|The scientific name for the gray fox, urocyon cinereoargenteus, is aptly given to this secretive animal, with urocyon being Greek for "tailed dog" and cinereoargenteus meaning "silver" or "gray" in Latin. The upper part of the gray fox?s coat is gray and black, resulting from white and black banding on the guard hairs. The gray fox has reddish-brown fur on the sides of its neck and legs, on its feet and sides of its belly, and on the back of its ears. Both erect ears and bushy tail are tipped in black, and there is an evident black mane. The cheeks, throat, insides of the ears, and belly are white or off-white. The gray is distinguished from the red fox by its gray coloration, black-tipped tail, coarser appearing body fur, and if you in close enough, the dark brown iris of the eye verses yellow. Adult grays normally weigh 9-11 pounds and are 3-3 1/2 feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the 15-inch tail. The gray fox is at the northern limit of its ecological range here in Wisconsin and are rare in the northern half of the state.
Gray foxes breed between mid-February and late March, somewhat later than red foxes. The dens are often located on brushy and timbered hillsides in brush piles, beneath rock outcrops, in hollow trees and logs, and less frequently in underground burrows. It is much more difficult to find a gray fox den than a red fox den, and the dens are lined with grass, leaves or shredded bark. In April to mid-May an average of 3-4 pups are born, weighing about 3 ounces, dark-skinned, blind and naked. Fuzzy fur begins to develop in 10-12 days and the eyes open. By three months, the young are following mom away from the den, and by 4 months they are hunting on their own. Pups stay with their parents until fall when dispersion occurs.
Gray foxes are very opportunistic feeders, and they will eat whatever is available. Abundance of a food item and the seasonal availability of the food primarily influence the diet. Cottontail rabbits are the most important food source in winter, as well as mice, rats, other rodents and carrion. In summer and fall, diet consists mainly of insects, apples, grapes, elderberries, acorns, grains and small birds.
The gray fox prefers to live in deciduous forest, in a diversity of habitat types rather than in large tracts of the same habitat. Brush-covered hills and bluffs, mixed with woodlands and farmland producing lots of edge are favorite habitat. Old fields, supplying insects and fruits, are most often used in summer and woodlands are used more during the day than at night. Grays are mainly nocturnal (most active at night) or crepuscular (most active at dusk and dawn), though they will sometimes venture out in broad daylight. The home range size varies tremendously in Wisconsin from 31-765 acres, and the size is related to the quality and quantity of suitable food and habitat. Areas of preferred habitat and food source will support a large number of foxes using smaller home ranges, while habitat of poor quality and less available food will hold foxes of large home range size. Female home ranges decrease in size when pups are born and then return to original size when the pups begin hunting. Dens are used year-round, and most are situated on east, southeast and south facing slopes to take advantage of the warmth from the sun. Daytime resting sites are often dense vegetation, rocky outcrops or trees, as gray foxes are skilled tree climbers. They can climb branchless trees by grasping the trunk with their forefeet and pushing upward with their hind feet. They can jump from limb to limb with ease, and to get down the tree, they can jump from low branches, shinny down in the manner that they climbed, or run down a sloping tree trunk. Grays will most often climb trees to rest, feed or escape predators. The three most prevalent causes of death of gray foxes are hunting, trapping and road kills. Their overall annual mortality rate is 66% (man-caused and natural), and of this 70-80% is from hunting and trapping. Natural causes of death are dogs, coyotes, bobcats, some hawks, which can take pups, and various diseases such as canine distemper and rabies. The gray is host to a variety of fleas, ticks, lice, chiggers, mites and internal parasites, but they are highly resistant to a disease called sarcoptic mange, which plagues red foxes.
Little is known about the populations and distribution of gray foxes in Wisconsin, prior to 1900. It is assumed that grays were always quite plentiful in the southern and southwestern parts of the state, but it unlikely that they have ever been or will ever be abundant in the northern third. The greatest populations today are found in the driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin and secondly in the southern "kettle moraine" area, with an estimated state population of just over 12,000. Management of the gray fox involves the balancing of biological, recreational and economic factors affecting the population, and researchers believe that this population can remain stable with a 55% harvest rate. Traps meant for the more valuable red fox or the more numerous raccoon take most grays accidentally. The gray fox will undoubtedly never be as common in Wisconsin as the red fox, as it is more dependent on deciduous forests and rugged landscape, which will limit its northward expansion.
Gray foxes may be harvested by trapping and a variety of hunting methods. Wisconsin does have a gray fox hunting season, but there are unlimited bag limits. On private property, landowners, occupants and family members can hunt or trap fox without a license to remove nuisance animals at any time except the 24 hours preceding the gun deer opener. Fox may be hunted without any hunting hours restrictions except during the bow bear or bow deer seasons when hunting hours apply to all bow hunting and during the regular gun deer season when hunting hours apply to all bow and gun hunting. This restriction does not apply to the muzzleloader deer season or an extended gun deer season. It is legal to use any type of call or amplified sound for attracting fox. It is illegal to hunt any species using bait after small game hunting hours (1/2 hour before sunrise to 15 minutes after sunset) unless the hunting involves the release of trailing dogs. If you are call hunting, try to set up so that you have the greatest field of vision, for the area that you are hunting, so that you can see your quarry at a distance as it approaches. Choose a weapon that fits the terrain you are hunting and the distance you are likely to shoot at. Some hunters use center fire rifles, while others use shotguns, but some good choices might be a Remington 700 in .222 or a Winchester 22-250. A wide variety of call are available for today?s fox hunter, but the mouth-blown rabbit distress call seems to be the most popular, and it is highly effective in most situations. There are also many excellent electronic calls on the market that aid the beginning hunter in producing a true and accurate sound. The calling sequence is often critical, and novice hunters tend to make unnatural sequences as well as unnatural sounds. Calling from an unnatural position can also be a big mistake. If you are going to use a rabbit distress call, set up in a brushy area where you would hunt rabbits if you were a rabbit hunter. Don?t call to long, as continuous calling sequences of several minutes can represent danger to the fox. Human lungs are larger than rabbit lungs, and a short and erratic series of sounds is more realistic. A good calling sequence should last about a minute and attempt to represent a natural occurrence to the fox. Then be silent for at least three minutes, and be alert for it is often at this time that you will spot the fox. Gray foxes tend to feed at night, at the slightest hint of hunting pressure, or under the cover of low light conditions during early morning and pre-dawn hours, but during winter months or particularly after storms, they may be willing to move throughout the day. Foxes have very keen senses, so it is very important to conceal yourself within your hunting environment. Camouflage will help you blend in, and pay particular attention to hands and face covering. A slightly elevated rabbit skin place about 20 yards from your shooting position will move in a breeze and may be visible to a wary fox. Be sure to select a set up position where you can see an incoming animal and you can actually shoot from your position. It doesn?t do any good to conceal yourself to such an extent that you can?t see the fox coming in, and having to move your position on an incoming animal to get a shot off will often result in no shot at all. Everything on the way to your hunting position has to look, smell and sound natural. Fox driving is another popular method of fox hunting that offers a faster pace and requires no special equipment or skills. A few friends, and possibly a dog or two, is all that you will need, and you use similar hunting plans as the whitetail deer drivers. Place your posters on logical escape routes such as river or creek bottoms, hedgerows, ditches or even open fields, and start the drivers beating the brush. Foxes will break cover when pressured and will often run across an open field for safety. Tracking, after a fresh snowfall, can be a great asset for lone hunters or hunters trying to push foxes past gunners.