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10 things you need to know about gray foxes

1. Both male and female gray foxes take care of their offspring.

2. The kits practice their hunting skills by pouncing and stalking, much of which is taught by the father.

3. The scientific name of a gray fox is Urocyon cinereoargenteus.

4. Gray foxes usually live 6 to 8 years.

5. While they are most active at night, they can be seen in the daytime.

6. The main predators of gray foxes are bobcats, golden eagles, great-horned owls, and coyotes. They are also hit by cars, and hunted and trapped by humans.

7. Gray foxes are thought to be monogamous.

8. Gray fox kits are born blind and nearly naked. Their eyes open about 9 days after birth.

9. Gray fox kits begin to hunt for themselves around the age of 3 months.

10. Gray foxes are also call grey foxes or tree foxes.

When day is done, and dusk arrives, gray foxes can be seen leaving their daytime dens in search of food. They are omnivorous, but here in Sonoma County they are often seen hunting for rodents and rabbits. In the late summer and autumn, they enjoy ripe huckleberries, the wild blueberries that grow in abundance on the Sonoma coast. When mushrooms arrive with the first rains, gray foxes enjoy them too.

June is the time of year their young, called kits, begin to peek out from their dens, which are found in hollowed-out logs and trees, under rocks, or under a wooden structure such as a wood house. On a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the cutest creatures of all, gray fox kits are a solid 10. And to add to the viewing pleasure, the kits come out in the daytime.

Marie De Santis, author of “Starfish Detectives,” had a gray fox floorshow last year. She wrote, “It’s impossible to sum up the intense and intricate fox family life I was privileged to witness last summer, from early June when the four kits first popped their heads out of the den, until late fall when the last of the kits, the runt, dispersed.

“The antics and energy of the kits was a whole order of magnitude beyond a barrel of kittens. The fox kits were non-stop, high-speed, leaps and bounds in every direction, for hours on end.”

Gray foxes have strong, hooked claws that allow them to climb trees and even sides of buildings. One was seen climbing a telephone pole with ease. The kits De Santis watched learned quickly to climb. She wrote, “They blitzed through the branches even faster than squirrels.”

Both parents watch over their active offspring, with the male often standing guard. He also hunts for his family.

De Santis wrote, “The father would take off every day. Every evening, all business, he’d make a beeline back to the den, never failing to be carrying something in his mouth. On good days, it might be a large rabbit. On bad days, he’d often come home late with nothing bigger than a frog for feeding the whole family.”

The mother fox nurses her kits for the first weeks of their lives. Photographer Craig Tooley had a gray fox family near his Sea Ranch home several years ago. He photographed one of the kits laying on its back, nursing in comfort.

Gray fox kits are brown, but as they mature in the months ahead, they will be a mix of white, red, black and gray fur. Some people mistake adult gray foxes for red foxes because of the red on their ears, chest, stomach and legs. Red foxes, however, are not found in Sonoma county and much of California.

One way to tell a gray fox from a red fox is: gray foxes have oval-shaped pupils; red foxes have slit-shaped pupils.

Red foxes can be a predator for chickens, but gray foxes have been found to be beneficial to farmers by controlling the population of rodents and rabbits. They seem to peacefully coexist with our domesticated dogs. Like dogs, they can get the fatal disease, rabies, but that is rare. Seeing a gray fox in the daytime is not a sign of rabies, as they are often seen in the daylight hours on the Sonoma coast, especially in the early mornings or late afternoons.

When the October fires erupted last year, wildlife had to evacuate as quickly as humans. Gray foxes, full-time residents of Sonoma county, are highly mobile and were most likely able to survive. They can reach speeds up to 40 mph.

Gray foxes communicate by barking and growling, just like other members of the Canidae family, which includes dogs, coyotes and wolves. Adults use their scent glands to delineate their territories.

Michael Tilles lives on the Sonoma coast, which has the perfect habitat for gray foxes — deciduous forests combined with brushy, woodland areas. Tilles wrote, “For the past several years, we have had a litter of kits born under a shed just 20 feet from our front door. This year the first kit peeked out on Mother’s Day. Now the entire litter of five has ventured out.

“They are as much fun as kittens as they begin to tumble and wrestle. I usually stand at the door looking for them as I drink my morning coffee. In just a few weeks, parents will begin teaching them to hunt, and we will watch as they scurry back to the den with a variety of rodents.”

At this time of year, if a gray fox barks at you, you are too close to the den or the kits. The bark is quite raspy, a rather startling sound. Tilles heard it last week.

“I stepped outside to look at the stars and hear the ocean. Almost immediately, one of the adult foxes began to bark and I quickly retreated back into the house. They are very protective and are quick to remind us that this is their part of the earth. We are just lucky visitors. In this crazy world, it is a joy to watch mother nature unfolding right in front of our door.”

Learning to live with the wildlife that was here before us is our challenge and our privilege. As we enjoy the warmth of June and the approach of Summer, gray fox kits are here to remind us to play in the sun, wrestle in the grass, climb a tree and savor the natural world around us.

Jeanne A. Jackson is the author of Mendonoma Sightings Throughout the Year. Jackson regularly posts nature photos of the Coast at mendonomasightings.com. Craig Tooley is the featured photographer of Mendonoma Sightings Throughout the Year. To see his nature photography, visit his website.

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