What Does the Fox See?

Photo by Raymond Hennessy

A revisionist theory about the fox has been circulating for a while that challenges the animal’s legendary cunning, suggesting instead that the Reynard of fable doesn’t actually rely on wiliness to catch its prey but more often stumbles on its dinners by accident. This theory insists that the fox, far from being wise to the ways of the forest, simply puts in a lot of aimless miles until it accidentally cuts the path of some potential prey, which it then captures thanks to quick reflexes. There is an old saying, variously directed at wolves, coyotes, and foxes, that they live by their feet. The revisionists suggest that the fox, at least, does so largely to the exclusion of an intelligent brain.

I’m as susceptible as the next person to the intellectual charms of revisionism, and I had this theory in mind one winter a few years back when I came upon the trail of a red fox as I started up the Champney Brook trail on Mount Chocorua in northern New Hampshire. Since the animal and I were climbing the same mountain by the same route, I was able to examine its trail at length and learn what I could from the record of its behavior in the snow.

Back in those days, I was still testing the idea that an animal leaves behind a diary from which we might – with some practice – read intention or accident, success or tragedy, even wisdom perhaps. With enough careful observation, I suspected, Thoreau himself might have discovered the reason for the hiccup in the fox’s trail that he observed one winter morning across Walden Pond. For a fox does little for no reason, and one of the adjectives that well describes its winter behavior is “efficient.” Unless engaged in the pan-species foolishness of courting rituals, the fox’s movements are winnowed down to the necessary alone. So, in imitation of Thoreau, I aligned myself with the fox’s trail so that I might align myself with its wisdom, if wisdom it expressed.

It was early on the coldest morning yet of the young winter. The temperature was in the teens and had been below zero in the valley only a couple of hours earlier when the tracks had been laid down. They were so fresh that the crystals of snow around their rim were still sharp and could easily be disturbed with a puff of breath.

Here was a good-sized red fox, traditionally wise to the value of energy conservation, frittering away precious calories in the perfectly pointless act, even in practical human terms, of climbing a mountain. For two miles and a couple of thousand feet in elevation gain I followed the perfect line of prints, the placement of which was as measured as a sewing machine’s stitches. The impression of each hind foot landed entirely within the outline of each front foot on the same side, a process trackers call “direct registration.” Foxes and other wild hunters do this as an economy, the front foot prepacking the snow for the hind. Repeated thousands of times on a winter prowl, this small savings in energy can mean the difference between surviving or not.

What Does the Fox See? Image Deer mouse tracks - with no sign of a fox in pursuit. Photo by Ken Strum / USFWS

There were coyotes in these woods, I knew, and a young coyote in December can have a step length and print-size that overlap that of the smaller fox. But a coyote is a big animal with small feet while a fox is a small animal with big feet. In the same conditions the fox’s prints will look delicate compared to the robust impressions of a coyote. The pad outlines, too, said red fox, for these canids have fur-covered feet at all seasons, a useful vestige of their boreal heritage. In dry, loose snow this results in a diffuse track compared to the distinct impression of a coyote’s naked pads.

For over an hour I followed the neat trail with its nearly perfect 14-inch step lengths and a straddle so narrow that the prints were arranged in a nearly straight line. I had certainly to grant the animal grace. The careless romping of a dog liberated from the monotony of the house leaves a coarse, haphazard trail. It can afford such carelessness since a can of Alpo and a hearth await it at the end of the day. All right, I had to give the fox dignity, even elegance perhaps, but intelligence?

As I hiked, I found the thin layer of fresh snow punctuated by the trapezoidal bounding patterns of white-footed mice that had crossed the trail back and forth from one hole to another.

