There are two species of fox in Massachusetts, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the less common gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Along with the coyote, foxes are members of the family Canidae, a word that comes from the Latin word for dog, “canis.” Red and gray foxes have adapted to human civilization over time, and will even den in suburban back yards.
Of the two species of fox, the red fox is the one you’re most likely to see because it survives very well in built-up environments. Common characteristics include:
- Rusty red back and sides (though the coloration is variable and young pups are tan-colored)
- Black ears and “stockings”
- A long tail, often nearly as long as the body, with a white tip
The gray fox is slightly smaller than the red fox with a shorter muzzle and legs. Because of its smaller size, it's less adept in deep snow, which may partially account for its scarcity in the northeast. It’s more rarely encountered because it doesn’t wander as much and tends to stick to its forest territory. Common characteristics include:
- Grizzly grey back (though reddish around the head and legs)
- No black “stockings” as in the red fox
- A black stripe that runs the length of the tail, and a black tail tip
Both gray and red foxes are nocturnal, but it is common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. The young also commonly loiter near the den during the day.
One trait that separates gray foxes from their red cousins is their ability to retract their claws (similar to a cat). Gray foxes can climb trees and jump from branch to branch, and when they’re pursued, their preferred defense strategy is to climb a tree.
Breeding for both species occurs from mid-January through February, with a gestation period of 7-8 weeks. After breeding, female foxes will seek dens in which to give birth. While they will dig their own dens, foxes prefer to appropriate and enlarge the dens of other mammals such as woodchucks. It’s not uncommon for foxes to use crawl spaces under a shed or deck as dens. These dens can be extensive with several entrances.
Foxes typically produce 3-6 pups. The young are blind and helpless at birth, and remain in the den until 4-5 weeks old. They're weaned at around 12 weeks. Both parents assist in raising the young.
Both species of fox have been known to live for 10 to 12 years in captivity, but their lifespans are much shorter in the wild where they are more susceptible to predation and starvation.
Gray foxes are omnivorous, and are adept at exploiting whatever food supply is available, including small mammals, grains, fruits, and invertebrates. Red foxes are also omnivorous but are more likely to feed on small mammals, and they can take larger prey. They will cache (store) unused food for later and mark it with urine.
Situations and Solutions
A fox den in the backyard presents little danger to the homeowners: foxes would rather avoid people than confront them. Watching the young as they play and develop the skills they will need as an adult can be a joy to both adults and children.
If you absolutely must eject foxes from an area, it's best to wait until any young are old enough to follow the parents. Mild harassment such as loud noises (yelling, banging pots and pans) can work. Another strategy that has brought some success is to use a motion sensor to activate sprinklers.
Foxes and Disease
Foxes are susceptible to rabies. Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system and is invariably fatal to wildlife. Learn More