Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fox Pups in the Barn

A gray fox pup peeks out from under a barn door, an improvised den entrance.   
A family of gray foxes moved into the old barn on the Dipper Ranch in June. For a month, we watched the fox pups tumble, pounce and lounge about the farmyard day and night just steps away from our kitchen door.

The fox family packed down a dirt runway under the barn door - just like the entrance to an earthen underground den. From reading Random Truth's accounts of San Joaquin kit foxesI knew many family interactions would occur at the den entrance. We set up wildlife cameras in front of the barn and over the summer we accumulated thousands of photos and videos of the fox pups. First a head would peek out from underneath the big red door, then a small body and fuzzy tail. Soon another pup would wriggle out and playtime would begin. Lots of running, biting, clumsy tackles, and tail pulling.
Gray fox pup checking out the world in front of the den.  
Gray foxes live in chaparral, woodlands and agricultural areas of much of the United States. Around farms and ranches, they will den under wood piles, sheds, abandoned buildings, and even suburban decks (Elbroch and Rhinehart). So it wasn't a total surprise to discover the gray fox family in the Dipper Ranch barn. In the nine years we have lived here, we have seen coyote pups and bobcat kittens, but fox pups have never before made an appearance.

The four pups were constantly wrestling.   
The barn cameras revealed four pups, an average litter size for gray foxes (Feldhamer et al.).  One pup was noticeably smaller than the others. The pups were outside the den at all hours of the day and night, often unaccompanied by adults. For example, on June 20 between 9 AM and 5 PM, the wildlife cameras recorded pups in front of the barn five different times for a total of 4 hours and 17 minutes, whereas the mom fox was in front of the barn with them once in that time period for 1 hour and six minutes between 2:00 and 3:00 PM.  Between midnight and 5 AM on June 19, the pups were outside the barn playing three times for a total of 3 hours and 1 minute with no adults appearing.

One pup was noticeably smaller than the others.   
An adult fox standing at the same location for comparison.  
We did not go in the barn and did our best to stay away from that part of the farmyard.  But it wasn't easy. Sometimes, we snuck behind the barn to peek at the pups around a corner. If we fidgeted, they would pause their roughhousing. As long as we froze while they were looking at us, they quickly went back to romping as if their puppy brains couldn't detect anything that didn't move.

Check out those baby teeth.   
The adult foxes, especially the male, rarely showed up on the cameras during the day. When the summer moon lit up the backyard, I often spotted a long shadow drinking out of the birdbath before slipping under the fence. Perhaps the adult foxes spent nights foraging for their big family and then slept during the day. 

The adult foxes would frequently drink out of the birdbaths at night.   
In a typical summer, we move five or more rattlesnakes from around the barn. This summer, we only saw three rattlesnakes in the farmyard. Perhaps the foxes were eating the rattlers and rodents in the barn and that was further keeping these nocturnal canids out of sight. The pest control was welcomed.


The pups would play fight at the den entrance for hours.   
Playtime around their improvised den was probably important for the fox pups to learn hunting skills. But they also seemed vulnerable. Wouldn't a coyote or bobcat attack the unattended pups?

The black line down the length of their tails is a distinct pattern to distinguish gray foxes from red foxes and coyotes.   
Just a few months earlier, a pair of golden eagles suddenly dropped out of the sky just above the barn. I was putting tools away and watched in astonishment as the large birds plunged with talons pointing at a herd of deer browsing on the hillside. The lead doe zigzagged towards the barn with the eagles in pursuit while the rest of the herd ran for cover under the oaks. As she reached the bottom of the hill, the big doe wheeled around and flushed the eagles back, then made her own dash for cover. The eagles landed on the hillside and started mating. It all happened so fast.

This juvenile golden eagle is scavenging on a steer carcass and could easily pick up a fox pup.   
The fox pups were small enough, they could easily be taken by golden eagles or any of the other predators that frequent the grass hills of the Dipper Ranch. Many young animals are consumed before they reach adulthood. Indeed, the fox parents were probably feeding the pups young woodrats, rabbits and birds that were also summer families of the Dipper Ranch. That's how it goes in a healthy ecosystem. Still, we didn't want to witness the fox pups going down.


When the mom fox appeared in front of the barn during the day, she would be mobbed by hungry pups. She would nurse standing up, while the pups kneaded her teat. Sometimes a pup would rub her mouth - a begging signal for regurgitated food. From inside the house, I watched her fetch plums from the orchard and drop them in front of the pups. She looked tired going back and forth from the orchard to the barn. The pups mostly rolled the plums in sport but I later found half chewed plums on the back porch.

