Species Spotlight: Gray Fox
Common name: Gray Fox
Latin name: Urocyon cinereoargenteus
Status under SARA: Schedule 1, Threatened. A 2015 COSEWIC assessment put the species as Threatened.
Range in Canada: Manitoba to northwestern Ontario (Kenora), southern Ontario (Windsor) to southeastern Quebec (Sherbrook).
Size: Approximately 1 m long with males weighing an average of 4.2 kg and females 3.9 kg.
Population Estimate: Relatively unknown. Based on a few records it is estimated that there are fewer than 110 mature individuals.
- The Gray Fox belongs to the dog family (Canidae) and its appearance is similar to the Red Fox.
- The Gray Fox has a shorter muzzle and legs with rounded footprints; it has gray fur with red patches on its neck, sides, and legs and a black stripe down its back – all features that separate it from the Red Fox
- Gray Foxes have an extremely varied diet, eating small rodents in the winter and eating vegetable matter such as corn and apples in the late summer and fall.
- Most females breed in their first year and have one litter with three or four kits. These kits live with the parents until they are eight months old.
- Gray Foxes live in small groups consisting of an adult male, female, and their kits.
- Unique for a member of the dog family, Gray Foxes can climb trees using their hooked claws.
- Gray Foxes prefer deciduous forests and marshes, but they are also habitat generalists and can reside in many different environments including the outskirts of cities.
- Like many mammal predators, Gray Foxes are nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning they are active after dawn and before dusk.
A study on the species by the Canadian Field-Naturalist cites historical evidence that the Gray Fox was once a common mammal in southern Ontario and had a wide habitat range prior to European settlement of eastern North America. It disappeared from Canada at this time and only returned in the late 1930s or 40s when US populations began to expand northward. Although the Gray Fox is still not on any threatened species lists in the United States, the Gray Fox’s population in Canada is precarious and faces a long road to recovery.
Now, the Gray Fox has only been spotted in Manitoba, southeastern Ontario and Quebec. Breeding appears to be limited to two parts of Ontario: Pelee Island and Northwestern Ontario in the Kenora area. The population in Canada is relatively unknown due to no quantitative population study of the species. However, based on a few records, the estimate for mature Gray Fox individuals is less than 110.
The Gray Fox is of interest to scientists because there is no clear explanation for its extreme decline in population, and due to their secretive nature it is difficult to obtain an accurate population estimate. It is so rare to catch a glimpse of a Gray Fox, that many researchers express great surprise on describing their first sighting. For Bill Leikham, a prominent Gray Fox researcher, his first accidental sighting turned into days of observing an entire Gray Fox family. These sightings are so few and far between that in 2012 the Nature Conservancy of Canada, in partnership with Trent University and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), granted over $5,000 for a Gray Fox study on Pelee Island to learn more about the population and support its conservation. A progress report in 2014 cited mixed results; although motion sensor cameras helped to determine the presence and behaviour of individual foxes.
Gray Foxes face several threats, both natural and human-caused. These threats include vehicle collisions, diseases such as canine distemper or rabies and predation from larger species of predators.
What’s Being Done
The Gray Fox is protected by the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), and by Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. This species also receives protection under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act and has had general habitat protection since 2013., though without knowing much about this species and its distribution, such protection is of limited value.
As well, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is working to protect areas where the Gray Fox may live and thrive. For instance, on Pelee Island the NCC is working with researchers to understand the ecology of the Gray Fox.
What You Can Do
- Report a Sighting: The Ministry of Natural Resources tracks species like the Gray Fox. Fill out a quick form online to report any species sightings and include photographs or coordinates whenever possible.
- Volunteer: Get involved with a local nature club or provincial park. Nature Canada’s NatureHood program is a great way to connect to nature where you live through events, stewardship activities, and wildlife observation!
- Be a good steward: What you do on your own property is important in species recovery too. You may be eligible for stewardship programs that support species and habitat recovery such as Habitat Stewardship Programs of Environment Canada.
Thank you to guest blogger Caitlin Leishman for contributing this species spotlight.