For reasons known only to the gods, Mother Nature failed to exercise her seasonal option this year. The autumnal equinox had come and gone, and for the first time in recent memory, Jack Frost neglected to decorate the rolling hills adjacent to my Fallston home with their traditional mantle of crimson and yellow. The warm, pallid days of Indian summer persisted into late November, at which time they suddenly and without warning gave way to cold, blustery days and frigid nights.
It was during this climatological transition that I first became aware of the fox. Each day, during the fading light of late afternoon, he sat at the crest of the hill overlooking our house nestled at the bottom of Frog Hollow. Once enshrouded in a cloak of darkness he would commence to utter plaintive howls, which I interpreted as communicating sexual interest to a nearby but unseen vixen, or alternatively as an expression of an unnatural interest in Gretchen, our middle-aged miniature schnauzer.
Whatever his intent, or its ultimate outcome (conspecific fulfillment, or phylogenetic rejection), these nights the hill is silent, and I am free to reflect on my long fascination with that rufous canine known to mammalogists by the redundant binomen, Vulpes vulpes.
Until I moved to Maryland almost two decades ago, I had never seen a red fox. In my native Texas, there were foxes, plenty of them, but they weren't the same. They wore salt-and-pepper coats and were called gray foxes. Denizens of arid scrub land and mixed hardwood forests, they were clever and handsome to behold, but above all they were common. Familiarity breeds contempt!
Besides, from my earliest recollection, the foxes that peered at -- XTC me from the pages of children's stories, encyclopedias and later, college texts, were red. As I languished through my formative years on the parched, treeless plains of western Texas I tried to imagine the eastern deciduous forests replete with towering beech trees and a unique fauna. I tried to visualize old fields and woodlots; I longed to catch a glimpse of a red fox trotting across a meadow with an unfortunate (and presumably less fit) cottontail hanging limp from its jaws.
My first encounter with the species almost went undetected. I had just joined the biology faculty at Towson State and was doing my best to initiate a research program. I had become interested in the behavioral response of salamanders to gravitational cues, and my experimental paradigm involved placing newts in the center of a one-meter ring strategically placed on a wooded hillside. I would work in silence for hours as I measured the angular response of each test animal.
One afternoon, I chanced to glance at a fallen tree no more than 30 feet upslope. A surge of adrenalin jolted my consciousness as I recognized the silhouette of a fox, sitting on his haunches, head cocked to one side, watching me with what appeared to be keen interest. I chuckled to myself as I realized that he was likely assessing my peculiar behavior and mentally awarding me the vulpine equivalent of the ''Golden Fleece Award.''
Red foxes are monogamous and pair for life. Mating occurs in the winter and the female typically selects an abandoned woodchuck burrow as a den site. Three to five young are born in early spring, and in order to feed themselves and a litter of voracious pups, adult foxes must spend much of their time hunting. Although they may occasionally raid a chicken coop, foxes typically feed on natural prey -- particularly small rodents.
During the heavy snow that briefly blanketed our neighborhood between Christmas and New Year's Day, from the back windows of our second story, my family watched a resident fox mousing. With the grace of a ballet dancer, he would leap and pirouette on the snow-covered hill that rises abruptly from our back yard, and then pounce with unerring accuracy and unforgiving savagery.
Once he had subdued his quarry (a meadow vole), he shook it vigorously and then tossed it playfully in the air, letting it fall lifeless to the snow. This ethological vignette ended abruptly when my son lifted the window to position his camera. The subtle noise caused the fox to abandon his prey and trot over the ridge. We waited patiently and our vigilance was rewarded 15 minutes later when the fox cautiously returned, grabbed his bounty and --ed out of sight.
I have come to appreciate the foxes' unique role in the complex urbanized ecosystem that is central Maryland. Their hallmark is adaptability -- they are equally at home in the suburbs of Towson or the farm fields of rural Harford county. With a little luck and human tolerance, this clever canine should remain an important component of our natural heritage well into the next millennium.
Don C. Forester teaches biology at Towson State University.