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The fox is a cunning animal

In this photo taken Sunday, July 11, 2010, a red fox looks up from its resting place on a backyard deck in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Lately, we have been hearing and reading a lot of news about college students returning to classes and the increase in cases of the COVID-19 virus. It has been reported large parties and other gatherings attended by the students are responsible for this increase in COVID cases. At the same time, high school students and lower grades have gone back to school, with only occasional reports of a COVID case.

This got me to thinking why is there and increase in virus cases in college and not in high schools? The reason is a no-brainer. For the first 18 years of their lives, these college kids were under the guidance of their parents, and now, they are on their own while the high school students are still under the guidance of their parents.

Perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with nature. Well, I recently noticed two road-killed red fox pups, and immediately I knew this is a sign that the red fox family is breaking up. The pups are venturing out on their own and when this occurs the pups get into a lot of trouble.

By September, all wildlife officers will begin receiving phone calls concerning foxes that are acting strange. The officer is often told that the fox (usually a red fox) doesn’t seem to be afraid of humans and comes up on the porch to eat out of the cat’s dish. Another caller could report that a fox just sits and watches their children playing in the yard. Some callers are certain that the fox seen in their yard has some kind of dreaded disease and insists the officer responds immediately to shoot the animal. There are also callers that report they have already put the animal out of its misery and want it tested for rabies. To find the young foxes are acting like this, we have to look at the fox family.

When the family breaks up in the fall, the male and female will separate and become solitary animals throughout the winter months. However, as winter draws to an end, you’re apt to see two sets of fox tracks running together in the snow. These tracks belong to a male and female who have gotten together to raise a family.

For the next several weeks the pair will be inseparable, hunting and sleeping together. The pair has three or four dens scattered throughout their territory with a different den used each day. A den could be an enlarged woodchuck hole, a burrow dug beneath a rotten tree stump, or in the root system of a tree downed by a storm.

As the time gets closer to the female giving birth to the pups, the pair will pick out one of the dens as a nursery. Now, the male will begin devoting much of his time to the care of the mother-to-be because her body has grown heavy with pups, and she is hunting less. The male is also trying to put extra food down inside the den selected as their nursery.

When the time comes for the female to give birth, the male either leaves or is chased away from the nursery den by the female. The female crawls inside the den, where she gives birth to an average of six pups. She cannot leave them alone for even a little while since it is early spring, and the pups would freeze to death. The female survives on the food that the male cached inside the nursery den.

The male continues dropping food at the entrance to the den. If the female runs out of food inside the den, she runs outside to grab whatever the male has left for her at the entrance, and immediately returns to the pups. Without the male, the female would need to hunt for food and the pups would not survive alone.

Here in northern Pennsylvania, young fox pups are born in late March or early April. The pups are born blind, hairless and helpless. The female must stay with the pups constantly or else they will freeze to death.

One reason for the fox being considered cunning is the long training period associated with their parents. This training period can last up to four months, making it one of the longest in the wild of Pennsylvania.

Not only is the training period a long one, it is also extensive with the young pups taught everything needed to survive. This training under the watchful eye of both parents begins in April and continues until September when the pups leave home. Even though they’ve gone through all of mom and dad’s training, the young fox pups still get into trouble. However, if they make it through their first fall and winter, they will also become crafty animals.

Approximately 75% of all foxes taken during the fall and winter hunting and trapping seasons are juveniles. This proves that if a fox survives the first year, it has become a cunning animal.

I compare the breakup of the fox family to a young son or daughter leaving the family home for college. This newfound freedom is quite different and sometimes hard to handle.

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