Reflections in Nature: Red fox is unexpected present

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent
This red fox caused quite a stir on Christmas Day.

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent This red fox caused quite a stir on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day, we were visiting our son’s family in Arlington, Virginia. They live within a short drive of the White House, so it was a surprise when someone yelled, “There’s the fox.”

Most of us went out on the deck overlooking the backyard. Although I had grabbed a camera, I was unable to focus on the fox as it sped through the yard and across the street. I began making a squealing call, by sucking on my hand, which is supposed to sound like an injured rabbit. Within a few minutes, the fox re-appeared, and this time I was ready to take a picture.

The fox didn’t stay in the yard for more than a few minutes when it heard children playing in a nearby yard and made a hasty departure. The incident reminded me of “The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night,” which is a beautifully illustrated book about an English folk song.

The earliest version of this song, which appears to have been a Middle English poem dating from the 15th century, was found in the British Museum

The red fox appeared rather large due to its heavy fur coat and tail. What a handsome sight he was with his black socks and burnt orange coat.

Although the average size of a red fox is 9 1/2 pounds, there are “well fed” house cats that are larger.

The red fox belongs to the order Carnivora, coming from two Latin words: carnis meaning flesh and voro meaning devour. Although a flesh eater, the fox’s diet is partly vegetarian.

Its scientific name is Vulpes vulpes fulva. Vulpes is Latin, meaning a fox, and fulva also is Latin, meaning tawny yellowish brown, in reference to the red fox’s color. Our word fox literally means “tailed animal,” which is perhaps its most distinctive feature.

An adult male and female join together during the breeding season. After raising their young, the two will separate to spend the remainder of the year alone.

In England, “When the red fox population becomes dense, they will sometimes live in social groups of up to five adults, composed of one male and several females. In these situations, one female will be dominant over the others with each group defending a territory,” according to Donald and Lillian Stokes’ book, “Animal Tracking and Behavior.”

The red fox’s eyes are placed well to the front of its head, giving it binocular vision, which is essential in the pursuit and capture of prey. With this keen eyesight, the red fox notices the slightest movement; however, it often overlooks a motionless figure, which a dog, coyote or wolf never would do. Since the red fox is color blind, its world is seen in shades of gray.

There are four species of fox found in North America: red fox, gray fox, kit fox and swift fox. The red fox is by far the widest distributed.

Although the red fox that we saw was out during the daytime, the species usually becomes active two hours before sunset and remains active throughout the night, with this time spent searching for food. The winter months when food is harder to find, the red fox also hunts during the daylight hours.

The red fox generally sleeps out in the open. During the winter months, its bedding area generally is on a south-facing slope to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. During periods of bad weather, it could bed down under either evergreens or dense brush.

Although the red fox could return to the same area each day to bed down, it is usually not in the exact same spot.

The red fox communicates by leaving scent-marks —  urinating on prominent objects, such as rocks or tufts of grass. These scent posts compare somewhat to a skunk’s spray but not as strong. In comparison, coyote urine does not have a strong smell and dog urine is practically odorless when outside.

It also has several scent glands on either side of the anus, which are used by backing up to an object and rubbing up and down several times.

During the mating season, foxes have been heard giving a variety of barks, howls and screeches.

Seeing the red fox just added to the family’s enjoyment of the holidays.

 

‘The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night’

The fox went out on a chilly night,

He prayed to the moon to give him light,

For he’d many a mile to go that night,

Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,

He’d many a mile to go that night,

Before he reached the town-o.

He ran till he came to the farmer’s bin,

Where the ducks and the geese were kept penned in.

“A couple of you will grease my chin

Before I leave this town-o, town-o, town-o,

A couple of you will grease my chin

Before I leave this town-o.”

First he caught the grey goose by the neck,

Then he swung a duck across his back.

And he didn’t mind the quack, quack, quack,

Or their legs all a-dangling down-o, down-o, down-o,

He didn’t mind their quack, quack, quack,

Or their legs all a-dangling down-o.

He ran till he came to his warm den,

There were the little ones eight, nine, ten.

They said, “Daddy, better go back again,

Because it must be a wonderful town-o, town-o, town-o.

They said, “Daddy, better go back again,

Because it must be a mighty fine town-o.

Then the fox and his wife, without any strife,

Cut up the goose with a fork and knife;.

They never ate such a dinner in their life

And the little ones chewed on the bones-o, bones-o, bones-o,

They never ate such a dinner in their life

And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

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