The little foxes

When I first encountered a den of red fox kits in April, I believe that ‘slyness’ would be the least appropriate word to describe the four tiny creatures I saw before me.

CorrespondentJune 29, 2013 

“Stupid like a fox” is a phrase that I heard many times when I was growing up.

It refers to any person who promotes his or her own agenda while pretending not to know what is going on in a situation.

When we examine centuries of literature, we can count on references to foxes to be synonymous with deceit. In the Bible, the Song of Solomon states, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards: for our vines have tender grapes.” Ben Jonson’s “Volpone” is a satire that lambastes the unbridled greed and lust of a rich Venetian nobleman, whose name in Italian means “Fox.” In the 1940s, Lillian Hellman wrote her well-received play “The Little Foxes” about a family who uses chicanery and cold manipulation to guarantee an inheritance.

When I first encountered a den of red fox kits in April, “slyness” would be the least appropriate word to describe the four tiny creatures I saw before me. I could not imagine how these rolling balls of fluff could possibly survive in such a public setting.

My introduction to the fox kits came from a tip.

Lucretia Kinney is a well-known Chapel Hill birder who has a fine eye for making wildlife observations. She contacted me to ask if I had seen the fox den that was nearby. She gave me careful directions, and I was off the next day to investigate.

Not far from a sidewalk overpass, four tiny fox kits lay napping in the afternoon sun. No parent was in attendance, as these kits were old enough to be left alone for the day while their mother hunted but not quite old enough to join such an arduous trip.

This was the perfect time to observe the brood. Very young fox kits would be tucked away in the den with their mother, and older fox kits would be off hunting all day with a parent, but these little ones were at the age to simply enjoy the day with their siblings.

Unencumbered in play

The brutal fights of young foxes to establish dominance occur at an even earlier age. These foxes had already worked out their rivalries and could spend the day sleeping, carrying sticks, making occasional digs for edible insects, and play-fighting in an amiable way. They never wandered far from the relative safety of their underground den, but chose to nap in the small puddles of light that penetrated the canopy.

I set up my camera on a tripod and spent quite a few hours simply observing the scene. All day, people walked past the foxes without a glance in their direction. Some people asked what I was doing, and I pointed out the foxes to them, but most times people simply continued on their trail walks.

The foxes behaved for the most part like bored puppies. They slept and wandered in their small area without any regard for the people who observed them. The dominant kit was quite active. This was the kit that landed with a thud on a sleeping sibling, hoping for some opportunity to play. This kit wanted to be engaged. It wandered the farthest from the den and remained active while the others slept. When all attempts failed to draw a friend off to play, the dominant kit plopped down for a nap, too.

I could not imagine how these tiny creatures could escape any threat. Their gait was still the clumsy waddle of a puppy. How could they even run away from danger?

From the trail, I heard the jingle of a dog collar.

Immediately, the kits were awake, ears up and turned alertly towards the trail. Within seconds, all four kits were inside the den; the clumsy toddler gait had disappeared. Even at this young age, the wariness of a wild creature versus a domestic dog was evident. They had been trained to recognize a serious threat.

After a few minutes, the kits emerged and began to play. It was all paws to heads, pretend bites and rolling in the leaves, until a dog passed on the trail. Often, I could not hear the difference between a trail walker alone and a walker accompanied by a dog, but each time a dog appeared, the tiny foxes were already tucked deep inside their underground home.

Sudden interest in the stranger

I returned day after day to watch the kits. My location allowed for photos but was a little too far away for any quality images. I dared not go closer, as my scent near the den would cause alarm to the mother fox when she returned from hunting. So I stood there and hoped for some change to bring me a little luck. The den was under the canopy of a large tree, which meant that the area was in deep shade. Oh, for a bit of light!

For some unknown reason, one of the kits grew curious. The small kit walked toward me, staring directly at me. This was the time to remain still, utterly still. No adult fox would be this naïve, but since I was not wearing a collar, I guess I posed no threat.

Keep walking, little fox … keep walking.

At this point, my greedy paparazzi thoughts intruded, and I kept thinking about how very nice it would be if the little fox stepped into the tiny scrap of light that had emerged between the clouds, illuminating a fallen log on the forest floor. The fox obliged, moved to his left, and I clicked away. The photo was mine. Shortly thereafter, the clouds returned, and without any hurriedness, the kit turned back to its play.

The next day, I returned, but only one kit came out for the day. The time had come when the mother would teach some of her kits to hunt. This lone kit had been left behind until the rest of the brood returned for the evening. The chances to observe the kits were drawing to a close.

The domesticated invader

The following day, all the kits were out of the den. From the trail, I heard the sound of a hiker calling her dog. The dog was unleashed and eventually found its way to the den site. Fortunately, the kits were not present. The dog, an amiable looking, short-legged creature, caught the scent of the foxes and bounded into the fox den area. It located the den itself and dove inside and then rolled repeatedly in the entrance of the den. The site was contaminated. The mother fox would smell the dog scent upon her return and know that the den was no longer a safe haven.

Fortunately, Volpone is indeed a sly thinker. The red fox generally has two dens. If one is deemed to be unsafe, the mother fox can move her kits immediately to her next safe house. Perhaps the elusiveness of the fox simply arouses jealousy in humans. In the woods, we possess no more cunning than one of our own bounding dogs. We are simply outfoxed.

Sincere thanks to Lucretia Kinney for her generosity in sharing one of her great discoveries.

Mary Sonis is a local naturalist, photographer and writer. She can be reached a t msonis@nc.rr.com.

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