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Posts Tagged ‘gray fox’

Meadow fox finds a mate

gray fox winter

It is the “dead of winter” or so the sobriquet for that time of the year goes.  It is the time when the trees stand as gray skeletons and the piercing winds come questing down from the arctic and the snow comes in storms to blanket the land. It is a time of darkness, a time when the sun seems to rise only for the purpose of setting once again with the ancillary effect of torturing sun-worshiping humanity with its sallow winter rays.

And so our kind curses the winter. Much of our natural history occurred in the tropics, so this relatively recent remove to the middle and higher latitudes means that we spent the winter yearning for the sun upon our skins.

Most of the herbivores don’t like it much either. The deer had better have built up a nice layer of fat for this time of starvation. If oaks don’t drop tons of acorns in the autumn, then the deer don’t built their fat, and the hunger sweeps through them. The does reabsorb their fetus, and the old ones die in agony.

But not all things suffer through the long winter darkness and cold.  A gray fox vixen, which we last saw mousing in the July swelter, has come to run the logging roads in search of cottontails that might be trying to graze a bit of sustenance from the dead winter forage.  They are not the dumb bunnies of high summer but predator-tested quarry that can give a fox a good course. But as winter’s famine takes its toll, they become weaker and weaker, and the coursing runs more often end with a squealing rabbit in the vixen’s jaws than a white tail diving for the impenetrable thickets.

She is a lone vixen still, but she is a master of the cottontail hunt.  She has come to know where the rabbits hang during the long winter twilight and when they likely will run when she puts pressure to them.

What’s more, she has found a good winter supplement of corn, which gets shot of out of a deer feeder every night.  Omnivory is another of her tricks.  Corn shot from deer feeders and sand pears from an ancient tree at the edge of the old meadow have been welcome additions to her diet.

But a lone vixen can only be alone for so long. By winter’s end, the estrus clouds will rise from her genitals, and the male foxes will want her.

Unlike a domestic dog, which will typically come in heat and mate with the first male she encounters, the gray fox is a bit more choosy.  She will pair up with a mate before the estrus time hits, and he will breed her and then stay with her through her pregnancy and help raise the young.

Now is the time for the pair up, but every night, the vixen goes on her hunts. She smells where people and dogs have crossed the road.  She smells where a sow raccoon and her two nearly grown kits have moseyed along the ditches in hopes of catching a hibernating frog. She smells the skunks and the deer and the wandering opossums.

But not once does she catch wind of another of her kind.

However, as she sniffs a bit of grass that she likes to mark with a few drops of urine,  the pungent odor of a dog fox’s urine rises into her nostrils.  She lifts her nose and casts it into the wind as if hoping to catch scent of his body.

Gray foxes are so territorial that the scent of a stranger would have her a raging war dog by now, but this time, she’s not in the least aggressive. Instinct and hormones are telling her to be curious and flirty.

Air scenting doesn’t reveal the stranger’s location, so she casts about, trying to pick up his trail in the leaf litter.

A great rabbit tracker like her soon finds his scent and begins trailing him along the logging road. Her receptors tell her that this dog fox is one of this year’s kits, one that has spent the autumn months trying to catch voles and chipmunks.  He will be long and lean from those days of running long and hard for such little food.

She tracks him along the edge of the multiflora rose thickets. He’s been trying his luck as a rabbit courser, but he’s had no luck at all.  He’s just been running like a fool, and the rabbits have been scared off.

If this were a normal time of the year, she would be ready to fight. But not now.  Right now, she is intrigued by this stranger.

She sniffs to inspect his urine marks, which he leaves every hundred yards or so, and she becomes almost intoxicated by them.  The smell is so good, so pure, so perfect.

She soldiers on through her long track. As she makes her way along the logging road and visits each thicket, she becomes lost in the scent.  She begins to prance with an air of cockiness, the way only truly confident animals can.  This is her domain, and this dog has her fancy.

As she sniffs along another stand of multiflora rose, a raspy gray fox bark rises from a boulder some 50 feet away. The dog fox knows the vixen is about, and he has his defenses up.

She lets loose some whines and whimpers and soft little fox chuckles. She is calling to him, telling that she comes in friendship.

The little dog fox rises from the boulder. and he is gaunt and rangy from running so much and catching so little.  He left his mother and father’s land back in August, and he has spent most of his time chasing quarry or running from coyotes or dogs or resident gray foxes that don’t want him around.

A big dog gray fox took the tip of his right ear in September when when decided to go grasshopper hunting a little too close to that mated pair’s den.

His life has been that of an urchin, a vagabond, and now when he hears the approach of another gray fox, he becomes flighty.

But it hasn’t been since those warm spring days when he suckled his mother’s teats that he’s heard another fox make those noises. He wonders if his mother is calling him, and so he runs down to the thicket to the vixen.

She hears his approach and runs toward him. They touch noses and lick faces. He instantly knows he’s not looking at his mother, but the softness of her eyes and the gentleness of her face tell him that she is all right. She is more than all right.  She is good.

They whimper and whine in the darkness. Young dog fox and wise mature vixen, now begin the process of pair bonding in the night. They lick each other’s muzzles and ears,

They are fully smitten.

That morning, they den up in the great boulder pile where the vixen has made her home. These are ancient rocks of Permian sandstone, more ancient than even the old lineage of canids from which gray foxes are derived.

