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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Thick winter coats and bushy tails keep red foxes warm in winter, even out in the open. © Herbert Lange
Thick winter coats and bushy tails keep red foxes warm in winter, even out in the open.

© Herbert Lange

February 2008

Sociable encounters

Foxes have things to tell us that we can't quite understand.

Andrea LeClair

When I first saw the red fox, it was still sporting its luxurious winter coat. My husband and I live in the country about an hour south of Lake Superior and we've enjoyed some remarkable encounters with wildlife over the years, but none pleased me as much as our meetings with red foxes that started when late winter stubbornly refuses to give way to spring. The fox trotted across our property and onto a stump only six yards from me. It looked at me, then upwards at some chickadees passing by. Then it turned and disappeared into the woods. I was surprised that a fox would come so close. It was an extraordinary experience for a woman who grew up in a seaside city of southern California, dreaming of woods and wildlife!

A week later, I happened to walk out to our breezeway, which has a hard dirt floor covered with crushed granite. Lying next to the house foundation was a small, gray animal with a white-tipped tail. Only its head was covered with the loose granite. Brushing aside the stone, I realized I was looking at the body of a fox pup, a little less than a foot long, with a fresh wound at the back of its neck. I was puzzled by the partial burial. Would a predator leave its prey in such a manner so close to my house? Could the perpetrator have been a badger or a bobcat? I have heard that male foxes sometimes kill male pups, but this pup was a female. I sought answers from several wildlife biologists, all of whom were puzzled. It remained a mystery.

Some weeks later walking down a nearby country road, I thought I saw something moving in the woods. There were three fox pups playing with an adult on top of a mound. The adult watched as the pups tumbled down the side of the mound, then chased and grabbed at each other as they scrambled back to the top. Considering how close the mound is to our home, I believe it's likely the adult was my visiting fox and the parent of the deceased pup.

Later that month, I saw a fox sitting by the roadside, gazing intently toward the mound and making a series of "wow" barking sounds. It only ceased vocalizing to pace to and fro along the roadside. The fox repeated this behavior for at least a half hour. I could not see any movement at the mound and got concerned that whatever had killed the fox pup might now be threatening the remaining pups. I cautiously walked toward the mound, passing close to the fox that barely seemed to notice me. I then realized the mound was a den, and I backed off and returned to the roadside.

I had noticed earlier that the fox had been carrying a dead shrew that it would place in the middle of the road for a time, pace, bark, then pick it up again. When I returned from the woods to the roadside, the fox started walking toward me, which I found quite startling. I realized I was standing next to its shrew. The fox came within four feet of me, picked up the shrew, walked away and went about its business. Here was another mystery. Why had the fox barked and paced? Was it fearful that a predator was trying to get at more of its pups? Were the pups getting a hunting lesson? Maybe this was ordinary fox family behavior.

One day in mid-July, I had just stepped outside when a fox trotted by with its mouth full of small, lifeless creatures. It then turned around, came back and stopped briefly a few feet from where I stood, momentarily looking at me before turning and going back into the woods. I had time to identify a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, the fanned out tail of a bird and possibly a third animal in its mouth. Why it filled its mouth and came by me was yet another mystery. On a cloudy day, later in the summer a fox appeared to be relaxing on our boat dock, which I considered an unusual hangout.

Recently, I saw two foxes take an interest in a particular spot at the base of a tree. They suddenly stood on their hind legs and, with mouths opened wide, placed their forepaws on each other's fore shoulders and uttered a repetitive, squeaky throaty sound. Despite the threatening posturing and emphatic language, neither fox bit the other. The display continued for about 20 seconds, then one of the foxes disappeared into the woods while the other sat a while, simply watching.

The mock battle was likely litter mates or other family members showing socializing behaviors. © Andrea LeClair
The mock battle was likely litter mates or other family members showing socializing behaviors.

© Andrea LeClair

I forwarded a note and some photos to this magazine, and the editor put me in contact with northern Wisconsin Furbearer Specialist John Olson, who tried to provide some answers to my observations. He said the partial burial might have been a sick or weak pup dispatched by an adult female, then removed from the den site. John explained this behavior is more common in the canine world with wolves, or perhaps had been done by a predator. Martens, owls and foxes all remove dead young from dens as basic sanitation to avoid attractive odors. Predators like skunks love decaying flesh.

The barking calls could have been many things. Olson said foxes have a wide-ranging vocabulary of squeaks, barks, whines and screams, just to mention a few.

About the den visits, he encourages all readers to do their wildlife watching from a distance for their safety and the animal's safety. Laying down a scent trail directly to a den site only increases the risks of alerting dogs, coyotes and raccoons to the site.

The squeaky paw play may have been litter mates or an adult and its growing pup. The behavior is common among members of the same family group and may be part of their socialization. "We really don't know or totally understand most wildlife behavior and forms of communication," Olson said. He noted that some species such as red fox, turkey, opossum and striped skunks have adapted to humans' continued expansion into the natural world. Other species, such as wolves, bobcats and river otters, continue to avoid us by keeping their distance or adopting patterns like nocturnal lifestyles to find their peace.

Andrea LeClair writes from Park Falls.