Foxes in East Texas? You bet. Lots of them. But it’s funny how word meanings change. When I was younger, a fox was a canine furbearing mammal with a bushy tail, upright ears, and a sharp, pointy nose or muzzle. To be foxy meant cunning, sly, sneaky, or tricky – like a fox. Nowadays a sexy looking woman is often referred to as a “fox” or “foxy.” In that sense, East Texas is full of “foxes,” and they live all around us in our towns and cities.
But for this article, I’m talking about the forest-dwelling, furry four-legged critters. And they are both cunning and tricky. Here in East Texas we have both gray and red foxes. Gray foxes are found throughout the state. Red foxes are confined mostly to the eastern half of Texas.
The red fox is not native to Texas. It was introduced in the latter 1800s for sporting purposes. Fox hunting with hounds has long been practiced in many places around the world. Red foxes in the United Kingdom were hunted from horseback with a pack of hounds as early as the 1500s. However, the practice was banned in Scotland in 2002 and in England and Wales in 2004. It is still practiced in parts of Europe and the United States. The term “tally-ho” is the cry a hunter gives when the fox is spotted. “Going to ground” originally meant that the fox had gone underground, usually to hide in a burrow. Particularly in Britain, going to ground is also a spy term meaning the hunted criminal has disappeared; gone “underground” or into hiding.
Red foxes are, as you would suspect, reddish or golden with a longer muzzle than gray foxes. The back of their ears and forelegs are black, with a face that is buff or reddish buff color, and a white throat. Their fluffy, white-tipped tail is almost as long as their body.
Food for both red and gray foxes includes small rodents, rabbits, crawfish, wild berries, and insects. Their meals are dictated mostly by what’s available.
They each breed from December through January, and give birth around April with a litter size of about six. They live from 4-10 years.
Gray foxes are found throughout the State of Texas. The upper part of their body is grayish with tawny sides. The side of their muzzle and lower jaw has a noticeable black patch, and their tail has a black stripe running lengthwise down its upper side without the white tip found in red foxes.
A gray fox’s face is smaller than the red fox, with a significantly shorter muzzle, and larger more prominent ears. In a fleeting glimpse the gray fox might be mistaken for a small coyote. The red fox’s tail is round in cross section while the gray fox has a triangular tail.
Speaking of tails, did you ever wonder what good a foxtail is? It helps them steer and balance. Whipping it back and forth allows them to make sharper turns. And when being chased by a predator, it is a lot less devastating if the attacker only gets a mouthful of fur from the end of a retreating tail instead of a big bite of foxy food.
Interestingly gray foxes are tree climbers and will often escape from pursuit by running or jumping into a tree. Although gray foxes usually have dens in burrows or rocky crevices, they sometimes have dens in trees. In The Mammals of Texas – Online Edition published by Texas Tech University, it is reported that one East Texas den was found in a hollow oak tree, 30 feet off the ground. The same publication reports that gray foxes are most numerous in areas once inhabited by coyotes. Apparently, they moved in when the coyotes thinned out. Coyotes may actually control gray fox populations through predation. In Texas both red and gray foxes are trapped and hunted for their fur.
Are there foxes in East Texas? Yes. But my several sightings here in the woods just north of Nacogdoches have been mostly red foxes. Only once have I seen what might have been a gray.
So, keep your eyes pealed for old Reynard. He’s fast, and he’s sneaky, but he’s out there. Just be glad you’re not a mouse or a rabbit!
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.