The flinty wisps of snow flurries fill the air.  Bigger snow coming tomorrow.  The rabbits will be lying low in the thickets, easily caught by the fox who knows where to sniff.

The two foxes sleep near each other. They haven’t quite bonded yet, but they will soon be curled up together, a truly mated pair.

And the estrus clouds will rise in the frosty air, and they will be together.

The meadow fox has found a mate once again.

She doesn’t need one to survive.

But now, she can thrive.

 

 

 

 

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My totem animal

gray fox portrait

The totem animal of my Westphalian people is the white horse, a symbol of the white steed that the Saxon Widukind rode when he finally cast aside his paganism for the Christian faith of Charlemagne.

But my personal totem is far closer than some symbolism of the conversion of some long-dead Saxon warlord. My totem is a creature whose eyes have stared back at mine and stopped me silent at my approach.

This creature is the gray fox, a species with a drab, banal name, one that makes you pass it by when you read about it in some field guide or tome of natural history.  Gray foxes are almost always mentioned with the much better-known and far more studied red fox, an animal that also plays an important role in European cultures and thus provides a deep tradition in literature and art in Western Civilization.

But the truth is the gray fox is a truly uniquely American thing. Their ancestors diverged from the rest of the dog family 8-12 million years ago, and the entire evolutionary history of their lineage is in North America.

There is no Old World equivalent of gray fox.  It is wholly of this hemisphere.

Poor for the sport of foxhunting with hounds than the red fox, the gray fox always got second billing among the indigenous canids of this continent.  Less cunning, more remote and distant, and its existence in American culture has always been downplayed.

Yet they roam the wild ridges here. The thickets are their home.  They course cottontails on old logging roads, jump deer mice among the oak leaves, and eat the corn scattered down from deer feeders.

They live without our understanding but without our dominance, and in this land that man has abandoned to grow back to woods, the gray fox has found refuge to stretch its legs and sweep its tail and dig its claws into the tree bark.

We killed the big predators that would hunt the gray fox. The red fox, the migrant from Canada, gets hunted and trapped harder, and what’s more, it doesn’t thrive without some open land in which it can go a-mousing.

The gray dog likes the brush thickets of November, where the thorny brush sticks out like concertina wire along the forest floor and the approach of man, dogs, or coyotes would soon be announced in the mere traversing of such ground.

It loves the strong oaks where it can seek refuge when danger comes, but the oaks also provide it a place to bask in the sallow winter sun of January and warm its platinum silver pelt when the chill winds die down. These same oaks hold the gray squirrels, which provide some sporting good coursing and a little bit of meat should the bushy-tail mess up its escape.

In this abandoned world, the gray fox is given a piece of paradise, a place where it can exist in all its ancient foxiness.  There is no domination, only prey and predation, to set the course of day into night.

I see in this animal my ideal for myself. I imagine myself as remote and distant and free as a gray fox, but I know these ideals are flights of fancy.  I am the species I am, and I have its privileges and responsibilities and anxieties and pleasures.

But a big hole in me wishes that I could be as my totem in the gray November woods.  I wish to be in that existence, to live that sort of life in which the natural history of my line and my life were not so severely severed.

So this is my totem, the long ignored little gray dog with the long, sweeping tail and the sharp claws to grip the oak bark.

Wild beast, let me be. Let me be like you.

 

 

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Outer Banks Gray fox hunt

In the 1930s, the only fox on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was the gray fox, and this is a photo of the Goosewing Club on a mounted hunt in an attempt to be subtropical English.

Red foxes did not become fully established in most of the South until well into the twentieth century, so when you read accounts of fox chasing south of Virginia and Kentucky and outside the Appalachian Mountains from an earlier time period, they are almost certainly running hounds on gray fox.

The gray fox is less suited for this type of pursuit because it doesn’t go to ground when pressed to hard. Its usual defense is to shoot up the nearest tree, and this behavior makes for a rather poor mounted hunt.

The Eastern Canadian red fox is much better suited to this sort of thing.  The red fox of the Eastern and Midwestern US is derived from that animal. It is not an import from England as was once commonly believed. The red fox came south after the clearing of the forests created better habitat for this more open land species.  They were the first canids to expand their range dramatically after European contact and colonization. The coyote was the second.

Gray foxes are the most divergent species of canid still in existence. Their exact lineage split off from the rest of the dogs some 8-12 million years ago, and they are the only species of dog still in existence that has a fully North American evolutionary history. Everything else, including the coyote, has derived from Eurasian ancestors that came back into the continent.

They are truly America’s most special dog, one that really doesn’t get much attention, but the history of foxhunting in what became this country was largely based upon this animal in the early years.

If I were to choose my own animal totem, it would be a gray fox.  It lurks in the deep thickets on far distant ridges. It lives in defiance of our world, unsullied and unfettered by our desires.  A wild dog that is truly out on its own journey, one that began millions of years ago in the ages before their were truly things called wolves or modern humans.

Remote and distant goes the gray fox.

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Corndogs

Gray foxes will actually come to eat corn set out for other animals. Their dentition is actually much more aligned for an omnivorous diet than other canids.

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Gray fox with a white tail tip

White tail tips are a diagnostic feature of a red fox, but very, very rarely a gray fox will have one.

The diagnostic feature of a gray fox, which no other canid in the United States or Canada will have, is the black stripe that runs down the tail. That’s actually a hackle that can be raised when the fox is aroused.

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Not really fresh:

gray-fox-tracks-1

gray-fox-tracks-2

 

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