By Jim Poling Sr.
The paw prints in the snow make me sad.
They go in a straight line, heading nowhere in particular, yet seemingly heading everywhere.
They enter a hilltop copse of young maples, then descend into a small clearing at the edge of a dense spruce bog. The stride of the track shortens, indicating a pause to reconnoiter, then carries on into the dark thickness.
I have no intention of following. It is hard work walking through the snow and the farther I follow the tracks the sadder I become.
I’m saddened because the tracks are those of a red fox, probably a vixen searching for food the night before. The tracks hold no evidence that she has found any.
I’ve seen the vixen from a distance on a couple of occasions this winter and she looks gaunt from hunger. Following her tracks in the snow tells me how far she has to travel, consuming precious energy, just to find a morsel.
I feel sorry for her but supress the urge to leave food out for her. Feeding the fox could make her dependent on handouts and diminish her desire to hunt on her own.
And looking hungry does not mean a fox is starving. It might have an empty, growling stomach but that likely will not last for long.
Foxes typically eat 0.5 to one kilogram of food a day. They are superbly equipped to find and catch it.
They have an acute sense of hearing and smell. Researchers have observed foxes detecting an egg 50 centimeters (almost two feet) away and buried under three centimeters (roughly one inch) of sand.
Also, foxes are omnivores and therefore have a wide choice of foods. They’ll eat mice, worms, insect larvae, grubs, carrion, and plant material, especially fruits.
Their hunting skills are legendary and are backed by extreme cunning and some science.
New Scientist magazine reported some years back that foxes use earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Some other creatures – birds and sharks – also have a ‘magnetic sense’ but foxes are the only critters known to use that sense for catching prey.
The magazine reported that the fox sees earth’s magnetic field as a ring of shadow. The shadow darkens as a fox’s eyes look toward magnetic north.
The fox can hear a mouse moving under a metre of snow but does not know precisely how far away it is. However, as the shadow on the fox’s eyes lines up with the sound of the mouse, they tell the fox the exact location and it pounces through the snow, pinning the mouse with its paws.
Cunning is another large part of keeping the fox from starvation. It’s an imaginative type of cunning that allows the fox to solve a problem when trying to catch prey.
There is the famous story, apparently based on truthful observation, of a fox bringing a stick to the edge of a pond where ducks are swimming. The fox plays with the stick, tossing it about in full view of the ducks who become curious about its behaviour.
The fox tires of its game, drops the stick by the shore and wanders off into some reeds. The ducks are curious and come ashore to check out the stick. Then, zap! The fox jumps up out from the reeds and grabs a duck.
There is another story of a Canadian biologist watching a fox charging a feeding squirrel which escapes by running into its tunnel entrance. Not long after, the squirrel emerges from the tunnel’s exit hole nearby, resumes feeding but is charged again by the fox. It again escapes by running back into the tunnel entrance.
This happens three times but when the squirrel escapes back into the entrance tunnel the fox goes instead to the exit tunnel, waits with its mouth open and grabs the squirrel as it comes out to resume feeding.
When I think about all the skills, tools and cunning a fox has for getting food I feel less sad.
Still, those paw prints trailing endlessly through the snow make me appreciate how long and hard that vixen works to keep food in her belly, and the bellies of any family she might have back in her den.