A few nights ago my neighbor said that a dog just cleared his five-foot high backyard fence slicker than a whistle.
I said, "Hate to say this, but that may not have been a dog." I asked him if the animal had a dark-tipped tail, and he said he thought it did. My comment was, "That was likely a gray fox."
In fact, I commented that they jump about four feet straight up in the air from a standing position. He was amazed.
A week later, another individual called me and stated that he saw a gray fox in his backyard. He asked me what kind of meat he should place there. I said, "If you're lucky enough to have a gray fox, give him premium lean stew meat and the best grade weenies available."
Later, I was called to Portales High School and asked to explain how a pair of gray foxes was capable of occupying the roof of the gymnasium. I drove around the building and noted that on one side a Juniper tree was close to the wall and draped over the roof. That solved the problem. Gray foxes climbed the Juniper and jumped onto the roof.
Gray foxes are the only foxes that climb trees, and they do that to escape predators, capture prey, and because they want to. They climb successfully because their forelimbs rotate more than the forelimbs of other foxes, and their feet are endowed with strong hooked claws.
In fact, they can climb straight up a trunk and then jump from one branch to another at any height. They climb down a tree back feet first or head first. And surprisingly, they have been reported to den at a height of about 30 feet.
That's three stories high.
But the question is, why are gray foxes occasionally observed on the treeless grasslands of eastern New Mexico? Gray foxes typically occupy rocky areas, woodland, and shrubby habitat. One of my colleagues stated that a low coyote population may be one reason. Coyotes prey on gray foxes.
In any event, gray foxes have been observed on the grasslands of Roosevelt and Curry counties and probably other adjacent counties as well. They are fur bearers, and for that reason they are protected by New Mexico. A license is required to capture or kill a gray fox in any manner, and possession of the fox dead or alive is unlawful.
Occasionally I am asked if gray foxes harm domestic cats. According to Rick Winslow, fox biologist of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, fox and cat prefer similar prey. For that reason when the two meet, they give each other a face-off, erect their bristles, and move away in opposite directions.
So, let's just say we are fortunate to have the gray fox in our area. I especially enjoyed a comment in Burt and Grossenheider's field guide to mammals. They stated the gray fox is a wonderful mouser, rarely invades poultry yards, and is probably wholly beneficial."
Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org