By: Randy Tucker
Children’s fairy tales are replete with stories of the fox. Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables both give Vulpes vulpes a good amount of attention. A member of the Canidae family along with dogs and wolves, the fox has a separate genus from its larger relatives.
The Red Fox is our version of this highly intelligent, stealthy predator. In my little section of paradise, the fox is a familiar companion.
On a dry sagebrush hill, a few dozen feet in altitude above one of my hayfields, is a fox den that is used every spring to raise kits. It’s a great location for a fox family, with water nearby and a much too abundant prairie dog population tearing up a section of my field below.
On early mornings when I’m setting irrigation water, I’ll sometimes take my Nikon with the 300 mm telephoto lens and shoot photographs of the kits peering over the edge of their den waiting for dinner to arrive.
Fox have an important role in the ecosystem. Many blame them for the demise of pheasant populations, but that honor goes to skunks and raccoons, who eat the eggs before they hatch. Fox don’t really hunt pheasant, since the pheasant is an intruder brought in by man in the 19th century.
Fox do hunt rabbits, mice, and an occasional squirrel.
One Sunday morning as we were getting ready for church, I looked outside and spotted our neighbor’s big gray housecat. This guy was a brute. You could tell by his torn ears that he liked to fight. He also liked to leave little gifts around my haystack that I sometimes stepped in.
He was a great mouser, so he was free to hunt in our stackyard anytime he wanted.
That morning, he started towards the north after something. That something was a fox with a freshly killed cottontail rabbit in his mouth.
I grabbed my camera for a chance at watching this housecat get his tail kicked (literally) by this fox.
As the cat approached the fox, he set the rabbit down and started to bark at the tomcat. The cat was not impressed and closed in a few feet closer. The fox snapped at the cat, receiving a half-dozen, well-placed swats to the face and a fierce howl.
The fox jumped back 10 feet or so and started to bark. The cat calmly walked over, picked up the rabbit, and dragged it on top of one of the haystacks. I couldn’t get a good picture from the upstairs window, since the sun hadn’t risen yet, but I said to myself, “You need to turn your fox card in, you just got whipped by a tabby cat.”
On another morning, not nearly so nice, I was forking hay to a couple dozen cows in our corral on a sub-zero morning. I was bundled up pretty well against the -20 temperatures at 5:30 a.m. I had to feed in the dark, morning and night, because of my day job, with just the yard light to illuminate some of the corral.
I’d used my New Holland stack wagon earlier that year to stack hay eight rows high. The stacks of small bales stood about 14 feet in the air with vertical sides.
I had the sensation that something was watching me, not a good feeling in the pitch blackness of a Wyoming winter.
There was something there. As I pulled hay bales down to feed, I’d disturbed a fox, sleeping warmly inside the stack.
He stepped out of the darkness into the dimly lit shadow of the yard light and stared right at me. I thought he might be aggressive, but wisdom was the better part of valor for him that morning.
At 6-1, 220 pounds and holding a pitchfork, I said out loud to the fox, “Go ahead, what are you going to do?”
This was a big fox, but the largest in our area never get over 15 pounds.
He was overmatched and knew it. With a swish of his lushly furred tail, he ran directly up the vertical side of one of the stacks, 14 feet straight up. Fox can climb like cats, but this was an impressive display. He stopped at the top, looked down at me, and with another swish of his tail he disappeared into the night.
Sometimes I think I’m a bit touched for talking to wildlife, but at other times I think there is an inter-species bond that allows us to communicate on a very basic level.
As a kid, I was picking up hay bales by myself with our pickup one afternoon near a fox den on the north side of my mom and dad’s farm just north of Kinnear, Wyoming.
I took our dog with me for company.
As I loaded bales I watched Rascal start to follow an invisible scent trail. Then I saw the fox a few dozen yards ahead of him in a section of sagebrush next to the alfalfa field. The fox circled around a little hill twice with the dog dutifully sniff behind, then it jumped maybe 20 feet and ran up the hill.
As the dog circled the hill, the fox sat on top and watched Rascal take laps. The mutt never caught on. I had to call him back to the truck for the ride home or he would have circled that hill for hours.
Cunning, elusive, quick, agile, and aggressive — not bad attributes for one of America’s most beautiful mammals.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at email@example.com.
Photo by Nikhil Mitra on Unsplash