Meadow Lark

A now-you-see-them, now-you-don't relationship with a pair of red foxes reveals an animal of unmistakable grace, energy, and charm.

By Jeff Hull


I sniff for the scent of red fox, a mix of old, vinegary wine and skunk stink. It's the end of winter in the northern Rockies, and snow lies in soft complicity over the field, blue shadow grooving the roll of land beneath it. Forests of pine and larch whisker the steep hillsides beyond the fields. The foxes have been coming here, to our small field in this small valley in western Montana, for several years. In early spring they leave their tracks in a looping, cursive scrim, and I see the divots in the softening snow where they've bored out a vole or a hibernating field mouse. I watch them sit on their haunches and stare down their snouts, swiveling their heads to triangulate their ears at the target before them, bracketing the low-frequency rustle of rodents in the subnivian zone. The foxes launch themselves in parabolic arcs, bent paws poised as they leap high into the air before pouncing downward and spearing the snow with their faces.

Light seeps from the winter evening to coalesce in the luminous blanket of snow. No tracks tonight. I miss the foxes, but I'm not sure I want them to be back. For reasons that have nothing to do with the natural order of things, this neck of the woods is a dangerous place for foxes to be.

It's not easy being a fox in a human-centric world—all those henhouses to attend to, literally and metaphorically. Indigenous Scandinavian cultures believed that foxes invoked the northern lights, which they called “fox fire.” Shape-shifting, mischievous foxes play prominent roles in Japanese legend, and Siberian and Inuit mythologies drape foxes in sexual undertones. In ancient Europe foxes were considered gods, but the coming of Christian civilization relegated the fox from deity to the doghouse. Reynard, the fox-hero of Europe's satirical medieval folk tales, is vain, amoral, and self-serving. Aesop's and Jean de la Fontaine's fables portray the fox as, by turns, petty and facile. By mythologizing them, early man was attempting to extrapolate foxes' resilience in a world he was struggling to tame. It is a habit of ours that can be helpful—or dangerous when it becomes a shortcut that substitutes itself for knowing, for watching and seeing.

Foxes are the most widely distributed land carnivores on earth, and, when not targeted for extirpation, they thrive in our midst. There's debate about whether the red fox is native to North America, like its cousin the gray fox. Certainly some red foxes were imported by early colonial “sportsmen” from England, but red-fox bones have been found in pre-Columbian human graves, suggesting a continuous presence. In any event, the red fox has become a ubiquitous player on our ecological landscape. One once bolted past me on a city street in downtown Denver. In Britain some cities and towns support up to five times the number of foxes as the surrounding rural areas, according to one study. Foxes are among our most watchable wildlife, and nobody who has seen one in motion can walk away unaffected.

Later in the spring, through our bedroom window, I hear a fox yapping, the sound a fiddle bow makes when it barks quickly against the strings. The fox cries out periodically, and lying in bed I follow him around the darkness as he traverses fields mapped in my imagination.

When I hear barking at night, when I know they're back, I feel an unguarded thrill. I know you're not supposed to do this, but I call the male fox that frequents our field Nick. He has a shock of white hair growing from a notch in his ear, a scar of some sort. The female I started calling Babe because of her pale eyes: Babe, the Blue-Eyed Fox. Nick has long black stockings, black ear tips, and a black muzzle. Babe's coat is lighter, pale orange. Her face seems more open, a bit broader.

One morning I watch Babe, alone (I think) in the field. I see her leap into a patch of high grass, and then suddenly Nick flies skyward, all four feet a-dangle, as if Babe has bounded onto one end of a seesaw and flung him skyward. They wrestle, eventually rearing up and waltzing, forefeet braced against each other's shoulders. Babe is the speed merchant. She races in long bounds, then breaks in a new direction, a zipping gait of feints and dashes.

Nick is at least three years old, which I know because the summer he was a yearling, I watched him bull-rush grasshoppers, flushing them from the long stems of the uncut pasture onto a patch of newly seeded ground. He would pounce on the exposed hoppers, tilt his head back, and crunch them up. That same summer I watched him gallop through the tall grass, leaping after a fluttering butterfly.

Last spring Nick ran off another male for the privilege of breeding with Babe. I happened to see the mating, too, a fit of comically aggressive copulation. Besides Nick and Babe, I don't know how many foxes live around here. Nobody does. Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks has no idea of the fox population in my valley, or anywhere else in the state. They know only how many foxes trappers destroy every season—or, more exactly, how many foxes trappers admit they destroy when they bother to fill out the FW&P's voluntary surveys.

Perhaps nobody has watched more fox behavior than J. David Henry. Now a conservation biologist with Parks Canada in the Yukon Territory, Henry spent 14 years observing foxes in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. He has written three books about them. I tromped around Prince Albert with Henry for a few days last June. Here he was able to observe undisturbed animal societies in a highly matured state. “You find in the literature . . . lots of variation about the percentage of time that male foxes help raise the kits,” Henry told me. “In my research males always brought food in. Outside the park the results of hunting and trapping cause much of that variation. But the undisturbed behavior of the fox is for both male and female to help raise young.”

Watching foxes hunt led Henry to contemplate their trajectory. He eventually observed that foxes instinctively launch their pounces very near the angle that would mathematically produce optimal distance; that their long back legs, a froglike adaptation, maximize the push of their leg muscles against the ground; that their limb bones are markedly lighter than those of other canids of their stature, further increasing flight time.

Henry also remarks on foxes' similarities to cats: the long whiskers that guide killing bites and the fine hairs on the wrists that allow foxes to avoid dry grass and twigs when stalking. Fox eyes consist of vertical cat-eye pupils that stop down bright sunlight, and a layer of tissue inside the eyeball that enhances low-light vision. Foxes' front claws are semi-retractable, and their paw pads are flexible. Gray foxes are agile tree climbers. In fact, early 19th-century men of leisure imported red foxes to the southern United States—historically gray fox territory—so that they and their hounds might have more “sport” chasing an animal that wouldn't tree.

