The fox is the subject of fables, stories, wild tales, and myth. Its reputation among humans sometimes exceeds its real abilities. The fox is known for out thinking packs of hounds, crows, gingerbread men, and nearly every human excluding Albert Einstein. It is know for its ability to turn on a dime, climb trees that have no branches, dig tunnels almost all the way to China, speak to people when no one else is present, and disappear into thin air. While many of these exaggerations are meant solely for entertainment, they still portray a reverence that humans have for this magnificent animal. It is an image that is well deserved.
The northeastern United States and southeastern Canada are graced with two fox species, the red fox and gray fox. Most people have stumbled across the red fox a multitude of times in their travels and personal experiences. In the early morning and the early evening the red fox can be observed in many a meadow in search of field mice, voles, and other small animals. It doesn’t mind being observed from a distance. It may appear that it is unaware of a human observer, but it is most likely keeping one eye on the lucky soul who is doing the watching. The other eye is focused on potential prey. If you look closely, you can see the skill of the red fox as it pursues its prey. The fox will move one ear, locating the approximate location of its prey, it will ten move the other ear. Each ear locates sounds separately and distinctly. The fox’s brain will translate each of these sounds through a telemetric-like process that will triangulate the exact location of the prey beneath the field thatch without the aid of visuals. The fox will then probably leap into the air, to heights several times its stature, and pounce on the victim. Some report that this method of hunting small mammals has an eighty percent success rate.
Don’t underestimate the cleverness of this wily animal. Believe it or not, when it is the prey rather than the predator, it has an amazing bag of tricks that it can reach into to throw even the most worthy adversary off the trail. The fox will walk on fence rails, circle over its own tracks several times, and run up a stream to loose a predator. When it is sure it has the upper hand it might sit atop a ledge and watch the pursuer run right by. The fox’s amazing ability at survival is also its largest behavioral downfall. It can be so confident of its own abilities to get out of a situation that it will take risks that may lead to an early demise.
This past summer our family was fortunate to have a fox frequenting our small pasture and the edge of our woodlot in search of food. The fox could often be spotted mousing along the edge of the pasture, investigating the delicacies in the compost heap, and chowing down on blackberries in brambles on the opposite side of our field. Red fox are very fond of blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, and even an occasional apple. During the warm season months, herbaceous forage may account for 50% of its diet.
Last winter we had a “red” fox that was really very different cruising our woods. By different I mean that this red fox was actually black in color. I first observed him next to one of our cord wood piles, presumably hunting for small rodents. I initially thought it was a small black dog. As he ran away, the distinct fox-like gait and white tip at the end of his bushy tail (the one way to absolutely distinguish a red fox from any other type of fox) told me that it was a red fox, indeed. I had read about this color phase, very common in Newfoundland, but I never dreamed that I would see one in these parts, particularly right out my back door. As it turns out, other local people had also seen this fox, or one just like it, perhaps a litter mate.
The other fox in our region is the gray fox. This cousin of the red fox is much more reclusive. It rarely ventures out of the forest and is primarily nocturnal. The gray fox is slightly smaller than the red fox. The gray fox is typically seven to ten pounds whereas the red fox is typically nine to twelve pounds. This fox is usually a grizzled gray and brown color, and has a blackish tail with no white tip. This small canine has the unusual ability to climb trees, not just trees leaning at a forty-five degree angle, but those that are vertical, as well. The gray fox has hooked claws that allow it to climb trees head first. It typically goes down tail first, as does a domestic house cat, but occasionally has been seen descending head first. This skill is essential for survival in catching tree friendly prey, and escaping from predators that have no idea how to get up a tree.
In my lifetime I have seen only a handful of gray fox. The first time was when I was 14 years old. I was exploring a stream near a potential fishing area. The stream was fairly remote and drained a large red maple swamp. As I was investigating a particularly interesting stream pool, I saw a reflection in the water and caught a glimpse of movement along the opposite bank. There stood a gray fox with squirrel hanging out of its mouth. I stood there in awe looking at him intently. He stared back for a moment, and then he seemed to be grinning at me. He then turned and scampered away, disappearing into the brush in absolute silence. It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized his grin was really a snarl, a reminder that the meal was his and there was no chance he was going to share it with me or anyone else. I had another brief encounter with a gray fox a few years back. I was jogging on a logging road on the hill to the south of our homestead. A gray fox ran across the logging road, turned for a brief moment to look at me, and ran very quickly through about 100 yards of open hardwood forest. He then scampered up a very large red oak tree that had a crotch with a large hole in between the branches about eight feet off the ground. The fox disappeared into the hole. I thought it might be a nesting site given it was in the middle part of Spring. During the ensuing weeks I resisted the temptation to explore this tree more thoroughly so as to not disturb a productive nesting site.
Fox populations (both red and gray) seem to rise and fall with prey populations. The mange can also impact fox populations. I have always been curious as to whether there is any relationship between the mange and rodent populations. In other words, are fox more likely to get the mange during low predation years when, perhaps, they aren’t quite as healthy. Or, could it be that mange spreads when food populations are good? Is it possible that the mange spreads more viably when fox populations are high (and fox to fox contact is more common) as the result of several years of successful hunting and breeding? Rabies can also affect fox populations. This disease has become widespread in the northeast United States, and appears to be here for a long period. The good news is that fox have survived cycles of these diseases for millenniums, and will continue to survive many more.
So, the next time you read a story about Foxey-Loxey tricking and outwitting Goosey-Loosey remember that the tale is a tribute to one of our most amazing canines; the clever one, the fox.
Originally written in January 1993.