Monday, January 23, 2017

Fox Pups in Trees

Gray fox pup climbing a plum tree   
Every kitchen sink needs a view of nature. My kitchen sink looks out over a birdbath, the orchard, and the skirt of Lupine Hill. In June while doing dishes, I heard a familiar plop outside and reprimanded myself for not harvesting the plums sooner. The fruit trees in the orchard are so old, they only bloom in earnest once or twice a decade. Last spring was one of those lucky years when the fifty-something plum tree cloaked its gnarled branches with bright blossoms and buzzing insects for a few pink days. Before I could climb the slope in summer and set the heavy ladder between its tangle of unpruned branches, the fruits were darkening to purple and dropping.

As I rinsed a mug, I noticed a single branch in the plum tree shaking wildly. Something fuzzy and gray was moving down its length. A sharp snout poked out of the green leaves and pulled down a plum. It was a gray fox pup 8 feet up in the tree. The backside of the tree was shaking with another fox pup and no adult fox was in sight.  What other animal can go from nursing and clumsy puppy battles to climbing trees in less than a month? The fox pups were bigger and more agile than our first views of them stumbling around the garage in May, but I never imagined them jumping up and climbing trees so soon.

Gray fox clinging to a tree trunk   
Unlike most other animals in the dog family, gray foxes are agile tree climbers. They have sharp recurved claws and can rotate their short forelegs to grip a tree trunk as they climb while pushing up with their hind legs. These fox pups had already gotten the hang of tree climbing at what I guessed was about two months old. The two fox pups jumped out of the tree and were chewing and rolling ripe plums on the ground. A few minutes later as I dumped out the dishwater, I saw all four pups mobbing the vixen at the birdbath. Sharing the farmyard with a rowdy gang of fox pups  certainly makes dishwashing entertaining.

Fantastic Leaping Climbing Foxes from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

In early July, I left for a week in the high country to take a field class on the Mammals of the Sierras. While we learned about Buddy the Wolverine and tracked down bear sign in alpine meadows, a part of me wondered what the fox family was doing at the Dipper Ranch. Looking through my fox photos, the instructor (the Camera Trap Codger) pointed out fox behavior. He pulled out his own videos of gray foxes doggedly searching down food in hidden crevices. If you knew how to look for them, gray foxes were entertaining observers throughout California.

Our house sitters at the Dipper Ranch heard the fox pups play-fighting at night and saw them once during the day. But upon our return, the farmyard was quiet and the foxes were gone. A contractor had dropped off a huge water tank in front of the barn. Maybe its looming presence was enough to move the family of six foxes to a new den.

Then, my neighbors, the Dolphins, reported seeing foxes at the brushy edges of their yard. The Dolphins are always smiling and leaping in joy and even though I usually only see one of them at a time, I know the other one is nearby at least in spirit. The Dolphins notice things. During a country greeting while opening our respective gates, Ms. Dolphin pointed to a trail of fox scat leading from her driveway and then down mine. Were we sharing the fox family? One day, a large fox barked repeatedly at Mr. Dolphin as he was standing on an elevated deck at his house. Mr. Dolphin set up wildlife cameras in his yard which revealed two large foxes and one small one.

Perhaps the fox family had moved their den across the country road. But where were the other three pups? As the pups got bigger, had they switched to the night-time lifestyles of their parents and were we just missing the whole family with eyes and cams? A family of six foxes seems like it would be hard to miss.

Nothing escapes the foxes' inspection in the farmyard   
With the warm summer nights, we had all the windows open and would sometimes hear the foxes drinking out of the Dipper backyard birdbath. Every few nights, we spotted a fox passing or fresh scat as if our yard was on the way to their happy hunting ground. One night after grilling chicken, I left the grill out in the yard to cool. When I returned the next morning, the grill lid was covered with tracks as if the foxes had been tap-dancing on this new object in their territory.

Size comparison in September - pup on left, adult fox on right   

Foxes in Persimmon Tree from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

By August, the persimmon tree in the backyard was covered with fat green fruit. At night, we would hear the tree shaking. When we walked out on the back porch and shined a flashlight, several pairs of eyes would flash back. One, two and then a third fox would jump out of the tree, trot just past the fence, and then in a line look back at us.  As soon as we returned inside, we could hear the tree shaking again and sometimes a begging whine.  If the foxes were going to decimate the persimmons before they ripened, we might as well set a camera trap, even two.

Gray Foxes Jumping Up and Down from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

We set the new Reconyx Ultrafire camera on video mode and aimed it at the first crotch, 4 feet up the persimmon trunk, a likely landing spot for the leaping foxes. We set a second Reconyx Hyperfire on photo mode at the base of the tree. We discovered the persimmon tree was a hotbed of fox activities every night.

Fox Pup Begging from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

Over the week that we monitored with the cameras, the foxes would visit the persimmon tree two to five times per night starting at 9 pm with their last visit often at 430 am as if they were stopping on their way to and from their den. Their total time in the tree in an evening was one to four hours although the median time in a night was 1 hour and 37 minutes. They were spending an hour or more away from the tree between visits indicating these omnivores had other delicacies to consume on the ranch during the night.

