Fox Trot

In December and early January there had been a flourish of wildlife activity in the backyards on our rural country road. Several people had shared the sighting of the foxy couple romping in my backyard, and lounging under the huge pine trees nearby.

My first sighting, as I have mentioned in past writings, was witnessed from my writing desk. But on Christmas morning, the pair was right outside my kitchen window as I prepared a holiday breakfast for my son and my father. They were only about 20 feet from the window! The three of us crowded to the window, bumping hips to move each other out of the way for a better look. "Ooooh!" was what each of us exclaimed, happy to witness a small miracle take place on Christmas. I was especially happy my 80+ something Dad got to see this, since living in a senior citizen complex considerably reduces his interactions with nature. The sighting softened our hearts, profoundly.


Photo by Marjorie Chung


As in the past, the pair did not notice human activity and went about their business of grooming each other, kissing each other, and hunting for food. Occasionally they paused to sniff the winter air, and I watched their hair rise and fall with the wind. One of them leapt into the air with back arched, pounced in the snow, and came up with its catch, tossed it into the air like a toy and began to eat it. No wonder they are known as the gymnasts of canines! The other fox waited nearby, with perfect manners, and let its mate finish its meal undisturbed. They strolled around where the edge of the woods meets the backyard, as confident and innocent as I have ever seen a wild animal. No looking around for threats. It was like being a fly on the wall for us!

Like most of the wild animals that come into the yard, the foxes follow the top edge of a drainage trench on the hill, approaching from the southwest, and head down north and east. Through my readings and research, I assumed that if I trudged through the snow, and followed their tracks that I just might find their den dug well against the weather on the southeast side of the hill.

A few days after Christmas, my collie took to chasing deer, and kept running and ignoring my stern command to return to me. Poof! She was gone for hours. I thought I may never see her again. Coincidentally, there were no more sightings of the foxes, and I sadly assumed she chased them off, or worse, killed one of them. Then two weeks ago, I was hearing another animal sound just behind the house at nighttime. It was a sound I was not familiar with. It wasn't the owl, or the bobcat. It sounded in syllables of three. Not quite a Caw! Caw! Caw!, or a Yip! Yip! Yip!, and still not quite a click/ click/ click, but more a combination of each of these sounds. I asked a few people about these sounds, and others heard them as well, but no one could deduce what it was that we were hearing at night.

For somebody that was such an anti-tech-head only five years ago, I now don't know how I survived without the computer. Google is such a wonderful tool. I took a few guesses as to what animal I was listening to. I tried ‘fox’ and got onto a website that will play any animal sound you want to hear! Indeed it was the sound I was hearing. Only the pattern I was hearing was listed as a mating call. I was surprised at this since we'd been seeing two. But what if one of the pair was now missing? I hoped not, because I had my heart set on seeing pups in the springtime!

Still, there were no more sightings. I decided to try to entice them back into the yard. One of the chickens looked as if it was about to die during the extreme cold snap. I thought, "Aha! What great bait." But the bird recovered miraculously. Huh! So, instead, I took the three mice I had trapped that week, and rather than putting them in the garbage, I put them outside where I had last seen the foxes.

A few days went by. I heard nothing! I went out to check if the mice were still there and to look for prints in the dusty snow. Instead of fox tracks I was stunned to find an amazing work of art before me, much like the wispy brushstroke paintings of the Chinese. The pattern in the snow told the whole story: a long delicate, curved trail made by the landing of tail feathers, that led to a deep impression, flanked on either side by the trace of a wingspan nearly three feet across! In the center only enough blood to suggest the consumption of a small red berry. Indeed it was an owl that swooped in, like a swan making a landing on a lake, and left a trail. Darn! No batteries, or memory card for the camera! A good lesson learned for such a wildlife enthusiast: Be prepared!

Another week passed. One day I was out back, gathering kindling in the woods, and looking at all the animal tracks: deer, squirrel, dog, birds -- and I came upon the fox den, still active by the looks of it, with lots of signs of comings and goings! Yay! And it is probably not even a hundred yards from the house, under a big fallen tree.

Some interesting facts about ‘Vulpes vulpes’: It is no wonder that the first time I sighted the fox, out of the corner of my eye, I mistook it for a big fluffy orange house cat. Although red foxes are a part of the canine family, they do have several common anatomical traits to those of felines: their claws are semi-retractable, the eye pupil is vertically slit, and the membrane that recycles light is well developed, thus giving off light shine in the night. Their teeth are not as long and thick as a coyote.

It is the belief of many sources that the red fox may have arrived in North America as late as the 18th century, being introduced by European colonists who missed the sport of kings. By the end of the century they spread throughout southern New England and much of the southern states. Pre-Columbian fossils discovered in caves in Pennsylvania, and other sites of Indian digs, suggest that of the gray fox: Vulpes fulva. Still others argue that sites dug in Ontario revealed bones that date back as far as the tenth or fourteenth centuries. It is also suggested that a warming trend sent foxes farther to the north of Canada, and that is why there were less discovered in the lower forty-eight. The fox's most common enemy is man, but the threat to pups is mainly due to great horned owls, fishers, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Pups usually will emerge in the month of May.


Photo by Marjorie Chung

Some interesting facts about ‘Vulpes vulpes’: It is no wonder that the first time I sighted the fox, out of the corner of my eye, I mistook it for a big fluffy orange house cat. Although red foxes are a part of the canine family, they do have several common anatomical traits to those of felines: their claws are semi-retractable, the eye pupil is vertically slit, and the membrane that recycles light is well developed, thus giving off light shine in the night. Their teeth are not as long and thick as a coyote.

It is the belief of many sources that the red fox may have arrived in North America as late as the 18th century, being introduced by European colonists who missed the sport of kings. By the end of the century they spread throughout southern New England and much of the southern states. Pre-Columbian fossils discovered in caves in Pennsylvania, and other sites of Indian digs, suggest that of the gray fox: Vulpes fulva. Still others argue that sites dug in Ontario revealed bones that date back as far as the tenth or fourteenth centuries. It is also suggested that a warming trend sent foxes farther to the north of Canada, and that is why there were less discovered in the lower forty-eight. The fox's most common enemy is man, but the threat to pups is mainly due to great horned owls, fishers, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Pups usually will emerge in the month of May.

Sly as a fox . . . they are truly cunning when it comes to thwarting off enemies. A fox can erase its own scent by running through water, walking on thin ice, trotting over freshly spread manure or burned fields. They will run relays when chased, having another fox take over, so the other can rest. Fox will mate for life, although they spend much time alone. They generally hunt at nearly dusk and dawn. There are 21 species of fox on the planet.

Here are some great references that I use for learning more about the wildlife in our backyards:

Seasons of the Wild (my favorite!) by Sy Montgomery
Backtracking /The Way of a Naturalist by Ted Levin

Pat Laine is a 9 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her Maine Coon cat and collie dog. Whether walking in the woods, or along Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, she observes the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.


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