One of the benefits of photographing wildlife is meeting new friends who generously share their own observations. I received an email from my birding friend Jill Paul, asking if I might be interested in photographing a den of foxes that resided beneath the yard shed of a friend. Tom and JoAnna Spector graciously allowed me to spend an afternoon in their backyard, observing their resident fox family.
To my delight, this was a family of gray foxes, and although I have photographed gray foxes in the past, I had never photographed the kits. Unlike the red fox, gray foxes are only found in the New World. They’ve been around for about 3.5 million years, and they are the only North American foxes that can climb trees. These canids possess sharp claws that curve sufficiently to allow for vertical tree climbing, occasionally actually denning in trees.
Tom and I settled in as quietly as possible near the shed, and in minutes, four sets of ear tips appeared above the grassline. Soon the little foxes were out playing in the sun. The parents were out hunting for the day, while the youngsters were left at the den to while away the afternoon.
Although the parents are gone for hours at a time, the kits know, even at a young age, to be observant and wary. At thirty feet away, the kits saw us clearly, but like many wild animals, the youngsters were tolerating us as long as we remained still and quiet. A single crunch of a leaf underfoot will have any fox diving for cover.
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I waited for the kits to go under their shed, only then did I make my move a little closer to the den site. It helps to stay low, so I like to sit on a small footstool for these special ops. By the time the kits re-emerged, I was sitting still and quiet, but 10 feet closer to the den. Again, this was fine. I was rock still, and not making a sound.
There was ample time to observe the kits. It was a lazy day for them. Like any canine puppy, the kits nibbled on grass, and made occasional half-hearted snaps at flying insects. As much as we think of gray fox as predators of poultry and rodents, much of their diet is dependent on insects, fruit and grain, so the snap at flying insects will someday be a useful hunting skill.
Around 5 p.m. a single pine cone fell, landing with a sharp crack on a small square of concrete at the edge of the shed. The kits were gone. They dove to safety beneath the shed floor and didn’t return.
It was late in the day, and I considered leaving, but lingered with the hope that one of the parents might return to the den as they often do in the early evening. The wait was not a long one. My head was turned in the direction of the den but from the periphery I caught sight of the vixen arriving in the yard. Unlike the lanky red fox, a gray fox has short legs, and appears rather small, although she may weigh as much as a red fox. The vixen was heavy with milk, and she was coming back to nurse her young.
There’s a curious behavior that I’ve noticed every time I’ve photographed gray foxes. They’re nosy. Generally if you see a red fox in the forest, it will keep its eyes on you and trot away to safely, but in the gray fox, a fox that can easily disappear in a heartbeat (generally by diving under some tree root) there exists this odd curiosity if you remain still.
Whenever I’ve photographed gray foxes, I’ve gotten plenty of photos, because they don’t run away. They stare at you with a scrutiny reminiscent of the way people observe wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s. Remain stock still, and a gray will saunter before you, as if out for a casual stroll. This particular vixen yawned as she passed me, as if to demonstrate her relaxation. She wasn’t about to go under the shed and reveal the den location, but she quietly passed the shed and headed for the garden, all at a level walk.
It was time to leave. In spite of her blasé attitude, the vixen wanted to nurse her kits, and she wouldn’t return to the den unless I left the premises.
In the weeks that followed, the kits left the den; although still under parental care, they are old enough to travel. “Gloria” (as she is called by Tom and JoAnna) still hunts in the Spectors’ back yard, pauses for a drink of water, and occasionally follows Tom Spector as he goes about his gardening chores. Curiosity and mutual trust allow for a peaceful co-existence. The Spectors enjoy her company and benefit from the absence of moles in their garden.
Mary Parker Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org