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Posts Tagged ‘gray fox’

This is a remarkable bit of trail camera footage from Putnam County, Florida.

Here we have two gray foxes coordinating an attack on a flock of Osceola turkeys. They are engaging in behavior I’d expect more from wolves or coyotes.  One fox harries the birds, while the other sneaks around from behind.

Although the foxes don’t catch a turkey that day, they might sometimes succeed if they keep doing this behavior.

I’ve read old accounts of gray foxes working together to hunt rabbits, but I put them away as hearsay.

After seeing this footage, I am convinced they do sometimes engage in cooperative hunting.

Gray foxes, especially in Florida, aren’t that big, and a turkey is a fighting dinosaur of a chicken. My guess is they aren’t regularly preying on mature turkeys, but they do engage in this sort of behavior to test them in much the same way wolves test elk or caribou.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this footage, but it is pretty remarkable.

I’ve always admired the gray fox. It’s a truly unique American canid, for it has no Old World congeners.

They and turkeys have been interacting for millions of years in the Southeast and Southwest, a dance far more ancient than wolf and bison in Yellowstone. And certainly far more ancient than man versus beast on this continent.

And this drama happened in the third most populous state in the union, not in some far wilderness of the West. Indeed, just a stone’s throw from the first permanent European settlement in North America.

 

 

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The Nest Raid

gray fox family

The snow fell in April, swirling in the soft spring breezes before coating the greening grass. Winter was breaking. Though the air was chill, the sun’s soft angles spoke of what was to come.

An Angus cow licked her newborn in the hill pasture. Robins sang in the black cherries. Trout anglers moseyed along country lanes to their favorite holes.

No one seemed to be thinking of the great chills of January and the tropical swelter of July.  The banal, sweet time was coming. The dogwoods would be in bloom. The Forsythias were already casting their diminutive yellow plumes, and a few redbuds were showing theirs.

And the meadow fox nursed her new litter. They were whelped a den dug at the base of a fallen oak. Four little gray foxes whined and whimpered over her swollen mammaries. Three were little vixens, and one was stout little dog fox that strongly resembled her father, who had been removed with a night hunter’s bullet on a distant November night.

Her new mate was a young fox, but over the late winter, he had become a maestro at running the country lanes for wily old cottontails. He had knew how to punch hard into the coverts of greenbrier and multiflora rose and force the hard holding rabbit into the open for a winter coursing.

But now that he had a mate and kits to feed, he was forced to try other avenues. He was hunting for five now, and he begun testing out his techniques as an arboreal hunter.

He had learned to climb up high in then canopy and raid fox and gray squirrel dreys.  In late winter, the squirrels would have their young in those dreys, and they were quite tasty and nutritious for a fox family.

He also raided every songbird nest he could find.  But only now,  as the sun began to work its way back to shining high at this latitude that the birds were laying enough eggs to be worth the trouble.

But as his young grew, he needed more eggs and more meat. When they were three weeks and sucking their mother really hard, he began his nightly egg hunt. It was a warm day in late April, and some of the hen turkeys had taken to brooding their nests in the undergrowth.

One old hen laid her speckled eggs along a cottontail lane. She didn’t seem to care that these lanes sometimes filled with predators. She’d fought off her fair share of raccoons, skunks, and opossums.  She knew that they really didn’t want to deal with a mad dinosaur mama with sharp claws and a piercing beak.

Even a fell boar raccoon would back down from her defense, and she knew that she had this power. So she sat smugly upon her eggs, almost daring some beast of the field to molest her brood.

On this warm day in April, the meadow fox’s mate went on an daylight raid. His mate needed food, and his babes needed milk.  He thought of darting along a well-known stand of autumn olive, where the towhees nest, but as he slunk along the trail, his nose caught wind of many eggs, big eggs, and they were lying out on the ground!

He changed his approach and began a jovial saunter towards the egg scent. He smelled a turkey, but his youthful inexperience led him to assume that these were stochastic variables.  He just knew there eggs and they were on the ground and they were going to be good food.