Was it stupidity that I was witnessing, after the fact, that the fox didn’t investigate each one as he came upon it? Instead, its measured stride never varied, not even an “indirect registration” to one side to suggest a turn of the head in the direction of a potential meal. Perhaps the revisionists were right: this was either stupidity or blindness. The unvarying perfection of its trail might have been the hobgoblin of a little mind, indeed. I began making mental excuses for this most beautiful species of wild canid. Perhaps this particular animal had, in fact, poor eyesight. Or wits. There must be half-witted foxes. Foxes...half-witted...foxes.... My own phrases were repeating themselves like a chant; the monotonous effort of the climb was making my mind whirr unmeshed. But stupid wild animals with poor senses don’t survive, I insisted through the mental fog. And here clearly was an adult with, by its size and the sobriety in its trail, at least a year of success behind it.

Occasionally, the animal would leave the trail at an angle, usually to give a quick sniff to a pillow of windthrow that might hide a rodent or hare, but then it angled back out to the trail without so much as disturbing any of the fresh snow on the branches to discover if there was something under the pile. How does such an animal live? By luck? If so, in these temperatures it had better get lucky soon.

Finally, three-quarters of the way to the top of the shoulder of the mountain the tracks stopped dead. The animal’s trail then led off to the left for a few yards and ended in a patch of disturbed snow. Another yard ahead, angling back toward the trail, showed some blood and the gut sack of a small animal, neatly excised and left on the snow. I poked at it with my glove; the entrails had frozen solid in the morning cold. I had seen this sort of surgery before by foxes and had always marveled at how an animal without hands could manage it, like peeling a grape with your teeth and elbows. Canids can barely articulate their toes and so their digits would seem to be useless for any task more delicate than digging out rodents. This rigidity shows in the lovely symmetry of the fox’s track, with no mobile toes adjusting to the surface from step to step as with a cat or a weasel. But to my frustration, such symmetry conceals the workings of the heart, as beauty will. One track alone is remarkably cryptic; at least a whole pattern of them, if not a lengthy trail, is needed to imagine more accurately what it was experiencing. I felt fortunate, then, to have a couple of miles of continuous trail in good condition in which to read this animal’s mind.

I felt better about my fox now. Here, in the snow before me, was success at least, if not intelligence. But how had it been achieved and why here, after the animal had ignored so many possibilities lower on the mountain? I inspected the footprints to the kill site closely. After the fox had stopped on the hiking trail, it moved toward the prey with the tiny steps of a caution that testified to the urgency of its need. First it had moved a little to the left and then back and to the right. There was no mark of its brush, nor were the tracks elongated to show any part of the animal’s heel – it was not crouched to take advantage of the pillows and undulations of the snow between it and its quarry. Instead, the animal appeared to have been moving upright.

It was only at this point that insight struck; I had been viewing the fox’s behavior through human eyes. We are a sight-dependent species; the fox is not. It was not seeing its prey, but rather hearing it. The meander of the trail was an effort to triangulate with its ears some sound beneath the surface, perhaps a squeak, or the muffled sound of tiny footfalls, or the sound of chewing as a vole gnawed the bark at the base of a hobblebush. In my imagination, I could “see” the fox now: upright, ears perked forward to catch every sound. Slowly, it had moved forward, lifting and placing each foot deliberately and carefully ahead of the other by no more than a couple of inches. Finally, there was a short space clear of tracks. The fox, having gauged the location of the vole, leaped into the air, ears perked forward, in a pounce that to humans looks playful but that is deadly earnest to the fox. The higharcing pounce is an effort to get both its big front feet together in the air so that they may come down at the same time, covering as much as eight square inches, punching through any crust in the hope of pinning some part of the prey long enough to get its sharp muzzle into the snow to grasp the creature with its teeth.

What Does the Fox See? Image The perfectly measured pace of a red fox. Photo by Bryant Olsen / Flickr - C.C.

