August 30, 2021
Foxes in Focus, Part 1
- as seen by -Stacy Ratel @back_yard_birdie
Most of us have grown up with an image of the “sly fox,” the wily, calculating creature that endlessly plots the demise of its adorable and innocent victims. On the flip side, it’s sometimes said foxes are such close relatives of the dog that they can easily live alongside us in domestic harmony.
For the past few years, I’ve been staking out red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) wherever I can, curious about the real story. I’ve been especially focused on observing fox parents tending to their kits in the wild.
This summer, I happened upon a young family within driving distance from my home, and I was able to observe them interacting over a few weeks’ time.
Let me set the stage.
Before me is a mound of scratched, rust-colored dirt atop a huge underground den marked by paw prints from seven scrambling, playful kits. They spend much of their days pouncing, wrestling, tumbling down the slope of the torn terrain and are particularly active just before sunrise. The vixen, with her agile and graceful sashay, trots by with a mouse dangling from her mouth, ready to feed the kit awaiting her at the den. He sits, ears back, pinned tightly to his head, and before eating, they exchange a quick nuzzle.
At the start of life, kits are entirely helpless, furry fluffballs that require the warmth of their mom and must remain in close proximity to her. Kits can be easier to photograph, as they move through the world more oblivious and trusting, and less able to hide with intention. Mom, however, effectively camouflages against the surrounding thickets, frustrating my every attempt to capture her from behind the camera. With the kits safely in the den, she tolerates my presence as she goes about the business of caching a rodent inside every den hole and leading the kits in a seek-and-find game for survival.
Foxes live communally with their family, which is known as a skulk. If, for example, they cower close to the ground showing a curved smile on their jowls, this is a sign of submissiveness. As they spar playfully, the foxes raise their paws and bite each other’s snouts to challenge and assert their dominance, and these small victories help establish the hierarchy within the group.
When the mother returns to the den, the kits race to meet her, competing to nurse right away.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out Foxes in Focus, Part 2 here .