem to be any good reason for doing so but I noticed too that all of the other foxes in the area seemed tense, seemed hyper alert. On June 19th, in the middle of the overflow channel there lay some fresh scat that was far larger than any gray fox scat I had ever before seen. I tried to ignore it but every time I passed by, I had to stop and wonder, “Which one of these foxes could have made such scat?” One evening as I gazed down on it, it dawned on me that this scat was not that of a gray fox, that Cute barked as a warning and she was stressed because I was almost certain that the scat was that of a coyote.
The pieces to the puzzle fell into place. A coyote to a gray fox is a deadly item for they prey on foxes and most especially on the young ones who cannot yet escape by climbing a nearby tree. (Gray foxes are the only canine in North America that can climb trees straight up.) That
was likely the reason that Cute took up barking/warning as far away from her den and her pup as she could and yet still be in the vicinity of the other foxes.
That coyote may have moved on because Cute no longer barks, but it behooves me to keep an eye out for another one that could come that way. In all of the years that I have been monitoring these gray fox families, this is the first coyote to come into the region. It may have come down from the Santa Cruz Mountains along one of the creeks and for any number of reasons, the most important being in search of water because the mountain water supply continues to dry up in many, many places.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the work that Bill does through the Urban Wildlife Research Project.