|Gray fox pup climbing a plum tree|
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|
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|
|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.|
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|
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.