Cunning Hunter of Field and Forest
HOUNDS are in hot pursuit. Escape seems impossible. But in an instant the pursued one is dashing over an old log that has fallen across a stream. Midway he notes a tiny island and leaps to it. Will the next jump be to the far side of the brook? No. Surprisingly, he springs back to the bank he just left, then darts off in another direction. Soon, the dogs appear. Right to the middle of the log they follow the would-be victim’s scent. There it disappears, but they go on to the other side of the stream. Yes, the pursuers have been foiled completely.
In that true-life episode, the cunning escapee was a fox. But just how crafty are foxes? What are they really like?
A Few Fox Facts
“Doglike” is a good word for the fox. It is a carnivorous mammal of the family Canidae, as is the dog. In fact, with their pointed ears and long muzzles, most foxes look like little dogs.
What about color? Well, there is quite some variety among foxes. Throughout most of Europe, Asia and the northern part of North America, red foxes are numerous. Generally, they are reddish-orange or rust and have a whitish belly, black fur on the legs and a white-tipped bushy tail. But other red foxes have black fur with white tips and are called silver foxes. Those having jet-black fur are known as black foxes. Still other red foxes are called cross foxes because, though rusty in color, they have fur that forms a black cross on the shoulders and along the backbone.
The gray fox ranges from southern Canada to northern South America. Fur on its back is of a salt-and-pepper color, though its underside is whitish and the sides of the shoulders, neck and legs, as well as the tail’s underside, are a rusty color. Incidentally, only this fox climbs trees a—good way to escape a pack of hounds!
Arctic foxes are yet another type. As their name suggests, they inhabit the Arctic regions. Their gray-brown coat of summer changes to snow-white in the wintertime—a superb camouflage amid the ice and snow. This small, resourceful fox is attired in its warm white coat by September. Let temperatures plummet to 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (−59 degrees Celsius)! That matters not to this creature, perhaps curled up in the snow with its nose tucked into the hair of the tail, which is said to act as “a sort of radiator of self-generated heat.”
The yellowish-gray kit fox of western North America gets its name from the fact that it is kitten-like in size. But this nimble animal makes up for its smallness in maneuverability and speediness. If necessary, it musters up a great burst of speed and can change directions in an instant without slowing down—leaving the baffled pursuer in the dust.
Yet, the smallest of the foxes is the fennec, an inhabitant of Arabia and North Africa. Not only do these creatures look like “cute” little baby animals; when startled, they whimper, making them seem all the more like babies. Fennecs spend considerable time in underground burrows to escape the sun’s heat and the cold of night. The relatively big area of their four-inch (10-centimeter) ears promotes loss of body heat, keeping fennecs from getting overheated in their desert habitat.
Speaking of ears, let’s not forget the bat-eared fox. This fox roams the dry regions of southern and eastern Africa. Interestingly, besides large and sensitive ears, it has forty-six to forty-eight teeth—more than other canines.
Lodging and Food
For the red fox, home may be a little den inside a hollow log, or out among the rocks. Then again, a woodchuck or badger burrow will serve just fine. Otherwise, the fox may dig his own underground home. After mating, Mr. and Mrs. Fox—who may become lifetime partners—settle down to raise a family. The female fox, or vixen, gives birth to from four to nine pups yearly.
Those young ones cannot “outfox” their mother. Alan Devoe wrote: “Three fox cubs were playing while their mother eyed them contentedly from their den entrance. Suddenly one of the youngsters started to trot off across the pasture. The vixen stood up, ‘pointed’ with her sharp muzzle in his direction—and stood rigidly still and silent. She made no sound I could hear from where I was hidden, but in a few seconds the cub began to slow down. Turning around, he looked straight at his mother. She kept her gaze on him. As if pulled by an invisible thread, the little fox hurried home.”—Marvels & Mysteries of Our Animal World.
In the case of many types of foxes, father, mother and children will begin sleeping mostly out in the open as soon as the pups are old enough to hunt. Foxes are solitary, nocturnal hunters. And they are cunning. For instance, the red fox knows enough to creep silently to within just a few feet of a bird before springing upon it.
Fox fare includes mice and other rodents, birds, insects, frogs, lizards and the like. They also dine on fruits. Foxes have no aversion to eating an animal they find already dead. As it is, if a fox has been feasting on some creature and there are leftovers, most species will bury the remains. The fox returns to the quarry from time to time, eating more of it as he feels the urge.