He came within ten feet of the nesting turkey hen.  She clucked a warning from her nest.  The fox thought it odd for a turkey to be clucking from such a thick covert. He cocked his head at the sound, turning his prick ears to catch the source of the sound.

He stood there for 90 seconds or so. Then he began his jovial jaunt towards the egg scent.  He made no more than four or five steps forward before the covert exploded with angry feathers.

The great turkey hen was upon the fox.  Her thick claws tore at his side and her sharp beak hammered him hard.

So surprised was the fox by this development, that he screeched and then ran.  The dinosaur mama held tight on his tail as he raced down the cottontail raid.

Then she turned and strutted back with the cautious calm of an Old West gunslinger. One could almost see her blowing the smoke off her pistol as she strolled out of town.

So that nest raid failed, but all was not doomed for the fox family. That night, many young, quite naive cottontails filled the lanes. The dog fox could catch several of them through the night. This supply of naive young rabbits would go on through the summer. No more would he have to climb trees and raid birds nests for survival. His family’s hunger would be sated on the tenderest of rabbit meat.

And so the young foxes grew up in the soft days of spring. They were weaned on regurgitated rabbit, and they played like kitten-dogs in the sun shine.

These were the rosy days of childhood. All made possible by a enterprising father, who wasn’t afraid to try raiding new sources of prey.

Read more about the saga of these gray foxes’

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Photo by Alexander Badyaev

It’s no secret that I have a bit of infatuation the canids in the genus Urocyon. Not only are they considered the most basal form of extant canid, it is very likely that there are multiple cryptic species in the genus that need more molecular and morphological investigations to ascertain.

These canids are unique among North American dogs in that they are great tree climbers. Indeed, they are the most arboreal of all dogs. While the raccoon dogs of the Old World certainly do climb with their long hooked claws, the gray foxes take to the trees as readily as cats do.

A few years ago, I came across these images of some Southwestern gray foxes climbing in trees that were adorned with skeletons. I initially thought they had been placed in these trees to attract the foxes to the trail camera, and I pretty much ignored them.

But today, I was snooping around the web in search of the latest stories on gray foxes, and I came across the full story of these images. It turns out that the gray foxes of the Sonoran Desert often cache prey and scavenged food items in trees to keep them safe from coyotes. They use these “skeleton trees” as places where the whole family group gets together to groom and bond and rearrange their caches.

The most unusual photo from the series shows a gray fox standing on a branch where it has placed a dead collared peccary (javelina) “piglet.” The adults of this species are so much larger and so much more aggressive than any gray fox, and I cannot help but wonder how the gray fox managed to catch such a trophy. It had to have taken some guts if the fox caught it on the run, but the researcher who got these photos claims that the foxes do trail peccaries in hopes of snatching a little one.

Lots of research goes into wolves and coyotes. They are the charismatic canids of North America, and both North American and Old World red foxes have also been extensively studied.

But gray foxes don’t get that same billing, and that is pretty sad. They are not like the short-eared dog of South America, where they intentionally live as far from human settlements as possible and are quite difficult to study. Gray foxes are pretty common in North America, if you live south of Canada and outside of the Northern Rockies and the Northern Great Plains of the United States.

I think the name has something to do with it. The name “gray fox” has a connotation with something drab and bland, while “red fox” has a spicier feel.

One implication of the recent finding of the potential existence of two species of gray fox on the North America mainland is that the proposed Western species might derive from an Irvingintonian Urocyon that is not ancestral to the proposed Eastern species.

This analysis was derived from a limited mitochondrial DNA analysis and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it seems likely that at least two species really do exist on this continent. More work from the full genome needs to be performed, and my guess is this research is currently being performed. The article might be out in peer-review right now, and one day, we’ll know for sure.

But there is something mysterious about these little canids. They are move like little cat-dogs, and in the Southwest, at least, they are little dog-leopards, caching their prey in trees where the coyotes can’t go.

The more we know about these lesser dogs, the more they intrigue me. Indeed, the whole lesser parts of Carnivora have me a bit enthralled. The tiger is largely known, as is the wolf, but the mysteries lie with the Eastern spotted skunk in the High Alleghenies of West Virginia, with the long-tailed weasels of canyon lands of New Mexico, and with the bat-eared foxes of the Kalahari.

So now, we must consider the meek and the mild and drab. We must now come to know them, to let their mysteries be revealed in all their glory. We will be shocked, I’m sure

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plott hound

He bought the young Plott and named her Crockett, and he trained to hunt rac oons and gray foxes in the overgrown coverts that stretched out behind his house.

He was a school administrator by trade, but the demands of the job meant he could slip in and out when the cold nights of November came slipping down upon the hills.

He had run Walkers on red foxes as a boy, and he’d always had a beagle or two, but when his last beagle passed on to that Valhalla of cottontail chases, he went looking for a big hound to run.

When he saw the ad in the farm classified, he rushed off and plunked down the $250 for a little long-eared brindle pup and began the process of turning her into a first-rate varmint dog.

Crockett came from a long-line of hard driving bear dogs, but in these hills, the bears rarely graced the overgrown woods, and the law strictly forbade anyone from running bears with hounds.

So Crockett’s education was to run the raccoon and the gray fox until they took to the trees, where the man would come and blast them out of the trees with his .17 HMR.

Their fur would be sold at auction in the coming spring. It would sell for a pittance, but man and dog were united in their common cause, the cause of pursuit, the cause of the hunt.

She learned that tracking deer would make her neck burn with electricity, and she learned the same when she struck off after rabbits.

She learned that the gray fox scent and that of the raccoon were the great ones to follow, and like all proper trail hounds, she let loose the cries of the ecstasy of the pursuit while her nose breathed in the spoor and enlivened her very being.

One clear night in early December, Crockett was let loose from her dog yard, and she began casting her way through the coverts, casting her nose over the brush and briers and mud and rocks for the scent of the brier fox and the ring-tail.

She caught scent of a gray fox and began a baying run down its track. She was hot-blooded and alive, as only a scenthound can be when it’s on the trail of its quarry.

The fox heard her the banshee baying into the night and began his escape, running long hand hard down little ‘coon trails that course their way through heavy thickets of autumn olive. But the hound knew her trade, her passion, and she kept coming, screaming hard on the fox’s long tail.

So the fox changed his tactics and ran hard until he hit the big sycamore where he would sometimes spend long afternoons sleeping out out the day. Night was his time to prowl, and the tree was the perfect shelter until that sweet veil of darkness surrounded the land. It was along a remote little creek, where the thorny thickets drew in close, and no idle man would be willing to approach it, and any many with gumption would make enough noise on his approach to alert the fox’s ears and black quivering nose.

To get to the tree the fox began to double back on his track, trying to throw the hound’s questing run, and for a few minutes, he succeeded, and he used those few minutes to bolt fort the sycamore.

He raced up the tree as if he were a barn cat and not particularly canine. The gray fox is unique among North American canids in that it can climb trees, readily does so, especially when it wants to escape a predator.

The fox rested his form hard against a big branch and waited for the coming dog.  Crockett hit the tree hard about five minutes later, and she began singing the song of a hound that has finally treed. The man would be there soon,  the strap on his rifle would creak along with the cadence of his boots in the leaf litter. It would be the orchestra of death, the baying treed hound and the creaking rifle strap and the shuffling of boots, and then would come the loud boom. The fox would fall from the tree, and the hound would sent casting the woods once again.

But this time, another creature heard the whole song. It was a bitch coyote. 31 pounds of snapping, snarling fury, she had come to work the creek for any hidden vole or deer mouse trails, and now, she heard this other coyote screaming like it owned the place. It more than piqued her interest. It brought up her territorial spirit, and she came rushing down toward the sycamore, incensed at the interloper.

Crockett had never met the coyote before.  She’d smelled her track a time or two, and she sometimes smelled coyote’s mate’s tracks a well, but they mostly stayed far from the gray fox and raccoon haunts, preferring to stay so far from man’s dwellings that they would never meet a dog.

The coyote came with jaws open in a gape threat, and the hound turned from the tree.  She raised her tail and all her hackles. She let loose a few growling barks.

But the coyote tucked her tail between her legs and hackled up and began her intimidating circling of the dog.  A tail between the legs and jaws wide open are the war stance of the coyote, and a dog with its tail up and crooked forward is making its war stance.

And so the two stared each other down beneath sycamore, but this would not be solved without a fight.

31 pounds of coyote and 52 pounds of Plott hound collided with each other in a fury of fangs and fur. The coyote was an experienced scrapper, and her long canines cut deep into the Plott ears.

But Crockett came from a line of bear dogs. In her blood, coursed the veins of the German forester’s hound remodified over the centuries in the Appalachians into the gritty bear hound. Rumors and lore persisted that the Plotts had a bit of wolf crossed into them, and if it were true, then it would just add a bit more grit and fighting spirit to the hound.

Two or three good bites from the coyote was all it took to release the fighting fury of the big game hound. Her greater mass and thick muscle were more than the coyote bitch had reckon for.

And soon the coyote was down. The Plott’s jaws were on her neck, pumping hard for the kill, and the coyote slipped into death beneath the sycamore.

The gray fox stared down at the hole scene. He didn’t move, for he had not expected such a thing to develop.

The man began calling for Crockett as he came down into the creekbed.  He had heard the wild fighting the blackness of night, and he feared what might have happened to her.

Crockett ran to her master’s voice. He knelt to stroke her and talk the sweet lovings of a man greeting his dog. He was shocked to find the blood dripping from her right ear.

It was a big gash, and he wondered what could have done such a thing. Almost as if she read his mind, Crockett dashed off towards the sycamore. The man followed, casting his head lamp before him on its highest setting.

Its beams finally cast down into the thicket that led to the sycamore and then caught the Plott hound eye-shine. He plodded through the thorns to where he saw the dog standing, and then came upon her standing with her tail wagging.

The dead coyote bitch lay below her, and at first the man had no idea he was looking at. Had his dog killed a husky or a Norwegian elkhound. But one good look at narrow muzzle and long fangs told him otherwise. Crockett had killed a coyote.

He had never heard of a dog doing such a thing before, but his gritty little bear dog had done it.

He leashed Crockett and stroked her bloody ears. He told her what a good girl she was, and then he grabbed the coyote up by the hind legs with his other hand and began working his way back home.

He had bragging rights and a good dog, one that had taken out a wild bitch in the woods.

And as man and hound and quarry left the scene, the gray fox watched from his treetop vantage. He waited and waited until the hound and human feet no longer made a scratch on the leaves.

He shimmied down the tree, smelled the coyote and dog blood. All his hackles were raised at that hot scent, and his black tail hackle stripe rose up like a spiky flag.

If he could reason, he would have bet his life of that hard coyote bitch coming hard to fight the dog, but he’d spent much of his life keeping as far from their jaws as much as the hunter’s gun.

The night haunt of the gray fox was not ruined now, and after sniffing the blood for a bit, he slunk down the trail that he knew would lead him to a quiet lane of tram road where many cottontails sat out on cold December nights.

And so the hound and man left their mark of savagery upon the land.  Organic beings made of nature, but now wholly contrived into the modern era of varmint and raccoon hunts. they were but reenactors of the old hunter-gatherer men and their wolfish dogs that went questing out for big game for survival. Two beasts of prey working in confederacy, man and what became dogs were the apex predators of yore.

But modern man has long since abandoned this life, but a few souls participate in the hunt of game and use their dogs and perhaps feel that old partnership rekindled in the darkness. Yes, it is ersatz, but it echoes pretty loudly in their psyches.

And it is the echoes that drive them and their hounds into the cold crisp darkness in search of game.

And so the hound will go into the brush in search of quarry and man will be following after.

 

 

 

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img_2012

Every hare, every day, evades predators. Hares have evolved in different directions than humans– one of the most pernicious fallacies of animal rights is that animals feel and in some ways think that they are just deformed humans….Hares are splendid at being hares, and likely don’t dwell for a moment on the horrors of the chase. If a human were chased every day, he would become neurotic, fearful, crazy. Hares, if chased every day, still enjoy life. How could they not, and still be around, be hares?

–Stephen Bodio, The Hounds of Heaven: Living and Hunting with an Ancient Breed.

Night fell upon the newly mowed hay field.  It was the last cutting of the year and final tall stalks of grass were now lying out flat upon the ground. The dry September sun would dry out the stalks for a few days. Then the baling machines would arrive, and the grass would be bound as stored forage for the hoofed stock on the coming days little sunlight and hard freezes and driving snow squalls.

On hot summer evenings, cottontail rabbits like to see along the tram roads that lead in and out of the hay field. The roads make for easy running and the clover grows thick in the tracks, and clover is the best thing for the lactating rabbit does to munch down. The tall grass obscures their body forms from the piercing eyes of hawks and owls, and so the tram roads become their little restaurants, where the clover nourishes their bodies but the killers from the sky cannot spy them.

But the mowing has changed this dynamic. The tall grass is down, and the refuge it provided was gone.  The hawks and the owls would surely see the rabbits on the road now, but the rabbits are creatures of habit and territory. So they came to the tram road to graze uneasily among the clover.

The predator that came did not come from the sky that evening. The mowing machine cuts up quite a few mice and voles and bog lemmings as tears through the grass, and their blood and offal and decaying forms cast scents into the air. The local turkey vultures spent much of the late afternoon sifting through the downed grass stalks for a bit of sweet, juicy carnage. A pair of ravens joined them in their sifting, for ravens don’t have the keen sense of smell of the turkey vulture. But they have keener brains and can easily figure out that where the turkey vultures are congregating, there will be carrion to scavenge.

But now that night was falling, the birds of the day had taken to the roost. The sifting for rodent bodies would have to wait until the sun rose again, so the hay field was empty of all beings but rabbits and stridulating katydids and crickets.

The scent of dead rodents brought in the meat-eaters of the night, and the first to arrive was a big male gray fox. He lived out his entire life in the brier thickets in the hollow below the hay field. No one knew of his existence or really seemed to care, for he lived a life of a sort of cat dog in the brush, stalking songbirds in the forest and occasionally raiding a cottontail’s nest the early spring grass. He also plucked fresh raspberries from their bushes, but he was skilled at his hiding from humans of his very presence. He was a poacher in the night who slipped in and slipped out, and no one was the wiser.

But now he sensed a chance to get a little easy food among the fallen grass stalks, and he began a slinking approach into the hay field. The wind was in his face so that he could smell if any hunters or nasty dogs were about, and the wind kept telling him that carrion was around for him to pick through and devour at his foxy leisure.

It was as eased upon the tram road that another scent caught his nose. It was a big cottontail doe, in fine fettle and all spry for a good run. His years working this tram road after mowing days told him that he probably shouldn’t waste any energy running such a big healthy doe, but the cool September night air had given him a bit of a sporty itch.

And so the big gray fox crouched into stalking position and eased his way closer to the big doe. She grazed the clover, and he stalked in a little closer. She would hear the faint sound of fox steps upon the grass, and she would rise up and hold still. The fox would hold his stalk, and no sound would cross her ears. And she would eat at the clover again.

And so the stalk went on for about five minutes, and by that time, the fox was 15 feet from the rabbit. At that point, though, the fox’s impetuous side got to him. The scent of rabbit was that close to him. His black nostrils just quivered each inhaling breath. Rabbit scent, so sweet, and so close.

And when the rabbit sat still with her ears up again, the fox charged, and the chase began. Cottontail rabbits run in great, wide circles, and in those circles,there are several brush piles, groundhog holes, hidden culverts, and misplaced pipe. The rabbits know that when they run they can run out long and hard in those circles, and if they are healthy, they can hit one of those hiding places before the predator is upon them. And if the predator still comes, they will have more than few minutes to catch their breaths and let their heart rates return to normal in case they would have to run again.

So the big cottontail doe fled the charging fox. Early in the chase the fox’s flying gallop, a mixture of a sighthound’s run and the feline’s bound, gave him some edge. For thirty yards, the fox’s jaws were within near striking distance of the fleeing rabbit.

But her leporid running anatomy is built for a good flight, and very soon, she was well ahead of the gray fox when she saw her chance to dive into a bit of cast-off gas-line pipe that had been stored at the edge of the hayfield for so long that the multiflora rose grew thick and thorny all around it.

The fox saw her dive into the pipe, and he sailed upon the pipe’s entrance. It was too small to afford him even the hope of entry, and for five minutes he pawed at the pipe and stuck his nose down the entrance, trying in vain to see the rabbit had foolishly languished near enough to the opening for him to grab her.

But then, his fox-like caution set in. He cast his nose into the wind and twitched his ears around to catch the sign of any fox killer, and when he found that none was about, he slipped along the edge of the hayfield, casting his way around to where he could approach the tram road again with the wind in his face.

He would have a good night’s repast of vole, mouse, and bog lemming meat and offal, but in the cooling September night, he’d had a bit of fun, a bit of sport, and now he could get back to the real business of survival.

The big doe rabbit emerged from the pipe about an hour after the fox left. She stayed in the multifora rose thicket a for a little while. The rose had some nice little hips for her to browse upon, and then, as the morning sun began to cast red into the sky, she eased her way out of the thicket and wandered into a grove of newly apple trees that had just been planted the March before. She gnawed on the apple trees a bit, until a car passed the apple grove and made her take flight into a distant brush pile.

And so the rabbit was not traumatized in the least from having a good course by a fox. She would have to run every day of her fleeting of life, just as all her ancestors have had to since the beginning of the rabbit and hare clade some 40 million years ago.

We can think of the rabbit as the terrorized victim of vicious foxes, or we can consider them as they actually are. They are prey. They evolved as prey. Their brains and their bodies are all evolved perfectly as prey species. Their essence to be vary and make good run and a hard dive from predator’s jaws.

They live lives in terrific bliss. Many things want to eat them, but they simply live as long as they can without obliging this desire.

Their psyches do not become traumatized as they live with such terror every day. Their psyches, such that they are, are perfectly wired for this existence. This is their existence and not ours.

And if we truly love animals, we must respect their different existence and avoid simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism that only makes sense in a society devoid any real contact with nature.

But these simplistic appeals are harder and harder to avoid, and so the fox might not be deemed the enemy in this story, but the beagler or rabbit courser certainly would be.

And this is the reality that true animal lovers, who see animals in all their naturalistic animalness, must work hard to combat.

And hope to all powers that be that we will not lose. But the odds just aren’t in our favor.

Ignorant anthropomorphism is the scourge of carefully considered human-animal relations, and the danger is that it is an ignorance that revels in its own self-righteousness.

So the fox chases the rabbit on a September night, and the rabbit lives on in that terrific bliss of having evolved as quarry.

And we can only hope that we humans respect that bliss. For only then can we understand what a rabbit truly is and appreciate its essential majesty.

 

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spotted urocyon

This gray fox has some white marking on its face and feet.

We can speculate about where they came from. Domestication process maybe?

We know, though, that these white marking didn’t come from crossbreeding with domestic dogs, because the gray fox lineage diverged from the rest of the dog family 10-12 million years ago.

Whatever the reasons for its white markings, it is a stunning animal nonetheless.

 

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This is something that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere, but gray foxes (Urocyon) can have blue eyes:

And another (perhaps the Western version, which might be a distinct species):

Most of them have very dark brown eyes, and you really can’t see that they don’t have the exact same cat-like pupils of the red fox. However, the blue-eyed ones really do show off their oval-shaped pupils quite well.

Gray foxes are the most basal species of canid and are not closely related to any other canids, except of the island fox of California, which is just an insular dwarf of the mainland species.

The exact systematics of gray foxes are still being worked out, but I do expect surprises in the future.  These animals have an extensive range in the Americas, and their lineage is really quite divergent from anything else we think of as being in the dog family.

Blue-eyes, well, they certainly make them more stunninglybl attractive.

 

 

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Not a jaguarundi

A few days ago, I came across a story about a jaguarundi sighting in New Mexico, and I have to say I was pretty excited. I have been following accounts jaguarundis north of Mexico, and I have had great hopes that they will finally have a breeding population in the United States again soon.

Jaguarundis historically ranged into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but we have no breeding population. A few years ago, there was talk of them being restored to South Texas, but I’ve heard nothing new about that project. My guess is it fell apart as the new austerity regime took over.

Jaguarundis have been known in the fossil record from Florida, and of course, there are countless sightings of jaguarundis in Florida and in Alabama as well.  None have been confirmed, of course, and if they were discovered in that part of the country, they would be the first ones known in historical times. And they definitely would have descended from “released captive animals.  But the current thinking is that most of these Southeastern jaguarundi are misidentified domestic cats, bobcats, and even otters.

After hearing that story about the possible jaguarundi in New Mexico, I went on a Google safari for potential sightings in the US.

Most of them were quite weak sauce, and I have to say that people really do need to look carefully at photos before posting them

One of the most egregious is this one by a blogger called “Texas Cryptid Hunter,”  who claims that the below trail camera photo is of a jaguarundi in Missouri or Mississippi.

Texas fake jaguarundi gray fox

That animal sure does look like some kind feline, right?

Well, it’s not feline at all.

It’s a gray fox. There are two big identifying features that say this is a gray fox in a subtropical summer coat.  The masking is very unjaguarundi-like, but it is very much like a gray fox. But that alone isn’t enough to scream gray fox at me.

Check out the tail. There is a black stripe running down the tail. No other carnivoran on this continent has that feature, and jaguarundis certainly don’t.

Gray foxes and their cousins, the island foxes of the Channel Islands of California, have this feature.

Further, notice that the deer and the creature seem to be eating the same thing. My guess is that the trail camera was set out near a deer feeder, which shoots out corn. This is a common practice where it’s legal, especially in late summer. It allows the deer hunter to figure out which bucks are developing the best antlers.

A little known fact about gray foxes is they are quite omnivorous, and they particularly like to eat corn from deer feeders.

My guess is the deer and fox were eating corn on the ground, and because the fox is in summer pelt and is holding its ears close to its head, it looks a lot like some kind of cat.

It’s an easy mistake to make. I initially thought the first gray fox I saw running in the broad daylight towards me was a cougar!

Cougars and jaguarundis are close relatives, and compelling molecular data suggest that we ought to classify them in the same genus, which I tend to do. So I can see where someone might see a gray fox and think it’s a jaguarundi.

I am friendly with the cryptozoology community, but I do know there is a tendency among people who “believe” in “cryptids” to be hold fast to bad pieces of evidence. I don’t think there is compelling evidence for bigfoot or long-necked dinosaurs in the Congo, but I’ve run into people who absolutely know these creatures exist.

So it is really hard to have a conversation with people who have decided that a piece of evidence is “the truth.”

I also know there are some sportsman types who will tell me there is no way that can be a fox.  If you can find me a photo of a jaguarundi with a black tail stripe like the animal in the photo, I will stand corrected.

You won’t find it.

I still think that jaguarundis belong in the US, but if that asshole orangutan who thinks he runs this place gets his way, we will have big ol’ wall that keeps them stuck down in Mexico.

And we won’t have a chance at restoring jaguarundis to our southern border country.

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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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