Science

Listen Carefully and Pounce – the Story of Mrs. Fox

Come meet the animals using the wetlands of Vermont during the Winter season: Winter Tracking Series; a new story every week until the full moon following the first day of Spring; March 20, 2016.

wetland coverphoto

During the winter, when the ground is frozen in varying shades of white, gray, and sometimes shades of blue, a wetland often appears devoid of life. No movement. No sound. Have all the amphibians, birds and mammals gone away?

Chapter 4: Mrs. Fox listens carefully and pounces.

 

A fox sits on the snow looking into the camera.

Well hello there. I am Mrs. Lisica Fox. I have relatives all over the world, so I am named after my Serbian counterpart. Did you know that the red fox was not native to Vermont; we were introduced by European colonists? And, before we go any further, there are two fox species in Vermont, me and Mrs. GrayFfox. Mrs. Gray fox and I (a red fox) are only distant cousins. We can look a lot alike, especially from a distance, so let me tell you the best way to tell us apart: look for the color at the tip of our tails. Gray foxes have black-tipped tails, while red fox tails are white. Personally, I think white tipped tails are more elegant…I am quite beautiful, don’t you think?

I will admit I am a bit vain, but then again, I am highly intelligent, quite cunning and especially at this time of year with my beautiful red fur coat, I am stunning to look at, maybe even described as a “foxy” lady (haha, my personal joke). Of course it is at this time of year that I am looking for a mate, so I do want to look my best! Did I mention that I am quick on my feet, have great eyesight and incredible hearing? I can even hear a mouse scurrying under the snow! But we will come back to that in a little while.

I am supposed to be telling you a story about my activities in and near wetlands and share with you how it is that you can tell if I have been around during the winter. During the winter months, wetlands are important to me as not only a food source but also for a place to den nearby. Yes, that’s right; red fox almost always den within a few hundred yards of water, whether it is a stream or a pond, or merely a marshy area. We like to have a source of water nearby although we want our dens to stay dry.

Often, I will use an old ground hog den, but I also usually have more than one den at any given time. I like to move from one to another depending on the weather, food availability and what other disturbances might be happening around one of my dens. Here is a photo of one of my old den sites, near a farm pond wetland in an agricultural field. That was my partner, Mr. Renard Fox; handsome isn’t he. He helped me raise my kits. He is hunting in this photo,  I think he heard something in the stand of cattails, perhaps a mouse or a bird perhaps.

A fox looks over a frozen pond covered in snow.

The photo at the beginning of this story is where I have made my den for this year. It has a nice small channel of open water for when I am thirsty.  It is also a good place to go hunting for rabbit, other rodents and even an amphibian or two. You see I have a very diverse diet and will eat just about anything including birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, earthworms, berries, fruit, and carrion. Well, I will eat almost anything. I tried to eat this spotted salamander, but when I caught it, it defended itself by exuding a sticky white toxin from its skin-yuck. So I dropped it…and went off to hunt some mice or voles.

A frozen salamander surrounded by fox footprints.

But how to find mice and voles under the snow…remember, I told you I had good hearing. I can hear the mice scurrying under the snow. The wetland is a good place to find mice, so let’s go hunting. I listen carefully, tilting my head so as to create an asymmetry in the height of my ears. This causes a slight difference in the time it takes for the sounds of the mouse to reach each of my ears and then I can estimate the distance to the mouse by moving forward until the sound is a fixed strength. Then…I pounce!

A fox jumps into the air as it prepares to dive into the snow to catch its prey.      A fox halfway into the hole. Only back legs sticking out above snow.

Sometimes, I have to chase my food across the snow if I flush it out of vegetation or flip it out from under the snow. This rodent almost got away, but not quite! If you came across these tracks, you would see mine, his and then his would be gone-Yum Yum.

A fox chases a mouse over the snow.

Oh, I don’t think I have showed you a photo of my prints, silly me. How can you know if you found me if you don’t know what you are looking for?  Here are two photos of my prints; a close up one so you can see the details and then one of what it looks like when I am walking. You see I have four toes and claws, but because my foot is covered with hair, my toes can be indistinct. In winter, the hair is thicker, making my tracks more indistinct. But, I have something that no other canine has, a chevron-shaped callous pad on the heel pad of my foot, which makes identification of my tracks easier. There is usually a lot of space between my toes and the heel pad, making the track appear open. I commonly travel in straight lines, one print in front of the other in a direct register trot, where the rear foot lands squarely on top of where the front foot had stepped.

Two fox paw prints in the snow.

So, the next time you take a walk at this time of year in and around wetlands and other bodies of water, look for my tracks. See if you can find my den (it will smell like a skunk!). See if you can tell what I have been doing and if I have had any success in my hunting. Perhaps, if you are really lucky, you will even get to see glorious me in all of my splendid fur. Stay warm!

A longer trail of fox prints in the snow.

Happy Winter Tracking…join us for the next Chapter of this series and meet our next winter friend…any guesses as to whom that might be?  See you soon