Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 4, 2009

Grey Fox Passing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

In 1857 Henry David Thoreau paused to contemplate a set of wandering fox tracks crossing a frozen pond. He theorized that the footprints recorded the thought pattern of God through the wanderings of a single one of his creatures. In essence, the dusty snow enabled the animal to write a written record of his day. “The pond,” he wrote, “was his journal, and last night’s snow made a tabula rasa for him.”

Mr. Thoreau, as was his way, was obviously thinking way too much, but he has a point. Tabula rasa is fancy-speak for a “blank slate” or a blank page. The tracks on that blank page of new fallen snow are a form of written journal entry from a non-literate being. Though he probably knew the difference, Mr. Thoreau didn’t identify the exact fox species in question. When in the midst of philosophical musing, such a thing is completely irrelevant. A wombat could have made those tracks and the same conclusion could have been drawn, although the idea of a dim-witted Australian marsupial  freezing to death in the north woods of America would have presented a whole new set of questions (would the wombat have felt abandoned by God, for instance?).  This is why I am a naturalist and not a philosopher – I answer the wrong questions.

Thoreau’s fox identification choice in New England would have been between a Gray or a Red Fox. I wasn’t thinking of philosophy when my son and I spotted this set of fox tracks last week (see above) at Crosswinds Marsh. I was thinking straight identification. Wombat was immediately ruled out, but the first impression was that these were the journal entries of a Red Fox. I took a few shots, measured one of the tracks with a broken twig, and returned to the I.D. later. When faced with filling a tabula rasa of my own, in the form of a blank blog page, I re-examined the photo evidence and discovered that the paw prints were those of a Gray and not a Red Fox.

Assigning the word “Gray” as prefix to the word “Fox” in this case was a matter of scale. It is especially important to measure wild canine tracks because they can look very similar. From Timber Wolf on down to Kit Fox, there is a steady down-grading of print size although the pattern remains basically the same. Regionally, from larger to smaller, the list goes from coyote to red fox to gray fox. These particular tracks measured a hair (intentional pun) over 1.5 inches each – which places them squarely in the realm of the tiny Gray Fox. Red Fox tracks are significantly larger and start about where the largest Gray tracks leave off. In body weight and length the two species are very close, but proportionally they are quite different . The Gray fox has significantly shorter hind feet and smaller prints.

There are other considerations when fox tracking. Red foxes tend to have very hairy paws that leave very little bare pad exposed whereas Grays are less hirsute (that’s Thoreauspeak for hairy) and show more pad. Both species can partially retract their nails in a cat-like manner, so often their tracks don’t record the presence of claw marks. Gray foxes tend to hang out in thicketed or wooded areas and Reds hang out in fields, hedgerows and backyards. These were woodland prints.

You’ll note that this animal was walking at a leisurely pace. It was placing each foot into the print of the one before it. Each track was a double impression in which the smaller hind foot was superimposed upon a larger front track (see below- especially on lower right track). This manner of walking creates the typical “line of dots” pattern so common in canines. Henry David and God both knew that. Now that you know it, you are one step closer to being God-like

Because Gray Foxes are primarily nocturnal, they are rarely seen but are very common in some parts. More often than not, they reveal themselves to us daytimers as either road kills or track marks. These sleek little gray, white and chestnut colored  foxes are peculiar among the wild dog tribe because they can climb trees and will eat a wide variety of fruits.  I have a friend who regularly had one come to his backyard Mulberry tree whenever it was in fruit to feed among the branches like an over-sized squirrel.  Winter is, of course, the polar opposite of mulberry season and I suspect our little fox was patrolling for mice, small birds, or carrion.

The winds had erased the rest of  this fox’s journal writings, so we were unable to read them any further. I guess God was wiping the slate clean.

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