With the two cameras, we were able to detect two or three foxes in or under the tree at the same time, but never more. It was clear that the other three fox pups were probably dead. With all the predators that show up on the cameras at the Dipper Ranch - bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions and golden eagles - it wasn't a complete surprise to learn that 75% of the fox litter only lived a few months.

A busy night - one fox going up and another one coming down.   
Ecologically, a jump from two foxes to six foxes in a localized area seems huge. Even with a seasonal bounty of orchard fruit, how could a system support so many more mouths? Yet, this sudden pulse of new life is happening all over in the spring, new mice, birds, rabbits, insects, bobcats, coyotes, more grass, more woody shoots, seeds and so on. And the old and new life are eating each other, so some survive and some feed the others. It's a dizzy array of eating, growing, and death. We want to save every fuzzy wild critter, yet there isn't enough food for them all to survive and they are part and parcel of each other's lives.

As their co-residents on the Dipper Ranch, it was sad for us to know those bushy tails were gone so quickly. We kept hoping we might see the entire family of six foxes back together again, but it never happened. An attack by a predator at the barn den could have panicked the remaining family of three and caused them to move across the road. Yet later in the summer, the lure of the persimmons was enough to bring the smaller fox family back every night.

Gray Foxes Battle a Rug from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

As the summer wore on, the downsized fox family got bolder and put us under nightly siege. While relaxing in the living room in the evening, we might see a fox run maniacal circles on the back porch,  sharp snout stretched full out, tail streaming behind, and then dive off the steps or over the banister when we got up to check the swooshing noise. The fox pup peered in the screen door one evening to watch a few seconds of a movie with us. They pooped on the compost bin, boots left on the stoop, and planters that we moved to another location in the yard. The little lords of the night even attacked the clothes pin bag. Without any siblings to fight, the lone pup would wrestle the rugs on the porch.

Dominance in the Fox Pack from Cindy Roessler on Vimeo.

Eventually, the persimmons turned orange and ripe enough to harvest. I got the ladder out in time. Despite weeks of fox plundering, there were still persimmons left for us to enjoy and share with our friends. Fall is a wonderful time to climb into trees at the Dipper Ranch. Clouds return, the sky is a light crystal blue, and the ripe fruit bob among bright orange and dark red leaves that drift loose as you brush against them. Although their nighttime raids would not have been as colorful, the foxes claimed ownership of the old tree which has been feeding generations of them long before my family arrived at the Dipper Ranch.

I am not sure if we will see fox pups again next year, but I'll be looking for small seed-filled scats, divots under the barn door, and puncture holes in the clothes pin bag. And I'm thankful they leave a bit of the Dipper fruits for us.

Fox pup plucking plum with tiny teeth and agile legs and claws   
This is the third in a three-part series about the gray fox family in the Dipper Ranch farmyard this summer. Click titles to read the first two posts: Fox Pups in the Barn and Fox Pup in the Garage.
Common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus

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.


  1. I'm growing quite fond of those foxes.

  2. So wonderful. Flying foxes, persimmon pilfering and rug wrestling. What's not to love? That's not 2 pups in the rug wrestling vid? And an adult and 2 pups in the dominance vid?

    1. Since July, I never saw more than 3 foxes at a time nor did more than 3 show up on various sets of cams. I've gone through the photos and videos many times in the last few months and overall I see three sizes which are probably mom, dad and pup. I can see three different sizes in the dominance video. The dad is the bigger and stand-off fox who stands on the steps in the beginning and then at the end threatens the others with open mouth head lunges. I've considered that maybe there are more pups and sometimes they may be hanging out with just one parent. Earlier in the summer, I would occasionally see mom and dad fox together and he was definitely bigger. The two foxes wrestling on the porch floor in the dominance video look almost the same size and act like canine siblings. So I guess I will say - I don't know for sure, just my overall sense is that a remaining pup almost caught up in size to mom by October when those porch videos were taken. This will require more research and more videos next year if the fox family shows up again! I'm really pleased with the new Reconyx video cam.

    2. Perhaps it was mom and 1 of the pups that disappeared, and you've been seeing dad and 2 pups? In foxes, dad will stay with the pups and raise them if mom is taken (as long as they're weaned). Aunties will also help if they're around.

    3. Yah, that could be it. By October, there could be a size difference between individual pups. And originally, there were 4 pups.

    4. I forgot there were originally 4 pups. That little frail one too. Hmmmm... Tough. But amazing to see. Those vids with the audio are top notch.

  3. Thanks for this ongoing series with informative insight to this animal's behavior. This past year, I had 3 different fox sightings, after not having seen any for almost 20 years, that included one hunting during the day. Prompted by your first posting, I went to youtube to find out what fox calls/barks sound like and was quite surprised how unlike a canine it sounds. When they made visits to your yard and porch, did you ever hear them calling to one another?

    1. I would hear different types of begging and yipping calls occasionally at night when the foxes were in the persimmon tree. Somehow I slept through all the ruckus on the porch at night and would only notice the scat, tossed rugs and punctured clothes pin bag in the morning. They sure like pulling down and biting that clothes pin bag.

  4. oh man so much awesome. Love the leaping and climbing!


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