Gibbons-gray fox

A gray fox enters a backyard in broad daylight, focused on potential prey at the edge of the vegetation.   Photo courtesy of Whit Gibbons

I went into the backyard last week when the predawn sky was not yet silver. I knew the croaky, barking, screamlike sound was neither bird, squirrel nor frog. I listened intently and heard a twig snap in the adjacent woods.

Later that morning, I added sight to sound and knew for sure what I had heard when I looked up from the book I was reading to see a fox only 15 feet away. He was standing in the middle of the backyard in the midmorning sun.

A broad-headed skink had just run into the shrubbery alongside the porch. The fox had his nose pointed toward the bush the lizard had run under. A small wood rat had been there a few minutes earlier.

But rather than entertaining me with a predator-prey interaction, the fox sensed my presence and a different survival instinct took over. His own safety. He stared at me for about 30 seconds and presumably decided I was not an imminent threat. Nonetheless, he chose to pursue lizard and wood rat on another day and calmly ambled into the woods, with only a casual glance back to confirm I was not in pursuit.

A gray fox is a small but magnificent native mammal with an orangish ruff and ears, silver gray body and a gray tail with a black stripe on top and a black tip. They can be easily distinguished from red foxes, which have a white tail tip and mostly orange body.

Gray foxes are mostly nocturnal but will venture out during daytime. The threat of neighborhood dogs roaming suburban areas has greatly diminished with widespread leash laws. A gray fox would be aware of, and avoid, an enclosed yard with dogs. The fox’s greatest threat in most residential areas is being hit by a vehicle.

I recall a time many years ago when I took my big German shepherd, BD, out with me early one morning to get the newspaper. A gray fox ran across the front yard, but not fast enough to keep an alert watchdog from cutting it off at the pass. When BD confronted the fox, it stopped in its tracks.

As the two canines faced each other, I watched a spectacular behavioral display. The fox sat down, raised its head, lifted its front feet and exposed its neck, an act of submission. Over the next few seconds it moved its head back until its nose almost touched the ground by its tail. BD just watched and, being the only dog I have ever had that obeyed me, immediately came back to me when I called him.

We watched together as the fox slowly leaned forward, returned to a normal sitting position and then darted away. My guess is that a fox would not be so lucky with most dogs.

I spoke with Meagan Thomas, who worked with a state program known as the North Carolina Wildlife Helpline. The NCWH answered questions and heard complaints about wildlife from interested, sometimes concerned, citizens.

Surprisingly, the most complaint calls, 1,096 that year, were about foxes. Some people are afraid of all wildlife and often have exaggerated concerns. True, foxes can get rabies like so many other animals can, but they rarely do. A fox might catch a small cat like so many other animals would, but it rarely does. Some callers complained simply because they “dislike seeing the animal around.” I find that a totally unacceptable reason.

The day after my own stare down with a gray fox, I checked the backyard wildlife camera to see who had visited the previous night. I was delighted to see that two baby foxes had walked across the yard and investigated the same bushes the adult had singled out that day.

Foxes are admired by many wildlife enthusiasts, of which I am one. I’m pleased to know we probably have some new backyard neighbors. I look forward to more encounters — visual and aural — with gray foxes.

Whit Gibbons is a research ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, SC. He is an author of several books on ecology, reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife. Send environmental questions or wildlife photos for identification to

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