The fox, the smallest member of the dog family, is a highly adaptable species that inhabits mostly forest, chaparral, and desert regions, but can be found in nearly all habitats. There are three types of fox common to Southern California, including the Gray Fox, Red Fox, and Island Fox. The Southern California Kit Fox, a subspecies of Kit Fox, died out in Southern California in 1903. fox
Foxes are more solitary in their habits than are others in the dog family. They are territorial and can be aggressive, especially during the breeding season. Their once-a-year breeding season corresponds with the availability of food.
Despite the fact that urban foxes use human buildings for shelter and human refuse for food, their contact with humans is quite limited. Most people who live in an urban area have never seen a fox in the city. Foxes keep a nocturnal schedule, and in the nighttime are often mistaken for dogs when they are seen.
An indication of a well-used trail is fox scat (excrement), which has a distinctive skunk-like odor. It also contains small hairs and bones of the fox’s prey. Do not touch fox scat. Foxes carry intestinal parasites that lay their eggs in the fox’s intestines. These eggs are excreted in the scat and they can infect humans.
It is unlawful to feed any mammalian predator in the City of Los Angeles-including foxes (53.06.5 L.A.M.C.). Because of their size, their relation to dogs, and their somewhat exotic nature, foxes are sometimes sought out as companion animals. This is a bad idea. Foxes are wild animals, and are not accustomed, as are dogs, to living in a “family” of humans. They can also carry diseases that can be transferred to humans. Avoid all direct contact with foxes and other wildlife.
Gray Fox (Urcyon cinereoargenteus)
The Gray Fox is the most common fox in California, mainly populating coastal or mountain forests at lower elevations. The Gray Fox is a little smaller than the Red Fox and is the only member of the dog family known to climb trees.
Secretive and mostly nocturnal, the Gray Fox is an excellent hunter. They can measure 21-29″ in length with a bushy 16″ tail. They can weigh 7-13 lbs. The Gray Fox has a silvery-gray coat with conspicuous patches of yellow, brown, rust, or white on the throat and belly. Black-tipped guard hairs form a dark line down its back to the tip of the tail.
Gray Foxes are forest dwellers. They prefer deciduous woodlands or partially open brush land with little human activity. While diet varies depending upon time of year, they prey mainly upon cottontail rabbits, small rodents, birds, and insects. Gray Foxes also forage for fruits and berries, and tend to eat more vegetable material than the Red Fox.
Like other species of fox, the Gray Fox is territorial and marks its territory abundantly with urine, feces, and a pungent musk.
How the Gray Fox is Beneficial
The Gray Fox is considered a beneficial animal by many biologists, ecologists, and naturalists. Like most carnivores, they play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to maintain the balance between predator and prey. They are excellent mousers, keeping rodent and small mammal populations in check. They generally are not a nuisance to humans.
Between 2002 and 2006, only 28 complaints about foxes were reported to the Department of Animal Services. Most Gray Fox encounters in the Los Angeles area are in the mountains and forests on the edge of urban environments.
Diseases and predators of the Gray Fox
The Gray Fox is generally able to resist mange, otherwise known as canine scabies, which affects all species of dogs. A more significant disease that affects the Gray Fox is distemper, which is often fatal. This disease can decimate Gray Fox populations whenever there is opportunity for contact between individual animals. Gray Fox are also susceptible to parvo enteritis, rabies, roundworms, tapeworms, lice, and mites.
Some of the worst enemies of Gray Fox are dogs. Significant numbers of Gray Fox, particularly juveniles, are killed by dogs before they escape to a hole or are able to climb a tree for safety. Mountain lions kill Gray Foxes as do Golden eagles. Coyotes are also serious predators whenever the two species share the same habitat.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Red Foxes, the most commonly recognized fox, are known for their cleverness and have the largest range in North America. Although they are close relatives of the Gray Fox, they are considerably larger, normally ranging in size from ten to fifteen pounds. Their coats may be reddish or gray or even black, but their legs and feet are always black. The tail is tipped with white.
In California there are two populations of Red Fox- the native Sierra Nevada Red Fox, a threatened species found only in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, and the more common, non-native Red Fox. Non-native Red Foxes were introduced decades ago for fox hunting and fur farming. Over time, these foxes escaped or were released. Their populations have grown and gradually spread. Currently, they have been spotted throughout the lowland areas of California including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, San Francisco Bay-Delta area, the Southern California Coast Range and Coastal Plain and in most major urban areas.
The Red Fox eats rodents, insects, fruits, worms, eggs, birds, and other small animals. It has 42 very powerful teeth that it uses to catch its food. The fox regularly consumes from 1-2 lbs of food per day. In urban neighborhoods, the fox often survives mainly by scavenging household waste, though it will also take rodents and birds from gardens. If a fox catches more food than it can eat, it will bury the extra food (cache) to store it for later.
Socially, the fox communicates with body language and a variety of vocalizations. Its vocal range is quite large and its noises vary from a distinctive three-yip “lost call” to a shriek reminiscent of a human scream. It also communicates with scent, marking food and territorial boundary lines with urine and feces.
Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis )
The Island Fox, a relative of the Gray Fox, is a small fox that is native to six of the eight Channel Islands of California. It is the smallest fox species in the United States. There are six subspecies of the fox, each unique to the island it inhabits, reflecting its evolutionary history. Other names for the Island Fox include Coast Fox, Short-Tailed Fox, Island Gray Fox, Channel Islands Fox, Channel Islands Gray Fox, California Channel Island Fox and Insular Gray Fox.