Mom fox grooming pup at den entrance.   
While most of the pups are nursing, one pup is tapping its mother's mouth to beg for regurgitated food.   
Delivering plums to the pups.
As long as no humans are evident, the gray foxes look at ease in the farmyard.   
If we came wheeling out of the house or garage too fast and stumbled onto a pup that had wandered away from the den entrance, it would instantly dash into the rose bushes or some other thick cover. Walking around the yard was getting to be a problem. One evening, I quickly exited the kitchen door on a mission and the papa fox growled at me. In the dark, I spotted him sitting in the front yard about 20 feet away with a tangle of pups wrestling behind him.  My errand wasn't that important and I quickly retreated inside. The papa fox was small, so I didn't feel threatened. And then it happened twice more, once in the daytime, and once to unaware guests. Although I admired the papa fox's protective spirit, sharing the farmyard wasn't working out too well. It seemed odd that the foxes would choose to raise their family so close to people.

A pup runs away from the den towards the backyard.   
One day from my spy point at the corner of the barn, I noticed a pup was missing. As I quietly scanned the farmyard, I saw the smallest pup making a dash towards the backyard. It climbed the steps to the porch and sniffed around the back of the house. Then it approached the screen on the sliding glass door. Mango the house cat was on the other side of the closed screen. Fox pup and Mango observed each other for a few seconds and then touched noses through the screen. That was enough for me. I put down my camera and chased the fox pup off the porch. Even though we don't let our cats out of the house for fear of coyotes, I didn't want the fox pups to become too comfortable around domestic animals. I kicked the fox scat off the porch and claimed it as my own territory. If I wanted the fox pups to survive, it seemed important to set some boundaries.

A risky interspecies greeting.   
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This is the first in a three-part series about a gray fox family living near our home at the Dipper Ranch. I'll be writing these posts over the next month. Every few days between the written posts, I'll also share some of the many photos and videos we got of the rambunctious fox pups. Recently, several associates have been asking about wildlife cameras, so I may post some short examples about the successes and failures of cam-trapping this fox family.

The fox pups are agile enough to jump into the birdbath without knocking it over.  
Common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus
San Joaquin kit foxes, Vulpes macrotis mutica
Bobcat, Lynx rufus
Coyote, Canis latrans
Northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus
Golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos

George A. Feldhamer, Bruce C. Thompson, Joseph A. Chapman, editors. Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. 2nd edition. John Hopkins University Press. 2003.

Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart. Behavior of North American Mammals. Peterson Reference Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011.

5 comments:

  1. Amazing story and photos! Thanks!

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  2. This is a *wonderful* post! Thank you!

    A Gray fox family lived under our backyard shed last year (La Honda near the Play Bowl). I would see one of them every week or two on the little roads leading to our place. And during the Summer and early Fall nights, our motion-sensitive backyard lights would show them to us every 10 days or so. They loved the fruit from our pear and apple trees.

    In around October 2015 as I sat silently next to La Honda Creek working on my laptop, I heard the dry crunching of dry Sycamore leaves on the ground near me. One of the foxes trotted to within 15 feet of me to check me out, looking right at me. Then almost as quickly trotted away. I was so astounded that it took me a moment to reach for my smartphone's camera.

    I took all these events as particularly auspicious occasions: our neighbor who has been here three decades commented that she'd never seen one.

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  3. Thank you for posting this educational and interesting blog on local grey fox pups and parents. I hope the littlest one survives!

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  4. I loved your account of the gray foxes. I am engaged in a long term study on the behavior of the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) and have had similar experiences with the pups and adults as you describe here, but in an urban setting. You wrote, "In the nine years we have lived here, we have seen coyote pups and bobcat kittens, but fox pups have never before made an appearance." Here's the reason for this: Coyotes and bobcats prey on gray foxes, so when they are in the area, the gray foxes are far off in a safe environment. When the coyotes and the bobcats leave an area, the gray foxes will move in and take up "residence." They will probably remain in the area as long as there are no coyotes, etc. although they move their den from one area to another. Right now those pups have likely dispersed, left the area to go find themselves a mate and establish their own territory. However, the adults are most likely nearby and will have another litter nearby in April.

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    Replies
    1. Bill posts many gray fox photos and videos and observations at https://urbanwildliferesearchproject.com

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