O WE not always, on a clear morning of winter, feel a thrill that must have something primitive in its quality, at seeing certain tracks in the snow that somehow suggest wildness and freedom! Such is the track of the fox. Although it is somewhat like that of a small dog yet it is very different. The fox has longer legs than most dogs of his weight, and there is more of freedom in his track and more of strength and agility expressed in it. His gait is usually an easy lope; this places the imprint of three feet in a line, one ahead of another, but the fourth is off a little at one side, as if to keep the balance.
The fox lives in a den or burrow. The only fox home which I ever saw, was a rather deep cave beneath the roots of a stump, and there was no burrow or retreat beyond it. However, foxes often select woodchuck burrows, or make burrows of their own, and if they are caught within, they can dig rapidly, as many a hunter can attest. The mother usually selects an open place for a den for the young foxes; often an open field or side-hill is chosen for this. The den is carpeted with grass and is a very comfortable place for the fox puppies. The den of the father fox is usually not far away.
The face of the red fox shows plainly why he has been able to cope with man, and thrive despite and because of him. If ever a face showed cunning, it is his. Its pointed, slender nose gives it an expression of extreme cleverness, while the width of the head between the upstanding, triangular ears gives room for a brain of power. In color the fox is russet-red, the hind quarters being grayish. The legs are black outside and white inside; the throat is white, and the broad, triangular ears are tipped with black. The glory of the fox is his "brush," as the beautiful, bushy tail is called. This is red, with black toward the end and white-tipped. This tail is not merely for beauty, for it affords the fox warmth during the winter, as any one may see who has observed the way it is wrapped around the sleeping animal. But this bushy tail is a disadvantage, if it becomes bedraggled and heavy with snow and sleet, when the hounds are giving close chase to its owner. The silver fox and the black fox are the same species as the red fox.
The fox is an inveterate hunter of the animals of the field; meadow mice, rabbits, woodchucks, frogs, snakes and grasshoppers, are all acceptable food; he is also destructive of birds. His fondness for the latter has given him a bad reputation with the farmer because of his attacks on poultry. Not only will he raid hen-roosts if he can force entrance, but he catches many fowls in the summer when they are wandering through the fields. The way he carries the heavy burden of his larger prey shows his cleverness: He slings a hen or a goose over his shoulders, keeping the head in his mouth to steady the burden. Mr. Cram says, in American Animals:
"Yet, although the farmer and the fox are such inveterate enemies, they manage to benefit each other in a great many ways quite unintentionally. The fox destroys numberless field mice and woodchucks for the farmer and in return the farmer supplies him with poultry, and builds convenient bridges over streams and wet places, which the fox crosses oftener than the farmer, for he is as sensitive as a cat about getting his feet wet. On the whole, I am inclined to believe that the fox gets the best part of the exchange, for, while the farmer shoots at him on every occasion, and hunts him with dogs in the winter, he has cleared the land of wolves and panthers, so that foxes are probably safer than before any land was ploughed."
The bark of the fox is a high, sharp yelp, more like the bark of the coyote than of the dog. There is no doubt a considerable range of meaning in the fox's language, of which we are ignorant. He growls when angry, and when pleased he smiles like a dog and wags his beautiful tail.
Many are the wiles of the fox to head off dogs following his track: he often retraces his own steps for a few yards and then makes a long sidewise jump; the dogs go on, up to the end of the trail pocket, and try in vain to get the scent from that point. Sometimes he walks along the top rails of fences or takes the high and dry ridges where the scent will not remain; he often follows roads and beaten paths and also goes around and around in the midst of a herd of cattle, so that his scent is hidden; he crosses streams on logs and invents various other devices too numerous and intricate to describe. When chased by dogs, he naturally runs in a circle, probably so as not to be too far from home. If there are young ones in the den, the father fox leads the hounds far away, in the next county, if possible. Perhaps one of the most clever tricks of the fox, is to make friends with the dogs. I have known of two instances where a dog and fox were daily companions and playfellows.
The young foxes are born in the spring. They are black at first and are fascinating little creatures, being exceedingly playful and active. Their parents are very devoted to them, and during all their puppyhood, the mother fox is a menace to the poultry of the region, because the necessity is upon her of feeding her rapidly growing litter.
In my opinion, the best story of animal fiction is "Red Fox" by Roberts. Like all good fiction, it is based upon facts and it presents a wholesome picture of the life of the successful fox. "The Silver Fox" by Thompson Seton is another interesting and delightful story. Although the Nights with Uncle Remus could scarcely be called nature stories, yet they are interesting in showing how the fox has become a part of folk-lore.
Leading thought—The red fox is so clever that it has been able, in many parts of our country, to maintain itself despite dogs and men.
Method—This lesson is likely to be given largely from hearsay or reading. However, if the school is in a rural district, there will be plenty of hunters' stories afloat, from which may be elicited facts concerning the cunning and cleverness of the red fox. In such places there is also the opportunity in winter to study fox tracks upon the snow. The lesson may well be given when there are fox tracks for observation. The close relationship between foxes and dogs should be emphasized.
1. Describe the fox's track. How does it differ from the track of a small dog?
2. Where does the fox make its home? Describe the den. Describe the den in which the young foxes live.
3. Describe the red fox, its color and form as completely as you can. What is the expression of its face? What is there peculiar about its tail? What is the use of this great bushy tail in the winter?
4. What is the food of the fox? How does it get its food? Is it a day or a night hunter? How does the fox benefit the farmer? How does it injure him? How does the fox carry home its heavy game, such as a goose or a hen?
5. Have you ever heard the fox bark? Did it sound like the bark of a dog? How does the fox express anger? Pleasure?
6. When chased by dogs, in what direction does the fox run? Describe all of the tricks which you know by which the fox throws the dog off the scent.
7. When are the young foxes born? How many in a litter? What color are they? How do they play with each other? How do they learn to hunt?
Supplementary reading—Red Fox by Roberts; Silver Fox by Thompson Seton; Little Beasts of Field and Wood, page 25; Squirrels and Other Fur Bearers, chapter 7; Fox Ways in Ways of Wood Folk; The Springfield Fox in Wild Animals I Have Known; Familiar Wild Animals; Familiar Life in Field and Forest, page 213; American Animals, page 264; Nights with Uncle Remus.