TERRE HAUTE —
As we drove home late one night last week, my wife and I, both a bit drowsy and anxious for a warm bed and a long nap, were surprised to see a red fox as it darted across the road. He made his appearance in a flash — just a bit of nose and fur and bushy tail — as he jumped out of a ditch in front of our car and was caught in the glare of our headlights on his way to the relative safety of an apple orchard.
Foxes are not rare in our county at all, but they are rarely seen, so we get a little excited when we spot one. We know that they prowl our place, for we haven’t much out here but hills and hollows and trees and spaces that seem to suit them.
Over the years, we have seen foxes that have been killed along our roads, passing them as we’ve headed into town, only to come back a few hours later to find their tails clipped, the carcasses left for the buzzards. Whoever had stopped to cut the tails gained a talisman of sorts, I suppose, but there was something in their acts that left us cold and more than a bit sorry.
Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have faced slanderous accusations for years. Regarded in folklore as “sly” and “cunning,” as assassins of chickens and turkeys and lambs in real life, and, inexplicably, as manipulative and devilish in the morals of old fables, foxes are actually more adaptive than anything else.
As there are more and more of us humans — a point driven home a few weeks back when it became official that the world’s population had turned over 7 billion, give or take a few hundred thousand — there are fewer and fewer of them, although it is known that foxes live both near and in urban areas without causing too much mischief.
There are few reasons for maintaining the fox’s bad reputation these days. According to our state’s own Department of Natural Resources, it is ground squirrels and mice and song birds that have the most to fear from their red-furred foes. They aren’t very large, either; the average adult weighs in at only 8 to 14 pounds. Why, we’ve had heftier housecats than that, although our felines neither work as hard for a meal nor move nearly as quickly.
It is estimated that almost 40 percent of a red fox’s diet consists of insects and berries, even leaves. I have no doubt that the fox Joanie and I saw that night was minding his own business. It was less likely that it had been raiding a chicken coop than merely grabbing a rotten apple. Modern husbandry and wire and electric fences and strobe lights have pretty well eliminated the pilfering that foxes became notorious for years ago. They’ve adapted, and now snoop through dumpsters and compost piles and roadside trash for most of their fast-food fixes.
It was a summer of foxes for me. No less than three times, I drove my truck around a bend in a country road to see one as it slipped into a cornfield or stood motionless watching and sniffing the air before pulling a Houdini and fading into the landscape. In each instance, I considered myself lucky, for I don’t see them as often as I do the crows and deer and rabbits that glide over or wander through our property on a daily basis. As with the occasional owl or heron, we feel more privileged by a fox’s visit; it’s hard to explain, but we do.
There is something mysterious about foxes. According to Martin Wallen, who wrote his book, “Fox,” in 2006, all varieties of the animals have worldwide reputations. For instance, it was in Finland that the aurora borealis first became known as “foxfire,” for it was believed that a fox running across the sky painted the splendid colors with its tail. In many cultures, the fox was believed to be a shape-shifter, that they most often transformed themselves into conniving women. The Achumawi Indians — who lived primarily in northern California — believed that a silver fox assisted the coyote in “preparing the world for the coming of the first people,” ironic since coyotes are most often the prime suspects in fox deaths, that is unless you count those killed by cars.
Of course, we don’t appreciate foxes for their exotic history. They are beautiful animals, and their decidedly pedestrian habits make them more at home in open Indiana farm country than just about anywhere else. Despite beliefs to the contrary, foxes are not the den dwellers we suppose them to be. They use dens only when they are rearing youngsters and are mostly solitary creatures, matching up with a mate in the very late fall or early winter. The pair then stays together in a den, and once their pups — usually five or six to a litter and blind for up to two weeks after their births — are weaned (after 8-10 weeks), Mom and Dad stick around only long enough to train their clan how to hunt, then pack their bags and go their separate ways.
Even in the coldest of winters, foxes stay out in the open. They often sleep curled into a ball, their fabulous tails wrapped around paws and noses for insulation against the frigid air and snow. They are remarkable athletes, too. According to The Nature Conservancy, foxes can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour and are capable of leaping 15 feet at a time.
Foxes mostly spend their day trying to stay alive. They are frequently ambushed by larger predators, and, of course, they are hunted and trapped for their coats. In the long run, they may simply lose out to man because of our insistence for taking up their spaces. Foxes may, in fact, need to be sly if they are to survive us.
After our brief encounter along the road, I told my wife that the fox we saw was probably so scared by the experience that he was “still running.”
I hope our foxes can run and run for years to come.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@ aol.com or c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His third book, “A Place Near Home,” is available through his website and is in local stores now. He will be speaking and signing at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Rockville Public Library, and will be signing at two locations in Terre Haute: 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Fourth and Cherry streets; and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Baesler’s Market, 2900 Poplar St. Visit his
website at www.mikelunsford.com for more information.