Gray Foxes, Our Wills O’ the Wisp

By James P. Gass

For several years now, my wife and I (and now our daughter Caoilinn) have lived on the grounds of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge in Smithfield. I am the manager there. Since our house is literally in the woods, we are treated to the comings and goings of our animal neighbors, movements or events that often go unnoticed by casual observers at the refuge. And at a property ringed with strip malls and housing developments, we are sometimes surprised at who our neighbors turn out to be.

Our first winter in the house was of the old-fashioned variety, complete with a raging snowstorm practically every weekend. By mid-December we were under a glistening blanket of white that was well over three feet deep.

One frigid January afternoon I was out filling the bird feeders, and to my complete astonishment, two gray foxes slipped out of the woods and trotted to within fifteen feet of me. I had no idea that this shy and reclusive species lived on the refuge. The foxes were aware of my presence but seemed unafraid, perhaps being driven by the harsh conditions to come closer to the house than they normally would in search of food. But even so, they were the most elegant creatures I had ever seen, these slender, waif-like beauties fairly gliding across the snow. They threw me a quick sideways glance, and melted into the woods.

Both red and gray foxes occur in the Blackstone Valley, but unlike red foxes, grays are primarily a woodland animal inhabiting mostly mixed deciduous woods, swamps, and brier thickets. Red foxes are generally found in more open areas such as farm fields, pastures, and open woodlands; but either species will use any of those areas.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two canines besides the color of their fur (a gray fox has a “salt and pepper” appearance, red foxes are a reddish yellow), is that grays are smaller. They measure about three feet from stem to stern, roughly the size of a large house cat. Reds are about the size of a small dog, about four feet long to the tip of their tail, and have longer legs than grays. Reds have a white-tipped tail; a gray’s is tipped with black.

There is something very ethereal and deeply mysterious about a gray fox. Throughout history, foxes have had a long history of magic and supernatural power associated with them, and it’s easy to see why. Like most mammals, foxes are nocturnal and hard to see. But if you are lucky enough to spot one, particularly a gray fox, you won’t forget it. They seem to be the perfect combination between a cat and a dog, and some have even suggested that they are the missing link between the two (though this is unlikely). But unlike most other canines, gray foxes have vertical pupils like a cat, move like a cat, and can even climb trees! Maybe genetic research will determine a link some day, but until then, we are left to wonder and marvel at these magnificent creatures.

Aside from their delicate cat-like tracks in the snow, I hadn’t seen much of our gray foxes until just the other day, when I spotted one taking an afternoon nap on a large boulder in a cutover section of the refuge. It was resting peacefully, out in the open; but as soon as it saw me, it quickly vanished. Which is the way it should be. I would rather see these dusky little canines with a healthy fear of man, than up at the house begging for table scraps. They are, and should remain, the very essence of mystery and wildness here at Powder Mill Ledges.

James P. Gass holds a BS in wildlife biology from the University of Rhode Island. He is a naturalist for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and a free-lance writer, and currently lives in Smithfield with his wife Gail and daughter Caoilinn.