Monthly Archives: Apr 2008

Wildlife of Pelham: The Truth About Foxes

The other day a friend and I were hiking through the forests of Short Hills, up and down steep ravines, until we stumbled upon a foxhole dug into the side of a steep hill.

Around the outside of the foxhole were tracks leading off through the forest, and a few scattered animal bones from the fox’s meals.

Foxes are charming and remarkably beautiful creatures that loom large in popular mythology.

The common expression, “sly as a fox” accurately conveys the cunning intelligence of these animals.

The ancient Greek writer Aesop featured the fox in many of his famous fables.
Another ancient Greek writer, Plutarch, told the story of the Spartans’ legendary ability to endure pain by an allegory involving a fox.

Spartan youths, as part of their intense training, were not provided with food. They had to steal, scrounge, or otherwise find what sustenance they could. According to Plutarch, one Spartan youth caught himself a fox, concealed the creature in his tunic, and made off with it.

However, the fierce and ferocious fox had other ideas: it gnawed through its captor’s flesh and internal organs, while the youth, holding to Sparta’s legendary standards, refused to cry out in pain and thus died honourably.

A diametrically opposite image of the fox is conveyed in Walt Disney’s 1981 classic The Fox and the Hound, which make its audience fall in love with a cute fox pup named Todd.

The truth about foxes lies somewhere in between these two extremes. They are much too small a creature, indeed hardly larger than a house cat, to be an animal worth fearing.

On the other hand, foxes are not quite so cute and cuddly as Disney depicts: they are primarily a carnivorous animal, and prey upon mice and other rodents, and sometimes even rabbits. The remainder of their diet typically consists of bird eggs, insects, fruit and carrion.

Fox hunting was the sport of the English aristocracy for centuries; only very recently did the British government ban this rather unsporting practice. (The foxes were traditionally chased by packs of hound dogs and hunters mounted on horseback.)

There are two different types of fox found in southern Ontario. The red fox, by far the most common and what you are most likely to see wandering the local fields and forests, and the rarer gray fox.

The elusive gray fox is the only member of the dog family to climb trees. In Ontario, it is found almost exclusively along the shorelines of Lake Ontario and Erie.

The red fox is abundant though, and has long been prized for its beautiful fur.

One of my most regrettable encounters with a fox came a few winters ago when I was walking my 120-pound mixed breed dog Riley through the local woods. As we happened upon a foxhole, its occupant all of a sudden leapt out and dashed off. Riley wildly chased after the fox, while I, not wanting unnecessary bloodshed, pursued both the dog and the fox as fast as I could.

Our mad dash ended on a frozen swamp, where the fox slipped on the ice, allowing Riley to catch it. I regret to say that he broke the poor animal’s neck and left me the uneviable task of ending the creature’s suffering.

Fortunately, on this day in Short Hills, the fox remained in its hole, and I am glad to say we went on our way not having disturbed it.