What, I asked Henry—who had in his early days fancied himself a bear biologist—lured him to foxes? “Their inherent grace,” he said. “After years of study, I still have a thrill from seeing them, seeing them make those moves, and seeing that aliveness.”

Easter Sunday, March 28. Nick is in the field. The moment I see him move I know something is wrong. He limps badly on his front right leg. If she conceived on the day I observed their copulation, Babe is due to give birth around April 2. She will stay underground for 10 days after the kits are born. I wonder if Nick can recover to feed her and the litter.

We see foxes in so many ways, and this shifting viewpoint allows people to both appreciate and extirpate them. Foxes have been trapped, shot, poisoned, exploded, immolated, and hounded to death. During the Depression, fox slaughter took on a civic festivity. Near Fowler, Indiana, in January of 1936, 7,000 people armed with clubs turned out for the 15th Annual Pine Township Fox Drive. Seven thousand people.

It would be pleasant to think that this eager slaughter is behind us, or to foist it on the Brits with their hounds. But our federal government still kills thousands of red and gray foxes annually, using snares, poisons, and denning—the fumigation of kits in their dens with burning canisters of sodium nitrate. Hunting groups pressure state governments to kill foxes that prey on the nests of game birds and waterfowl—birds the hunters covet the pleasure of killing themselves. Livestock owners fear that foxes eat lambs and calves, though this is true in only the rarest circumstances.

Every year the fur trade slaughters more than 4 million foxes worldwide, both wild and farm-raised, primarily for decorative trim on garments, which consumers often do not realize is real fox fur. Whereas anti-fur campaigns in the 1980s led to a falloff in fur coat sales, the popularity of fur trim among younger consumers—2002 saw fur sales in the United States reach a 15-year high—has resulted in the slaughter of increasing numbers of animals. China has recently challenged Scandinavia's farmed-fur dominance on the strength of low-capital farms featuring gruesome conditions and slaughter methods. In China farmed foxes spend their entire lives in rows of tiny wire-mesh cages, which destroy their delicate paws and drive them, quite literally, mad. Swiss animal-rights activists at Chinese fur farms have documented foxes being skinned alive, bodies thrashing, eyes blinking, mouths shrieking 10 or 15 minutes after their pelt was torn from their flesh.

Closer to home, we have the medieval simplicity of the leghold trap.

As long ago as 1863 Charles Darwin wrote, “Few men could endure to watch for five minutes an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb.” Even the pro-trapping media admit that trapping in America is overwhelmingly a sport or hobby activity. The trapper in my valley lives just down the road from me. He does not believe that trapped animals feel pain. He traps behind my house, on the Forest Service ground that reaches for miles up and over into the next valley. Each fall he flanks Nick and Babe's den with traps. He is the reason I do not want to find fox tracks in the snow.

Traps arrest the grace of foxes, transform their arcing leaps and fluid romps into a frantic escape effort that tears up the earth in what trappers call the “catch circle.” Foxes, with their long, thin leg bones, do particularly poorly in traps, even traps with so-called “padded” jaws. According to a 1990 study, of “55 red foxes caught in padded leghold traps, 25 suffered severe swelling, 23 suffered lacerations, 17 suffered tooth fractures (from biting the traps), and 13 suffered severance of tendons, abrasions, or fractures.” The propensity of foxes to chew their legs off to escape a trap is well documented.

I suspect our trapper, and others like him, consider themselves throwbacks to a time when a man survived on his wile and wit. I suspect they measure their manhood with the crumpled skins of animals that have spent desperate last hours—sometimes days in a state like Montana, which has no mandatory trap-checking regulations—suffering considerable amounts of meaningless pain and distress.

I suspect Nick has nearly been trapped, has been snagged by a toe, and, in yanking himself free, has damaged his foot.

Four days go by without a sign of Nick. By our calculations, Babe is due to give birth any day. On the fifth morning I look into the field and there stands Nick. When he wanders into patches of low morning sunlight, he gleams red, his hackle fur fizzed in overexposure. His gait is stiff, but he seems capable of a full range of motion. He half pounces once, turning up nothing, and then disappears in a rickety gallop.

I love the sense of movement he brings to the empty field—the bundled, bouncy fox-life with which he colors the scene. A few hours later he returns with Babe. Edgy, nervous, and extremely pregnant, Babe leaves after only minutes, beelining toward the wooded hillside, where I suspect she has dug her den. She's wadded up in her abdomen but can still zip along. Nick trots after her, more loose now that he's been moving around, more fluid.

It's the last we see of her for a while, though Nick visits the field regularly to pounce on voles and carry mouthfuls of dead rodents back up the hill. And then one day they both appear, Babe stalking Nick while he tries to hunt, leaping at him, punching him in the rump with her forepaws, full of frolic after her time underground. I see these two foxes two or three times a week. Then not at all. It goes like this. I see them, I learn them, and they disappear. But I know they are near. The woods just feel foxy.

I know that somewhere up the hillside there are probably hungry fox pups hanging around a hole in the ground. I know, too, that one day Nick will not be able to overcome an injury, or escape the coyotes and wolves, or dodge the car speeding down the dirt road. Then, assuming these motley young foxes can avoid the wreath of traps surrounding their world, one of them will take his place, carrying its own singular motion to my life.


Jeff Hull is a freelance writer who lives in a rural valley in western Montana. His novel, Pale Morning Done, about fly-fishing guides in Montana, was published in 2005 by Lyons Press.



© 2006 National Audubon Society

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!