I sat on a blowdown and opened my pack for a candy bar, pondering what was in front of me. Now it was clear why the fox had ignored the trails of mice. They could have been made at any time during the previous night, mice with their big eyes being nocturnal wanderers after birch seeds scattered over the snow. To hunt down every mouse trail would be a fool’s errand; it’s what I would have done, having lost my instinctive intelligence many generations ago and been forced to replace it in the puny span of one life with the intelligence that comes from books. I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that in a primitive state I would have become an hors d’oeuvre for the saber-toothed tiger very early on. I was not the end product of thousands of years of ruthless natural selection as was my red fox. Civilization had been invented to protect me from that. Reynard, on a remorseless energy budget, can afford no such human mistakes for which he will be indulged and forgiven. Unless the fox’s incredibly jazzed-up senses tell it through some lingering whiff or some errant sound, that one of those trails will lead with fair certainty to warm-blooded prey beneath the snow, then the fox will, in fact must, ignore it.

That was it, of course. I had phrased it without realizing: “instinctive intelligence.” The fox doesn’t think in the human sense of sequential reasoning. It is a creature of action. In some mysterious evolutionary way of trial and fatal error, the thinking had already been done for it, the wisdom accomplished and encapsulated in that seeming oxymoron. What was left for the fox was to act upon it.

Somewhat heartened by my rehabilitation of the fox, I finished the candy bar and, renewed by the energy of the sugar, prepared to move on up the mountain. And so did the fox, itself refreshed not by a Milky Way but by the transmuted energy of one of its nearer stars contained in the meager flesh of a vole. Within a hundred yards, the shivers that had set in while I had sat were calmed by the effort. There it was again, another flash from the mental front: that was why the fox was climbing out of the valley on the coldest morning of the year. It must descend into the pool of cold on the valley floor every evening for the abundant prey that live there. But then it warms itself, as I myself was doing, by the exertion of the climb back up to some high, sheltered spot with a sunny southern exposure.

As I half expected, when I reached the top of the shoulder of the mountain west of the main ridge, the fox’s trail led off from the hiking path toward the south side of that shoulder. Let humans continue on to the heat-robbing winds of the summit. Whatever their reasons may be, athletic or aesthetic, they are foolish compared with spending the day curled up with nose and feet under a bushy tail, absorbing the energy of the sun directly while digesting it indirectly.

I didn’t follow the fox over the shoulder to discover the animal itself, perhaps to inform it in a patronizing way that humans had deduced from textbooks of meteorology that the day would turn cloudy with a chance of snow rather than yielding the sunshine its instinct predicted. It would be cruel to disturb the animal in its doze and make it run for no other reason than the pleasure of seeing it when it had been so perfectly and necessarily careful about such energy expenditures. Or perhaps it was simply that I had set another goal, a mountain peak more explainable to the achievement-minded back in the lowlands than the pursuit of fox wisdom. It was a failing perhaps that I was unwilling to be put off from accomplishing that summit, even to follow farther and perhaps suffer more enlightenment at the paws of the fox.

This story was adapted from The Next Step: Interpreting Animal Tracks, Trails and Sign by David Brown. Reproduced with permission of The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company.
  1. Nancy
    Dec 23, 2016

    I will try to express to you a heartfelt experience with a fox in my backyard.
    On a beautiful sunlit day in late spring, I saw a beautiful, healthy looking red fox on the back slope of our property.  I ran to the bedroom window, sat on the edge of the bed and had the privilege to watch him in the tall grass for an hour. 
    He was very close to the house at this point and he was walking very carefully through the grass from left to right, pausing every now and then and tipping his head forward with ears erect.  Finally, he leapt forward right up in the air and pounced on the ground!  It looked very much like our family cat pouncing on a toy.  The difference was that it came up with a rodent in its mouth and procedeeded to dine there in the sun.  Afterwards, I saw it retrieve three more meals at various locations. 
    Finally, he curled up on the slope in the sun and groomed itself right in front of me, unaware that I was spying.  I was amazed to see that he washed his face with his paws just like my cat!  He laid there curled up with his nose in his tail and rested for a while and then moved on.  I have to tell you that I felt so privileged to have witnessed that wonderful moment in his life.  It brought me to tears with a sense of warmth I have no words to explain.

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