Hundreds of years ago, the Finger Lakes region was covered by a dense forest. Since gray fox prefer forest and brushy habitat, and reds inhabit open fields and forest edges, fox were not plentiful in this area until European gentry imported red fox from the old world for their hunting pleasure. As the fox preyed upon the free-roaming poultry of pioneer farmers, their populations increased. Journals written by farmers in the early 1800s revealed that fox were becoming more than a nuisance, “They were constantly raiding the hen house.” In Bengley’s Natural History, published in 1878, he describes the prevailing attitude of the time: “Fox are the most sagacious and crafty beast of prey. His craftiness is discovered by his schemes to catch lambs, geese, hens … An exceedingly voracious animal, when farm food fails him he makes war against rats, mice, and serpents, and this is the only service he appears to do mankind.”
Given the importance of farm animals for the pioneers’ survival, it is not surprising that bounties were established on fox in the early 1800s. They existed in some counties until 1945. After the bounties were abolished, regulations were established on hunting and trapping, and the decimated fox population began increasing.
Today in this region, fox are quite common. Although infrequently sighted, this secretive ghost of forest and field may have watched you many times and remained unnoticed.
Red and gray fox have overlapping ranges, but they do not easily tolerate each other. In fact, red fox take care to avoid grays. Both have a similar diet, feeding on mice, birds, bird eggs, carrion, insects, fruit, and whatever wanders their way. The best time to observe both species is late spring when their curious kits are playing outside of their dens with the vixen nearby.
Although both foxes are similar in appearance, the gray fox is not as flamboyant as the red. Grays have a grizzled gray coat, orange to rust coloring on their sides, a white throat and black on the tip of their tails. Red fox have a stunning rusty-red to orange coat, white throat and cheeks, and velvet black on their legs and the back of the ears. They have a long, flowing, black-tipped tail.
The gray fox, also called the tree fox because it climbs trees to escape enemies, is active at night. Reds, on the other hand, are afield night and day and, therefore, are sighted more often.
I am especially drawn to the red fox because if ever the face of an animal showed cunning and intellect, it is the face of the red fox. I’ve photographed reds more than grays, and over the years I’ve been fortunate to capture some wonderful images in my mind and on film: A red fox trying to catch frogs at the water’s edge, but like a cat, taking care not to get its feet wet. Red fox pups wagging their tails like dogs when they spot their mother returning from a hunting foray, and kits outside of their den playing tug of war with each other’s tail or comically trying to catch a passing butterfly.
The Finger Lakes offers unlimited wildlife viewing – get out and enjoy.
by Bill Banaszewski
Photographer Bill Banaszewski is owner of Finger Lakes Images and professor emeritus of environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College. A sample of his photographs can be viewed at www.thefingerlakesimages.com.