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Volume XVII, Issue 4 - January 22 - January 28, 2009
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Predators in My Peaceable Kingdom

When I feed, they eat

The wily fox that having spide,
Where on a sunny bank the lambs doo play,
Full closely creeping by the hinder side,
Lyes in ambushment of his hoped prey.

–Geoffrey Chaucer

Like this writer, the renowned author of Canterbury Tales must have been an ardent observer and admirer of the fox, a stately and cunning creature.

Of all wildlife here in North County, I can think of no creature that has the patience and the determination of the red fox when it comes to the acquisition of a meal. Even the hungry feral cat or a household cat responding to its hunter instincts can be distracted from its target. Not so the fox.

Once the fox has prey in its sight, the eyes remain glued. Nothing else is of consequence; hunger rules. The wait can be hours as the predator inches ahead, halts for many minutes to reassess its maneuvering, then continues its approach silently and painstakingly closing the gap between it and its intended meal.

This morning shortly after daylight, I looked out to the east lawn. There was Orange, the name I have given the fox that has taken up residence in a den on the steep slope that drops perhaps a hundred feet from the yard to Stoney Creek. Orange was first seen several years ago, then later shepherding two young. She got her name because she appears to be more orange than red, almost yellow.

She was a welcome addition to the diversity of my wildlife watching that includes the usual and some not-so-usual songbirds, squirrels, cottontails, mice, a woodchuck and the pair of hawks that was a threesome before one was found dying near the fence two years ago. It was a victim of West Nile disease or eating a poisoned creature, an animal shelter told us.

The Balance of Nature

Though concerned that West Nile or a poisoned animal had appeared in the neighborhood, I wasn’t sorry about the demise of the hawk, stately as it was. The always-present trio was so harassing the songbirds I fed that eventually I cut back appreciably on the seeds, peanut butter, fruit and grape jelly for their meals. I know all about the balance of nature, that even hawks have to eat, but there was the feeling of guilt that my feeding efforts were baiting songbirds for hawk menus.

Monitoring Orange’s visits has been quite interesting of late, though the sightings generally have involved her walking or trotting across the lawn, looking things over and then either retreating to the woods or moving on in the neighborhood. Other than the hedge, there is no brush in the lawn. Except for trees, it is open enough that even a wily fox would find it too challenging to sneak up on a wary bird. Or so I thought.

Now I gotta think again.

When the extreme cold moved in recently, I watched the birds on the lawn, curious as to how they were coping. The two hawks were almost always visible high in trees at the woods’ edge, ruling out feeding — though I did sprinkle some peanuts for the many resident squirrels.

The hawks showed little interest in the bushytails — and vice versa. When the shadows of a hawk in flight came to the lawn the birds vanished, but the squirrels continued ferreting about for nuts. Not once did I think of Orange.

The Fox Hunt

A couple of days ago when temperatures were frigid, Orange ambled onto the lawn. I paid little attention, for I had other things to do and was doing them when there came a shriek from my daughter Liz, visiting from New England. She pointed to Orange, at a slow trot on the lawn with a limp squirrel in her jaws. Orange didn’t seem in a hurry. It was almost like she was deliberating where to have her picnic lunch.

She went from side lawn to the front lawn, then back again to the side lawn before returning to the front. Then she vanished.

Now I feel pangs of guilt. The peanuts I spread out for that and other squirrels probably led to Orange’s lunch. Only once before had I seen her show interest in any creature on the lawn. That was last spring, when she tried stalking a catbird that came to feed on grape jelly.

Catbirds are brazen creatures, but they’re also smart and wary. I watched, preparing to intervene if need be. When Orange was 20 feet from the feeder, the catbird spied her — and did not flush to the woods. Instead the bird took to the air, harassing Orange. Soon another catbird joined. Orange tried snapping at the birds, but she couldn’t get close. They seemed to be enjoying their sport until the fox gave up and trotted back into the woods with the catbirds still bent on reminding her don’t mess with us.

That was the only time I have witnessed a fox abandon the stalk for a meal other than the times I or a dog came on the scene or the prey became suspicious and ran or flew away before the stalker was able to get within pouncing distance. As a boy and young man trapping foxes for spending money, I spent much time observing them; many a time when snow was on the ground I would come upon the tracks of a fox that had earned its meal.

There would be the tracks of a ruffed grouse, rabbit or covey of quail, and as much as 50 feet or more away tracks of an ambling fox. Then the fox footprints would become close, only inches apart. It had scented a meal and was stalking. It had inched ahead, and the snow was matted by its belly as it paused before resuming the stalk. The scenario could have lasted for an hour or more before the final pounce, where there was disturbed snow and flecks of blood. Once again patience and cunning had paid off.

Snow or bare ground, the hunt is played out daily by each and every fox — almost always unseen by man. Here I am, long defeated in bird watching by hawks and now facing the same in squirrel watching by an adversary smarter and more challenging than any winged creature. My lawn has been taken over by three predators, leaving me little to watch other than them lying in wait — or the grass grow.

Enough said.


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