Witness the fox

Late one afternoon last summer, Mama saw a gray fox walking through her yard.  He stopped at the wild plum trees near the driveway, lingering there to eat his fill of windfall fruits. Mama grabbed her camera, slipped outside, stood on the carport and snapped a few pictures. With his glossy silver coat backlit, the fox seems luminous in the images she captured.  I use the pronouns he and his not in a generic sense but because a female generally sticks close to the den during the day at that time of year to nurse her newborn pups.

We spotted another fox behind their house about a month ago. We were walking down to the boggy headwaters of an unnamed branch to check on the paw paws we’d planted last year when we saw it moving through a patch of tall grass no more than fifty feet away. Obscured as it was, I couldn’t identify the species, but its prick ears and pointy muzzle reminded me of my deer-head Chihuahua, Jimmy Carter, sporting a darker, bristly coat. The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) has patches of red on its neck and legs and is sometimes mistaken for a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), a slightly larger creature with longer fur and a more distinct color pattern.             

We’ve had foxes around the farm for years – when I was young, there was a den in a rocky strip of hardwoods between our backyard and the fields – but it seems we’re seeing them more often these days.  According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC), this isn’t due to a dramatic rise in fox populations. In fact, the red fox seems to be declining as coyotes become established in our region. Some wildlife biologists speculate our native gray fox is better equipped to elude coyotes since it’s the only canid species capable of climbing trees.

The red fox was brought to our shores during colonial times for a sport that’s now banned in the United Kingdom, a move that outraged my husband’s aunt and cousins who live on a sheep farm in Devon. They enjoy the pageantry and ritual of the hunt and see it as a way to control a troublesome predator. That said, they’re still allowed to shoot foxes as vermin, and some of their beloved Jack Russells have probably savaged more chickens than any fox on the moor. 

Hunting with fox hounds is still permitted in all but a handful of counties in our state, but laws governing the hunting and trapping of both the red and gray fox vary wildly from county to county, so check with the WRC for seasons, permits and bag limits. While it’s permissible to kill a nuisance fox any time of year, bear in mind that even though a fox might take the occasional chicken or guinea, they’re much more likely to prey on the rodents attracted to their feed. 

While Mama and I have enjoyed our encounters with these foxes, we were a bit concerned about seeing them during the day – especially given the recent reports of rabid foxes in the Uwharries – but according to the WRC, that’s not an unusual occurrence. Foxes are omnivores, and they don’t mind taking advantage of food sources in close proximity to humans. We attract them with our fruit trees, pet food, bird seed and garbage.  Rabies is a concern only if an animal appears to be staggering, foaming at the mouth, acting aggressive or exhibiting other odd behaviors.  In general, it’s best to observe wild animals from a distance and take steps to keep them from becoming habituated to humans. The WRC has tips for coexisting with foxes at http://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Learning/documents/Species/coexistfoxes.pdf.

Mama saw another fox recently, not far from the patch of tall grass near the branch. This time, it was clearly a red fox. She found it lying dead on the side of the road, presumably hit by a car. Sadly, that’s how we encounter wildlife all too often these days. Perhaps that makes it even more poignant to watch a fox fill up on plums or cut a path through unmowed grass. Having the opportunity to study the behavior of these and other wild creatures gives us a glimpse into their mysterious world.

To read Faith Shearin’s moving poem “The Fox,” go to http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2012/11/06.