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A small wild canine moves as silently as a shadow among Hoosier woodlands on a summer night. Sensitive ears and nostrils probe damp air currents for sounds and scents of prey. A pair of eyes equipped for nocturnal vision search for movement ahead on the forest floor. A deer mouse foraging in a carpet of leaves, feels the weight of a fur-lined paw and for an instant the crushing teeth as a gray fox tosses the ill-fated rodent over a shoulder.
Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) were more numerous than red foxes when Indiana was first settled. As the land became cleared of timber, gray fox habitat was reduced. They do not inhabit open, cleared, cultivated farmland but prefer forests and brushy woodlands for their homes. The gray fox occurs in all counties of Indiana where suitable habitat exists. They are more common in the predominantly forested south central hills region of the state.
Gray foxes mate in January, and three to five pups are born during March through April. The gray fox uses a ground den less frequently than does the red fox, and may often use a hollow tree or log, or a burrow hidden in rock outcroppings. Gray foxes stay mated for a least one season and may remain together for life. Although the litters are small, they are well cared for, and survival of the young is high. The male brings food to the female when she is nursing, and when the pups begin to eat solid food, he assists her in catching and bringing food to them. The family group breaks up in early fall when the young have learned to hunt.
Gray foxes probably prefer to dine on meat, but when rabbits, mice, poultry, and birds are not easily obtainable, a wide variety of vegetable matter is consumed. Persimmons, nuts, grasses, and large quantities of field corn supplement flesh. Gray foxes taken in southern counties during winter months have been examined to determine food habits. The percent containing various foods were as follows: vegetable matter, 82 percent; rabbit, 65 percent; mice, 55 percent; songbirds, 40 percent; poultry, 19 percent; and quail, two percent. In other sections or other seasons, these proportions might change considerably.
What a gray fox eats does not always indicate what it kills, as certain carrion is often relished. Thus horse, pig or calf flesh in the stomach indicates that it has served as a scavenger. Chickens were staple food when each farmer kept a family flock, but today's poultry production methods discourage raids and limit small, free-running flocks.
Fox-chasing advocates and fox hunters seldom venture forth in search of gray foxes. The gray fox tends to seek refuge immediately after it learns of an impending pursuit. The excitement of the chase for foxhounds and their owners is usually denied. Most gray foxes taken by hunters are the result of using a predator call. Gray foxes are readily lured within gun range by this method.
Like red foxes, the gray fox readily falls for a properly constructed dirt hole set. The various methods employed by a skilled red fox trapper work equally as well for gray foxes in those areas where this canine occurs.
Gray foxes are recognized to be an important predator species in our wildlife community. The gray fox pelt is not as desirable as the red fox because it is more course; however, the pelt in recent years has become useful as trim for coat collars and for similar uses in the fur industry.
Specialized habitat management is not needed for gray foxes other than the maintenance of adequate forestlands. They are protected from hunting and trapping during the breeding season and while rearing their young.
Natural reduction of gray fox population is encountered more often where adequate harvests by hunting or trapping have not been reached. Gray foxes are subjected to canine diseases and parasite infections such as distemper, parvovirus, heartworm and in rare instances, rabies. Fortunately, rabies is seldom encountered among Indiana foxes. Internal parasites, such as tapeworms, roundworms and lungworms, may also lower their resistance to other diseases.