ORONO, Maine — Foxes seem to be a hot topic lately, after the recent report of a rabid one attacking a child in southern Maine.
Already known to be a potential carrier of rabies, now healthy foxes are even more at risk of unnecessary persecution. Biologists are reminding the public that not every observed fox is rabid. Most are not diseased and just living their lives as foxes do.
Daytime sightings of foxes have increased calls from the public to game wardens and biologists. Seeing a fox in the daytime can be a sign the animal is afflicted with rabies, but biologists caution people that the time of year has to be factored into the equation as well; parent foxes must hunt night and day from April to July to provide for their young.
For those who read “Of Wooly Bears and Other Signs of Spring” here about my Chesapeake Bay retriever puppy and a family of foxes living along the Stillwater River in Orono, I offer you more of my observations. We’ve had the opportunity to watch the parents and kits recently, and some of what my daughter Ann and I have witnessed is downright magical.
In mid-July, as the moon was ripening, we would take the dogs for a last swim on the river in the evening then stop off at a parking lot near the den site, where a sizable field backs down to the woods and river. It is in the between time — day gone but not yet night, night gone but not yet day — that foxes typically hunt. As we sat and watched, the family would emerge to ply their luck at finding dinner.
Many nights started with the two kits, now three-quarters grown, coming into view first. They would alternate between playing tag, keep-away (usually with a squirrel pelt) and patrolling through the grass in search of anything that moved. Moths and grasshoppers seemed to be their favorite prey, but we also observed them seizing frogs and fireflies. As each small food item was flushed, they would dash, dive or leap into the air in pursuit, catching the desired tidbit with their paws — catlike — and quickly eating it.
One night, the mama fox appeared and played with her offspring with complete abandon, later joining them in their hunting. Shortly thereafter, the papa materialized, and so there were four foxes in the field — and Ann and I felt like we had front-row seats to a show that would have rivaled a Broadway ballet: They danced and pirouetted and dove and chased, twisted and turned and leaped into the air. A choreographer could not have put together a more inspiring display of athleticism and grace. Lightning bugs flickered above them, adding an enchanting ambiance.
Soon, the mama fox trotted across College Avenue to a small tree planted in the front of Buchanan Alumni House where bark mulch was piled around the trunk. She dug a bit with her dainty paws and unearthed a deceased young groundhog — apparently stored there earlier.
Picking it up in her mouth, she trotted back to a waiting kit that had been observing her every move. She then transferred ownership of the groundhog; the food was welcomed with a wagging tail and bow, then the kit raced away at top speed toward the woods with sibling in hot pursuit. This must have been the planned main course — the preceding insects and frogs evidently were just appetizers.
Mama fox then crossed College Avenue again, no doubt satisfied her babies had a complete meal, as she went off in pursuit of the next prey item. Papa stayed behind this time to keep an eye on their offspring. He was nursing an injured right rear leg, held off the ground as he walked. Perhaps he’d been hit by a car on one of his road crossings. I was amazed to see that despite this disability, he was able to leap into the air, completely off the ground, just like the others, then land gracefully while catching anything that could be consumed.
Another night, Ann and I watched a yearling buck browsing leaves on the periphery of the same field. Soon, we could not believe our eyes. Mama fox came tiptoeing out of the woods, and she sneaked up on the young deer. At first we thought she might be serious about trying to bag the deer. He seemed oblivious to her approach — though later I wondered whether this was not a well-practiced facade.
The mama fox got right up behind the buck and tagged him with her nose on the back of his legs. He wheeled around and charged her, just a few steps, while she retreated out of reach. A few seconds elapsed, then he resumed eating, and she began the stealthy approach again. She touched him once more, and he repeated his performance. It was by then evident that they were playing with each other, and that each found the game amusing.
A fox likely could not bring down a healthy deer, and thus — despite the fact that I’d seen a whole deer leg outside the den earlier in the spring, which later was reduced to bare bones — deer and fox do not have an adversarial predator-prey relationship. Nonetheless, I had not heard of this interspecies play between foxes and deer before. (I do know of some animals that will exhibit a sense of humor like this at the expense of other species, including humans; ravens and coyotes are at the top of that list.)
A week previously, a friend of mine and her dad reported observing a fox following a deer in their backyard — which was no more than a quarter-mile away — and I wondered whether these were the same two individuals. I was, for once, glad that Ann had her Droid with her and that it was charged enough for her to capture the fox and deer drama as it unfolded. Although the light conditions preclude a “perfect picture,” they can be seen going through the motions — and inferred emotions — I described.
So much more goes on in nature beyond the scope of human eyes, I’m sure, than we could ever imagine. This sort of relationship between animals of different species may not be as uncommon as it is for a person to be in the right place at the right time, bearing witness. We count ourselves very fortunate to reside on Marsh Island, a protected oasis between the Penobscot River and its offshoot the Stillwater, where encounters with many extraordinary animals over the years have enriched our world immeasurably.
As for the fox family, whether they can continue to avoid the hazards of living so close to a large seasonal population of humans remains to be seen. I wish them well.