Said & Done: Life and foxes
The other day I ran over a chipmunk. It was not a small tragedy. It cost the animal its life. It has caused me considerable anguish.
I still feel bad about it. I suppose you could say I hadn’t so much run over the chipmunk is that it had run under me. Never mind. The result was the same.
As I looked back in the car’s mirror, I could see a whispy tail flaunting gamely in the road-level breeze. In front of it a tiny corpse bore testimony to a time-honored physical principle: two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time. The chipmunk had lost its chance for further schooling in that theory.
This episode is inconsequential when laid against current reports of human tragedies deemed by newspapers as newsworthy.
The evening of the crash, we had reason to drive over my earlier route. On the tragic spot stood a fox with something in its mouth. As we got closer, we could see a whispy tail flaunting from the fox’s jaws. In this case, a couple tons of truck had made easy pickings of a couple ounces of rodent. The fox looked once, ducked into a roadside corn patch and vanished. Tragedy had become someone’s supper.
Nobody counts foxes. In the scheme of things as seen on a human scale, they don’t matter much. Nobody has gotten round to run computerized analytical statistical data on their numbers.
Naturalists have always known that foxes come and go in cycles. They live and die on the basis of food, weather, disease and some more subtle factors. One year a woods walker may see half a dozen of them in his sojourning. Another year, one or two or none.
This is a year of foxes. They began to be active and visible around Gill farms when late snow lay in tatters and patches on sun-warmed slopes. Since first we hung our 2013 calendar, we have been seeing them where we hadn’t seen them before.
Two mothers have raised their young within easy reach of our home. One of them, based across the river in Northfield, became a regular and familiar part of our breakfast hour. We became so caught up in watching for this vixen on her morning rounds that her appearance eventually raised ordinaries like milk and shredded wheat to simple ritual.
Her rounds were unvaried at the same time of day and she always came on lively feet. We saw her three or four mornings a week. She climbed the hill straight across from us and vanished.
Early in April, boaters put up their tents across the way. Our fox made her way jaunty as ever. When she got to the campers in their bivouac, what had been the last point in her traipsing, she stood for a long time with her foot in the air, like a dog on point. Once determined that an impediment lay in her path, she cut off the last 100 yards of her route, never again covering the same ground.
You might challenge our assumption that this was a female. All we really know is that our fox was small, hardly bigger than a big cat, and that its gait and stance had all the dainty aura and air of femaledom. When April came into its full greenery and bare ground was hidden, we lost track of our Northfield fox.
Red foxes do not all look alike. Some are blonde, some russet, some auburn. There are variations in coloring such that an observant watcher can identify exactly all the foxes that make a beat of his neighborhood.
The fox that got the chipmunk is a blonde with an auburn tail. I have seen it several times. Once when cruising a mature clover field, I put it up out in the middle. It bounced on nimble legs to lift itself above the jungle at its feet and to keep me in sight.
Once, I watched it through a telescope as it fished for grasshoppers in the course weeds at the edge of a cornfield.
Ten times closer than it really was, I drew it toward me for detailed crystal-clear observation. In this case, I had the advantage for nature has yet to give a wild creature the wherewithal to contest a man with his gadgets.
Recently, I came round the shoulder of undulating ground that had just been cut off. Fox and I met face to face. Surprise was shared on an even-steven basis.
The fox was undaunted by this accidental meeting. It met my eye without flinch, turned and trotted several hundred yards into the covering of river-bank brush.
Foxes have value on the furriers’ market and will continue to be taxed for the worth of their pelt. In these recent meetings, it was good to see local foxes apparently certain of the ground they stand on.
We wish that man’s predation were one of the smallest factors in determining the cyclic coming and going of our interesting fox neighbors. There’s much value in just having them around.
In semi-retirement after 58 years of writing for The Recorder, Paul Seamans of Gill will continue Said & Done on a regular monthly basis. Some of his columns will have been previously published.