Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of running fox © Timothy Sweet

A fox came running full tilt out of a grove of hemlocks.
© Timothy Sweet

December 2011

A family of foxes

Close encounters of the kit kind.

Timothy Sweet

Nearly 30 years ago I had my first close encounters with red foxes while backpacking from Windigo to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. A friend and I had arrived at our campsite on Feldtmann Lake and slipped off our packs to eat some peanut butter and crackers. We left the container of peanut butter unattended just a few feet away as we sat along the shoreline and watched a bull moose feeding on aquatic plants.

When I turned around, a fox snatched the container and downed the entire supply of peanut butter! A short time later, he was observed drinking large amounts of water from the lake to wash it all down. The next night we witnessed another camp fox at Siskiwit Bay. Some boaters had pulled into the dock from the big lake and were preparing dinner when a fox deftly jumped onto the deck and swiped their 10-pound bag of potatoes. The bold critter ran right past us and into the woods with what seemed to be a bit of a smirk on his face. Now let's fast-forward to the end of last March.

A blizzard struck our area on the 23rd of that month leaving the countryside covered in a pristine blanket of sparkling white snow. I went snowshoeing on our neighborhood golf course early one morning to admire the cold, wind-sculpted beauty of nature. I tromped to the top of an east-facing hill and discovered a partially chewed deer leg surrounded by lots of paw prints.

A quick survey of the surrounding wooded areas did not turn up the rest of the deer carcass so I continued on my walk. Tromping past a storage shed, I stopped to look at the shadows of the trees cast on the jewel-like winter scene, when a fox came running full tilt out of a grove of hemlocks. I barely had time to take a photo before he glided over a snow bank and disappeared into the cedar swamp.

That reminded me of a fox den a friend had told me about located just off the side of a nearby road. I made a beeline in that direction, and sure enough, I found the den with an opening that had been dug out of the snow in the side of a hill.

Within a month, the snow had melted and the grass was starting to sprout. My friend called me on May 5, to report she had seen six baby foxes playing near the den site. I made a daily pilgrimage with camera in hand and began to record the growth of the kits during the next six-week period.

Photo of fox kit © Timothy Sweet
Kits start hunting with their parents when they are three months old.
© Timothy Sweet

Early in the morning on Mother's Day, I quietly approached the den. Five of the kits were sitting up on the hill, and one of them was running down the side of the road to its mother who was standing on a gravel driveway apron. The mother spotted me just a second or two after I saw her. Immediately she let out a series of warning barks as she faded into the tall grass near another pond. The kit turned tail and rejoined his brothers and sisters by the entrance to the den.

In addition to the main entrance, there was a series of three or four side tunnels (fox holes) that allowed the young foxes to duck to safety if they sensed danger. My most memorable encounter with the young foxes occurred on June 8. It was at about 5:15 a.m. I was on my way to the den, walking between a golf course pond and a cedar swamp. Suddenly, an adolescent fox ran out of some tall grass right in front of me and sat down near a plastic culvert along the pond's edge.

I started snapping pictures with my camera, and then I'd pause and talk to him like I would to a dog. Slowly I moved to within 15 feet and sat down. The fox seemed very calm. He eventually laid down and closed his eyes to take a nap. Occasionally he'd wake up and casually glance over at me and then lick his paws or yawn. Then he chewed on the edge of the culvert like a baby who is teething.

As I got up, the fox slipped into the safety and security of the culvert's interior. I felt a kinship with this wild creature during the course of the 20-minute episode. If you've ever read the story The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry you know what I'm describing.

By mid-June, the kits had all left the den. Since then, I'll occasionally find fox scat on my driveway, along the side of the road, and on the manhole covers in our road. It's as if they're saying, "We're still around, but you'll have to wait until next spring to see us."

You can be sure I'll be out looking for them after the snow melts and the first blades of grass start to green up in my neck of the woods.

Timothy Sweet tracks foxes and writes from his home in Clintonville.