Since the fox’s food search is most likely to be a nocturnal venture, many a poultry farmer has risen in the morning to find that he has lost a chicken to the red fox. But well-mended fences will deter this night marauder. In this cunning hunter’s defense, it can be said that he is an excellent “mousetrap.” Then, too, during the summertime, the red fox dines extensively on insects and even carrion. So, is it fair for farmers to view him merely as a drooling villain?
Talking about food, the Arctic fox has its own “refrigerator.” During the autumn, this fox gathers ground squirrels, mice and lemmings, kills them, then stores the food supply just below the surface of the ground—in a veritable “icebox,” or “refrigerator.”
The Fox and Man
Regarding Arctic foxes, eighteenth-century naturalist G. W. Steller wrote: “They crowded into our dwellings by day and by night, stole everything they could carry away, including articles that were of no use to them, like knives, sticks, bags, shoes, sacks, caps, etc. They knew in such an unbelievably cunning way how to roll off a weight of several poods [a pood is about 36 pounds (c. 16 kilograms)] from our provision caches and to steal the meat from thence that at first we could hardly ascribe it to them. While skinning [sea] animals, it often happened that we stabbed two or three foxes with our knives, because they wanted to tear the meat from our hands. . . . They observed all that we did and accompanied us on whatever project we undertook.”—The Animal Kingdom.
While those animals were a nuisance, some people are pleased to have certain foxes around. Fox farming is quite a lucrative enterprise. Silver foxes were first raised for their fur on Prince Edward Island in the year 1894. Since then, fox farming has grown into an important industry. Furs of high quality are produced in cool, humid areas.
Yet, is it possible to tame a fox? On this point it has been said: “Even after several generations in captivity foxes are not really tamed or domesticated. Wild-caught foxes soon learn to respect their keeper, but he cannot afford to relax his vigilance; his charges will snap and bite with little or no provocation.”
The wild fox has been the object of many a hunt. As a sport, the fox hunt had its start in England probably during the eighteenth century. On horseback, persons follow trained hounds through the countryside as the dogs track the fox by its scent. Once cornered, the fox may be permitted to go free. But this hunt has become popular in England because the fox is noted for craftiness. Its reputation, in turn, prompts a good question.
Just How Cunning Is the Fox?
Whether every fox is as cunning as legend would have it may be open to question. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the fox has become noted for craftiness. In fact, Jesus Christ may have had that very trait in mind when he spoke of King Herod as “that fox.”—Luke 13:32.
Foxes certainly have been known to do some cunning things. For example, a fox may be going along at some six miles (9.7 kilometers) an hour. But just let some hounds begin baying at a distance! The fox may start to run at around forty-five miles (72.4 kilometers) an hour. But it can keep that speed up for only about a mile. So, how can the fox elude its pursuers? Why not backtrack in its own footprints, then jump to the side and dash away to safety? The fox has been known to do just that.
Of course, there are other means of getting out of harm’s way. Leaping from the ground to the top of an old rail fence, then walking along it for some distance may well discourage hounds that thus lose the fox’s scent. Then again, why not run through a stream? Or, how about racing across a field that has just been fertilized? That will take care of the scent. And what about the wintertime? Well, running across thin ice just strong enough to hold the fox and far too fragile to support a pack of dogs is a pretty good way to foil the foe. Why, Mr. Fox may just seat himself on the opposite bank, watching as the hapless hounds take an icy “bath”!
With all its cunning ways, however, the fox may not escape the flea. But, then, there is always a surefire defleaing process. On one occasion, a fox was observed gathering strands of sheep’s wool from a hawthorn fence in England. The fox “arranged the wool in its muzzle so that it projected two or three inches on either side,” wrote R. Atkinson of Kendal some years ago, adding: “Then it proceeded towards a stream of water running through the field, entered it backwards, sat down on its haunches like a dog, and eventually lowered itself in the water by putting out its forelegs until the whole of its body except the nostrils, and the wool held in its mouth, were submerged. The fox stopped in that position for two or three minutes, then liberated the wool slowly, left the water, shook itself vigorously and disappeared. The wool, as it was released by the fox, was carried downstream, so we went in search of it, and eventually found it lodged by the side of the stream. To our amazement it was simply alive with hen-fleas—hundreds of them. It is obvious that the fleas objected to the water, and made for the highest dry point, i.e., the wool.”
Yes, indeed, a fox may well rid itself of fleas by backing into a pond or stream. With its crafty ways, this creature may foil flea or foxhound. And even persons who do not think that the fox is very smart will probably admit that it is a cunning hunter of field and forest.