Saturday, December 7, 2013
By KEN ALLEN
One recent dawn, when it was still plenty dark with the first sliver of saffron light on the horizon, I opened the front door to let our yellow Lab out to do her morning duties.
Just as the large female exited the door, she spotted a gray fox 20 feet away from the front step, trotting down the left-hand edge of our driveway. This species never has crossed my path in Maine, so you can imagine my shock to see one in my yard.
An electronic fence along the perimeter of the front lawn keeps the Lab on that patch of ground away from the driveway and road, so she raced around the grass, barking and snarling as if she would kill anything in sight, shocking me. She's normally docile and timid.
In fact, her behavior flabbergasted me more than the gray fox. Whenever this sweet dog confronts something new, she usually runs directly to me to hide behind my leg.
The fox ran the length of my driveway, crossed the highway and stopped on the lawn of the unoccupied house next door, I guess to challenge my Lab. Then, satisfied with the show of courage, the fox sauntered off toward the nearby golf course.
Thankfully, the electronic fence stops our pet from running around the neighborhood and getting herself in trouble, a good thing that morning. She would have chased the fox across the golf course.
I've lived in Maine much of my life and know folks spot gray foxes now and then, particularly in the extreme southwestern tip, where they're more common. But that was my first gray fox sighting here.
I'm familiar with gray foxes, though. I've seen them in other states and also own a piece of gray fox pelt for tying Atlantic salmon wet flies, most notably the Rat series.
The grizzled guard hairs on the fox's back make up the wings for Rusty, Silver and Gray Rats. (I caught my first Atlantic salmon on a Rusty Rat.)
Gray foxes weigh 7 1/4 to 13 pounds, stand 14 to 15 inches at the shoulder, measure 31 to 44 inches long and sport an 8 5/8- to 17 3/8-inch bushy tail.
Astute observers can distinguish between a red and gray fox just by the grizzled hair on the back and a black tip on the tail. Red foxes have a white tip.
The reddish hair near the belly of a gray fox confuses people, who just glance quickly and assume it's a red fox.
This is the only American canid that has true climbing abilities, according to Alfred Godin's "Wild Mammals of New England."
Godin said gray foxes even can shinny up tree trunks to limbs above.
This fox particularly likes ascending leaning or heavily branched trees, where they take refuge from predators or find forage unavailable to ground-bound critters.
Gray foxes have few enemies, except humans, bobcats, domestic dogs and perhaps coyotes, and dogs and coyotes offer little problem once this animal gets up a tree. Rabies and distemper keep the population in check.
After seeing the gray fox that sent my Lab into a pucker, I spotted it a week later, then again the morning before writing this column. All the sightings occurred in my yard in that half-darkness just as dawn's light broke on the horizon.
The fox ran in the same place each time.
Tom Seymour of Waldo lives outside Belfast, and last winter he and a friend noticed a gray fox in his yard. Yes, this species surely has spread from southwestern Maine.
Here's the intriguing part of my gray-fox sightings in Belgrade Lakes village: Houses surround my home on all four sides, illustrating a modern wildlife trend. Fox hunting has declined and coyote hunting generates so few truly successful hunters that many animal species such as these canines are moving into food-rich villages, suburbs and even cities.
I also suspect that the warming climate has drawn many critters farther north into Maine, including birds, mammals and invertebrates.
In the wild, gray foxes forage on rabbits, mice, voles, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and, of course, plant foods such as berries, drupes, mast or any part of vegetation that they can find and digest.
When you're walking in the woods in September and October, it's common to find fox stool (which I assume is mostly red foxes) with fruit seeds and pits in them, evidence of the dietary choice of the week.
Gray and red foxes are truly omnivorous and can coexist with humans. They're here to stay, at least into the distant future.
Ken Allen, a writer, editor and photographer, lives in Belgrade Lakes village and can be reached at: