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Posts Tagged ‘red fox’

Clive on the Couch

Clive loves to be on the couch and get some love.

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We have a fox

I’ve written many, many words about wild canids, but I’ve never lived with one.

Until now. Jenna asked me one morning if we could pick up a free fox that was being offered in Craig’s List.

And I didn’t say no…

So we got Clive, a cross phase red fox. His previous owners were feeding him cheap dog food and not the cat food he really needs to thrive. He also was being kept in a tiny dog crate. He now lives in a German shepherd-sized dog crate with lots of house time to run around.

I had no idea Ohio was so open to allowing people to keep pet foxes. You have to apply for a $25.00 permit through the Ohio DNR, and a conservation officer comes to your house and approves it. So Clive is fully legal through the state of Ohio. In Ohio, you can buy a fox from a breeder with your permit, but you cannot just catch little ones in the woods and try to make them pets.

Jenna and I have a lot of dog experience, but he’s still not fully domesticated. He likes to steal things and hide them, and if he decides an item is worth guarding from you, don’t try to take it. Also if you don’t keep his cage clean enough, it will smell like burning rubber. That’s what his glands smell like.

I wouldn’t recommend one of these to just anyone, but if you want something a little different, it’s worth looking into. 

Most states in the US are not as lax as Ohio when it comes to keeping foxes, so please consult your state’s wildlife agencies before trying to get one of your own.

This is the most interesting animal I’ve ever lived with. He wags his tail at you just like a dog, and he loves to have his ears rubbed. He gets those zoomie things that dogs get, which he does all over the house.

We don’t let him interact with the dogs, because he’s a bit stroppy, they are bit leery of him, and he’s pretty fragile. He’s really not much more than an Italian greyhound with lots of fluff.

He’s not a Belyaev domestic fox, but whoever bred him was definitely concerned with producing a fox that is fairly docile and friendly.

You may judge me for keeping such an animal, but I think we can provide him a far better home than just about anyone else who’d pick up a fox on Craig’s List.

I’ll be writing about him a lot more, and there will be Youtube video. I am looking into buying a gray fox from a breeder this next spring, which is sort of my dream animal.

So yes, we are crazy, Crazy to like foxes!

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red fox at night

Our motor vehicles speed away on ribbons of asphalt. We run along them as they cut along the cities and suburbs but also as they wind their way through the pastures and cornfields and the stands of forest that somewhat resemble wilderness.

Our roads intersect their trails. The wild beasts scurry across them when they cannot hear the whirring of tires and the humming of the internal combustion engines. They race across hoping almost as an act of instinctual faith that that vehicles won’t slam into them and take the great toll of impersonal and unintentional predation that we call roadkill.

And so one night this week, I found myself winding along desolate roads in Western Pennsylvania. The darkness of night enveloped all around me. Only the lights on my vehicle pierced this veil.

And as a rounded a bend in the road, my headlights scanned down upon what I instantly recognized as a deer. But as I motored in closer, the lights revealed a massive buck with a great crown of white rapiers. The rut is nigh, and this is the time of thick necks and grunting and long solitary perambulations through the darkness. Soon, the sensual scents of the does will cast into the wind, and the ancient rites of courtship and copulation will commence.

And the bucks that once wandered around as comrades in the oak woods with velvet headdresses as the deerflies tore at their ears in the July swselter are now turning into the worst rivals.

But by mid-December, the does will stop their sweet waftings, and the testosterone levels will drop in the bodies of the bucks. By January, the antlers will fall, and the rivals will bunch up as comrades again, ready for the long freezing time where the mast of autumn better be bountiful enough to see the deer until first green grass of March.

I shouted with elation from my driver’s seat:

“Look at that buck!”

The buck looked alarmed at my stopping then moseyed into the woods along the road. I motored on.

Jenna asked,  “Would you have shot that one?”

And all I could say is, “Yes.”

That same night, on another desolate road in Western Pennsylvania, I made a turn onto a crooked course that skirted along the edge of a uncut cornfield.

As I approached the edge of the cornfield, a red fox charged out of a hidden covert, and then darted into the tall corn.

He was a beautiful specimen, probably looking at a nice night of mousing where no one could lay eyes upon him, especially not someone with a nice little predator rifle.

We are not long before the days of the foothold traps set in for the red fox and all the other little fur-bearers of the forest and field. Those traps won’t fool many of the old veterans, the ones that have run that gauntlet for a winter or two or five or six,  but the young rangers of the year will surely fall.

But in the next spring, the vixens will whelp in their dens, and the fields will fill with young rangers again.

We watched the fox slink into the corn.

“That was the first red fox I ever saw!” Jenna shouted at me. I guess Florida is pretty depauperate of wild canids, for she told me that there are no red foxes in the lower parts of the peninsula. They are so common here outside of the subtropics. They appear as eternal as the hills and the rocks and the streams, but the truth is they were absent in this part of the continent until the Europeans came. Then, they wandered down out Canada and New England into the newly cleared lands. The legend goes that they were stocked here from England or Germany, a legend that goes in nicely with the repeopling of this land with people mostly of that ancestry after having driven off and subjugated the descendants of that first colonization from Siberia.

As we motored along back into Ohio, the deer stood along the road, almost daring themselves to jump in front of our vehicle. One stupid little button buck staggered out in front of us. He stared up at the headlights in the cliched expression and then turned his head to stagger around to the opposite side of the road.

And we motored on in the darkness. My mind was on the road, but I thought of the paradox of the blacktop. The road and the motor car have given us what appears to be unlimited freedom.  We can cross the continent in a matter of days, if we just get in our vehicle and go on the road.

But in that freedom, we are limited. We must follow that road, as does everyone else who travels.

But the deer and the foxes and all the wild beasts of the fields roam their trails. These paths might be ancient, but they are made through the inertia of instinct, always seeking the path of least resistance to get from the bedding areas to the grazing or hunting grounds.

The beast that thrive here now thrive mostly because of us. We have killed off the wolves and the cougars, and then modern agriculture has made Appalachian hill farming mostly unprofitable.  Farm families are rarer and rarer upon the land, and the thickets and coverts grow to hide the wild creatures more completely.

And so we’ve let these parallel worlds grow up in our wastegrounds.  Most of us never pay much attention to these worlds, but when we go upon our ribbons of blacktop at night, our paths meet. Sometimes, we slam into deer and crush foxes and raccoons. But more often, we just meet. Our headlights illuminate the denizens of that other world.

Perhaps we allow ourselves the chance to marvel at them, and maybe we can consider their plight as beings more deeply tied to the ecosystem. We can maybe consider them a bit, and then realize that we are also tied to it. We’ve built walls around us to insulate ourselves from the realities of the cold, heat, parasites, and hunger.

But these walls are but edifices of delusion. Nature’s laws still abide with us, and that our dominance is only temporary and maybe only illusory.

And when we consider their plight, their existence, we must ultimately fully consider our own.

At least, that is what I’d hope we’d do as the night draws in darker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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fox attacking chickens

The chickens used to roost in the old apple trees that grew around the farm house. On hot summer evenings, the sun would begin its descent to the West in late afternoon, and the big hordes of mongrel chickens would begin their journeys from the various portions of the farm.

And in the loud flapping of wings, chickens and roosters and pullets and cockerels would leap to the nightly sanctuary. And the drawing night would cast down upon the land, as the fireflies rose all around.

In darkness, the farmer and his wife would sit on the front porch and sip coffee or a bit of whiskey and tell stories of the old times when a man and wife could live and farm on the land and raise their children among the hayfields and cattleyards.

And as the darkness drew in deeper, the wife would yawn a bit, then her husband would yawn too. And within just a few more iterations of telling the same old story, one of them would say “Well, I guess we should be getting to bed.”  And there would be a simple solemn agreement, and the two would trundle back into the house.

And the night would grow still.

An old dog fox knew this summer ritual, and he knew it well.  He had learned in the past two summers that the chickens wandered back to the apple trees every evening, and for a while, he’d tried to catch them on their paths through the grass that led from the grasshopper-filled meadows.

He’d tried that game for a good two months, but the farmer and his wife noticed their missing fowl.   And the farmer staked out the meadows where the chickens were feeding and caught the red fox slinking along.

Any other farmer would have let the bullets fly, but not this one. This farmer had an addiction, and that addiction was called foxhounds. In the back lot behind the house, he kept well-bred pack of running Walkers, those famous Kentucky foxhounds that ran the fox long and hard.

Shooting a fox meant less sport for his dogs, and less time to brag to his buddies about his hard-driving “gyp,” that would soon have a littler of nice little puppies.

One of the perverse things about a foxhound is that a foxhound eats meat and cornbread, but it exists solely for man’s amusement. It is not like the farm shepherd or collie that manages the stock or guards the farm, and what’s more, this farm was totally lacking in that sort of dog. A fox cannot be killed and eaten, and letting it live for the dogs’ amusement means tolerating a few missing chickens.

So when the farmer saw the red fox out in the far meadow in a long hard stock of the returning chickens, he merely slipped into the dogyard and let the hounds loose.

The dogs ran the chicken hunter hard, but in the summer heat, they grew tired quickly and dived into a little stream to cool off and let the fox continue on its way.

The dog fox now knew he couldn’t be so obvious. If he wanted to take the chickens on their way back to the apple trees, he had to come on a windless night, where his scent wouldn’t waft over into the dogyard.

He had to slip about in the deepest darkness of night, black paws treading carefully so as not to alert the dogs sleeping just yards away.

The game became a complex dance of avoiding detection and taking advantage of the carelessness of young chickens.  Farmers with free running chickens almost always discount their young cockerels and pullets. Indeed, there is almost a hope that something will thin out the cockerels, who soon enough will be challenging the old roosters for status. And the crowing and fighting will be just too much for anyone’s sanity.

So the dog fox knew his best bet was to stake out the apple trees and wait for that moment when the sun starts trickling back in to bring about the dawn. As soon as that faint sun comes and casts in that purple shade of predawn. The chickens begin their stirring.

The roosters start their crowing, and as the forms of day begin to appear in the faintest morning light, they sail down from the trees.

Twice, the dog fox had charged the chickens at that moment, and they made so much noise and sailed so quickly to the trees, the farmhouse door swung open before the fox had any opportunity to catch anything.

The fox knew to wait until the roosters came down and fought a bit as they do in the early morning hours.  And after a few minutes of silly sparring, the hens and the young birds drop down from the apple trees and the day begins.

The farmer would be up in just a few minutes. He liked to begin the summer toiling before the sun began to beat down and cook the land and force the heavy sweat to drip from his brow.

So in that golden few minutes, the dumb young chickens would be on the ground, and no humans would be about.

And that’s when the fox would make his move, but he would only do so with the cockerels and pullets that had just now stopped following their mother and were only learning about how to be proper and independent chickens. These fools like to check out the tall grass for crickets in the morning dew, and they would always find some.

Such a fine repast for such naive little birds, and such a nice place for a prick-eared predator to lie in wait.

And that’s when the dog fox would take a cockerel or pullet every morning in those days of heat and growing apple trees.

It was a summer ritual to stake out the apple trees around the farmhouse each night, and virtually every windless morning, the fox bagged him a little chicken.

And so the fox lived and grew fat in the summer, but as September rolled around, the farmer would collect his feathered stock. Any virtually any young cockerels that had started crowing were quickly slaughtered and wrapped up in freezer bags. The old roosters were killed off, as were the old hens. Their fate was to become part of a meal called “chicken and dumplings.”

The remaining stock was to spend the fall and winter locked in a chicken run behind the house. The run was protected by a few hot wires, and no fox worth his salt would risk being shocked more than twice to try to menace that run.

And so the dog fox would wander off into the countryside and mouse and rabbit. But in the late spring, the chickens would be turned out again to wander the pastures and meadows.

And he would begin his night stalks near the apple trees once again.

In the winter, the beef cattle would bellow in their muddy lots, and the farmer would drop down hay and silage for for them to eat.

And as the night would draw near, he’d lead his foxhounds out to his truck and drive off to the good hilltops where the foxes haunted. There, he’d meet his friends from distant shires and districts and their well-bred hounds for a bit of chasing. They would build a nice bonfire, then slip their gaunt hounds into the coming darkness.

And the hounds would run the red foxes all through the night, while the huntsmen stood around a bonfire. The whiskey would cross their lips as often as the bragged and bullshitted, and the wild cries of running hounds would pierce the night air.

The dog fox knew about hounds, and he knew not to do his winter hunting on those hilltops where the bonfires glowed.

Instead, he crept along the brier patches where the cottontails believed they had found some refuge and the voles and bog lemmings still had not gained enough sense to avoid a fox’s jaws.

Some nights though, he would slink near the farmhouse. He’d hear the chickens clucking in their run, and he would scent the air. No dogs at home.

He would slide up to the chicken coop. He would smell the stench of chickens, and he would lick his lips.

But he knew fully well this was not his season, but the way the chicken scent made his nose quiver enlivened his spirit on those winter nights.

And soon he would be slipping back into mouser and rabbiter mode.

One winter night, the dog fox made his winter forays to examine the chicken run, and just as he decided that his appetite had been whetted enough, he decided to cross the country road that crisscrossed the farm, and as he did, set of headlights descended upon him.

He froze in the middle of the road, knowing fully well that if he ran, he would be detected, but if he stayed put, he could be killed. He stood in confident terror as the lights scanned down upon him.

It was the farmer’s truck, and he was back from a long night whiskey and hounds on a hilltop several miles distant. The hounds were all worn and threadbare from a long hard chase, and the whiskey had taken a toll on their owner’s senses as well. The hounds were in the straw of their dog boxes in the back, and their attentions were being paid to lick the brier cuts and pluck some burrdocks and beggar ticks from their coats.

But as the truck slid upon the fox, the farmer’s eyes cast down into the road before him. There was his red-coated quarry, standing tall and brave. His blue eyes met the yellow of the fox’s, and for a minute, he was taken with the beauty of such an animal.

And then the fox realized that his chance to escape had arrived, and he bolted for the brush on the other left side of the rode.

Too tired to let his hounds out for another run, the farmer sat for a few seconds and wondered for a minute if the whiskey had made him see things. And he tried to convince himself of that fact, but soon realized that he might have been a hair buzzed but he wasn’t that drunk.  The fox really had found him at home, even after all those miles of letting the hounds run on that far distant hilltop.

And so the opportunistic thief and his fox-chasing benefactor went their separate ways on this cold early winter night.

A fox-chaser always loves his quarry as much as he loves his hounds. The equation goes simply as follows: No red foxes equals no real use for the hounds.  The hounds don’t catch the fox, and the chasers never want them to.  The hounds, the houndsmen, and the foxes live in this odd symbiosis, where, if things were more than a simple sport of chase, the fox would soon fall to the shotgun and foothold trap.

But a fox-chaser lets the wild dog be, if only so he can hear the hounds cry wildly in the night as he stands around a bonfire with his comrades and drinks back the old rot gut whiskey.

The price of a few chickens is worth the joy of the winter ritual, and thus, this farmer has made his peace with the predator that takes away a few cockerels from his freezer every year.

And so the story goes on and on. So long as there is a fox-chaser, there will be room for dog foxes that like chicken meat.

It is a fine bit of absurdity in the grand scheme of the Cosmos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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audubon's cross fox

There is a famous myth in North American wildlife. It has been repeated so many times and by people of such impeccable authority over the years that it really hasn’t been questioned.

The story goes as follows:  Red foxes were not found south of the boreal regions of New York and New England, and in order to get red fox-hunting established in the English colonies south of those regions, red foxes were imported from England.  Therefore, all red foxes living the Eastern and Midwestern US, except those in the aforementioned northern regions of the North east, are derived from English imports. Thus, the red fox is a fully invasive species in the most of the East, most of the Midwest, and the entire South.

Stories about when the red fox first arrived in a region are written as a sort of passage.  For example, in William Henry Bishop’s history of Roane County, West Virginia, the author makes a rather pointed discussion about the extinction of the gray fox in that county around the year 1882 and the triumph of the red fox in agricultural areas.  The history of the modern running Walker foxhound is intimately tied to the arrival of the red fox in Kentucky in the 1850s.  Had the red fox not colonized Kentucky, it is very unlikely that this hound would have ever been bred.

It was always assumed that the red fox derived from those English imports that were brought over in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but the documentation on these arrivals is rather dubious at best.

The origins of this myth come from Pehr Kalm, the Swedish naturalist who traveled extensively in the English colonies in the 1700s. He claimed that a wealthy person in New England brought the foxes over from England and that all the red foxes of New England were thus derived from his imports. The other story goes that tobacco merchants in Maryland brought red foxes to the Eastern Shore in the early 1700s in attempt to introduce this fox to their part of North America.  They did well in that region, even spreading into Delaware and Pennsylvania, but it took a hard freeze of Chesapeake Bay in the winter of 1789-90 to give the foxes passage into the main part of Virginia, where they thrived. Some stories say the foxes came from Germany or France rather than England, but in all cases, the story goes that the red fox is an import.

A recent evaluation of these stories by Jennifer Frey of New Mexico State University shows that none of these stories is particularly well-documented.  Both of these stories were derived from second-hand sources, pretty much the historical equivalent of stories you might hear at the barber shop or the local cafe.

This analysis came at about the same time that several genetic studies were being performed on red foxes in North America. The first mitochondrial DNA study of North American red foxes revealed the existence of no Old World red fox lineages in the Eastern or Southeastern US.  The authors found that the Southeastern red foxes were very closely related to foxes in Eastern Canada and that their likely origin came about through natural range expansion.

The second study examined large amounts of nuclear DNA and the y-chromosomes of red foxes from throughout the world.  It found that red foxes in North America, including those that live in the Southeast and Eastern US have been genetically isolated from Old World red foxes for 400,000 years.  The only Old World red foxes that have contributed to North American red fox genetics since that isolation are those found in Alaska, which have a mitochondrial DNA lineage that was introduced from Russia some 50,000 years ago.

The red fox of the Eastern US came south from Canada in much the same way that the coyote came East:  by its own feet. Clearing off the land to establish settlements made it harder and harder for Eastern gray foxes to live in an area, and it is actually well-established in the literature that the Eastern gray fox, which is roughly the same size as a red fox in terms of body mass, will tend to dominate the red when the two occur in the same region.

Further, more open agricultural land is very good habitat for mice and rabbits, and the red fox prefers to hunt those species, while the gray fox is much more omnivorous.

So the cleared forests are much better for the red than for the gray, and the gray

The coming of the red fox was almost always associated with European settlement, and thus, it became an assumption that the foxes came from England or from somewhere in Europe.

And perhaps subconsciously, it came to be accepted as the absolute truth that red foxes are an invasive species brought over by man.

It has only been in recent years that these fanciful notions have been tested as hypotheses, and they have been found to be wanting when examined through careful historical research and analysis of genetic material.

So this myth has been put to bed. I really wish people would stop promoting these erroneous romantic stories about red foxes and start to respect them as native wildlife.

Of course, this problem is a lot more complicated in California, where there is a native red fox subspecies and the Eastern red fox has also been introduced– and the Eastern red fox does behave as an invasive species.

But for my part of the world, the red fox came here on its own volition, and as the forests return, habitat conditions greatly favor the gray fox, making life much harder for these Canadian wanderers once again.

Wildlife distributions are not static.

Red foxes are known from the Pleistocene in Virginia, and though they were absent through much of the Holocene, they are now thriving in much of the East and South because of anthropogenic factors.

I should note that one reason I became skeptical of the claims of the English origins of the Eastern red fox is that the Eastern red fox has always been a widely trapped animal. Even the ones trapped in relatively temperate states have been well-known for having good pelts, but it is widely known that red fox pelts from England are not valuable at all. Red foxes are heavily hunted as vermin in England, and I always wondered why no one ever tried to do anything with their pelts. It turns out that the reason is that their pelts are of inferior quality to North American red foxes.

The reason why is that England is a much more temperate place than Eastern Canada, and the foxes that roam the East have their origins in that cold country and not the gentle green country off the northwest of Europe.

So red foxes came from Canada, not England. I think we can at least say this is true, and their supposed European origins are simply a myth.

 

 

 

 

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The cute little red fox is quite a savage beast. It also shows us that the current fad for filming rare or relatively rare birds on nests with the use of web cameras can sometimes wind up with the ending we weren’t expecting:

 

 

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The war of mesopredators and a family saga, sort of like wolves vs. grizzlies on a smaller scale:

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