The Wonder Weeks
A Fox Family Comes to Life On Camera
Our morning dog walk changed one February, many years ago. Back then, my wife and I had two German shepherds, both adopted from a rescue group. They suddenly took an intense interest in a storage shed on our property. Circling it so obsessively they wore a path in the snow and ice, and then into the dirt, the dogs clearly knew through their noses that something new lived beneath the shed — something they wanted a piece of. No tracks around the building revealed what it might be. I figured it was a hibernating woodchuck, since they’d been known to burrow there before.
When you live in a rural, woodsy place as we do, nature reveals itself in ways that urban and suburban dwellers might find alarming or annoying. We choose to love it. The sheer array of birds and animals — coyotes, turkeys, bats, mink, deer (of course), raccoons, startling varieties of songbirds, hawks, woodpeckers, and owls, the occasional eagle — turns woods living into a humbling experience. We’re the interlopers in their world.
The man we bought the place from packed a pistol on his hip and stocked a locked closet with considerable firepower, mostly meant to keep the wildlife at bay. He told of shooting raccoons out of trees far from the house. That struck us as cruel and arrogant, since we have no crops or livestock to protect. So long as they stay out of our living quarters, we’re content to let them be. Red squirrels, mice, bats, and wasps, at various times, crossed that line and had to be repelled. For the most part, though, the truce held.
The shed that drew my dogs’ attention doesn’t come close to that line. Situated hundreds of yards down a hill and across a ravine from our log home, the shed and other outbuildings on our property can’t be seen from the house when the trees leaf out. If something wants to live under it, I’m not thrilled, but I don’t care enough to go on the attack. Let it be.
One of the dogs, one bright winter morning, finally discovered what was beneath the shed. I figured it out about five seconds later, when the intense aroma of skunk filled the air. Luka, our 90-pound black German shepherd, had his snout down the hole when the skunk sprayed. Miraculously, he avoided a direct hit. We hot-footed it out of there and resolved to keep the dogs on shorter leashes, with no burrow sniffing, from then on.
That, we assumed, was that.
The next sign of trouble announced itself in a gruesome and copious amount of bright red blood spattered on the snow around a pile of broken glass outside an open-air woodshed. A window been shattered from the inside out. Scouring the area as if in an episode of Hillbilly CSI, I developed a theory: One animal chased another into the woodshed. The prey sought to escape the predator by leaping through a hole in the glass, but hit the window and broke it, getting cut in the process.
I emailed the neighbors, inquiring about their cat. Kelso, a friendly, smart gray kitty, had a habit of using the woodshed as his litter box. So I worried he’d been the prey. Sure enough, Kelso was cut and banged up, the neighbors reported. But he would survive. Must have been a coyote, I figured.
A few days later, the forensic clues that something new was amiss started piling up — literally.
A skunk’s body lay in pieces around the neighbors’ adjacent yard. It would seem that our dog’s smelly nemesis had been rather forcibly evicted from beneath the shed.
Soon, the area around the shed took on the odor and look of a particularly messy animal graveyard. Decayed flesh and bones dotted the lawn. I dutifully buried them, only to see the same carcasses reappear in the very same places. It was as if someone or something was trying to make a point. By now, our long winter had ended, so I couldn’t distinguish any telltale tracks. But the burrow opening under the shed widened, with fresh dirt flung out of it. Two new openings appeared around the shed’s perimeter. The skunk’s sublet was not only a killing machine; it seemed intent on performing an extreme home makeover.
All this activity now obsessed more than just the dogs. I couldn’t stop talking about it, posing theories, researching online. Then came my birthday. It was my 54th, but one is never too old for toys. My wife’s present to me was my very own trail camera. Now, I would have a way to stake out the area around the shed and find out what was going on when we weren’t there.
After just one day, anxious to see the results, I plugged the camera’s memory card into my computer. Then I watched, slack-jawed, as still images spooled out on the screen.
Red foxes. A vixen and three kits. Eventually we’d see four kits. They were already adolescents, at least to my untrained eye; not tiny by any means. And growing so quickly that in barely a week’s time we could note the change.
Over the next five weeks, in still images and videos by the hundreds, we witnessed the foxes frolicking day and night. It was an all-out, around-the-clock party.
In their silliness, curiosity, and tenderness, they were nothing like the furtive animals I’d seen from a distance up till now. I marveled at their playful and happy personalities, even more evident when I switched exclusively to video.
Some of the scenes that touched me the most feature the vixen dropping her guard and roughhousing with her young, at one point even seeming to chastise one for clinging to his nursing routine with her.
More often, though, it was the kits — alone, in twos and threes and occasionally all four — who appear again and again in the videos. I couldn’t wait to grab the memory card for the daily download, each more spectacular than the last.
With a few, precious exceptions, our only window into the foxes’ world came through the viewfinder of the trail camera. But they must have been watching our comings and goings, judging by how narrowly we missed each other. Daytime videos appeared on the memory card moments after I replaced it each morning. One day I found yet another carcass in the grass. I left it there to finish the dog walk and returned in about 10 minutes to bury it. But it was gone already, only to reappear time and again in the coming days.
The foxes turned that and everything else into a toy: walnut shells, sticks, bones, smelly pelts, plastic and metal junk evidently unearthed from beneath the shed, even real dog toys that my wife scattered around the burrow.
A dead deer, roadkill, appeared one day across the road from our barns. That very day, pieces of deer began disappearing from the carcass and reappearing around the shed, which now — as the springtime temperatures rose — smelled even worse than before. Because it was downwind from our house and far enough away, it didn’t bother us. But I half-expected the neighbors to ask that we do something about it. I just hoped the show could go on a bit longer and that the foxes would move on their own initiative. Now that I “knew” them, I certainly wasn’t about to make any violent moves against them.
Throughout our brief foxy spring, mama fox made only a couple of in-the-flesh appearances as she streaked away into the woods, usually when our car zoomed past the shed. We only saw two kits, for just a moment or two each time, with our own eyes. My wife spotted one run up our driveway and into the woods. Then, when I let the dogs out to do their business in our fenced back yard early one morning, Luka charged the fence barking furiously, hackles raised. He hunched down and stared. Then barked again. Our other dog, Zoe, joined in the barking, though she didn’t seem to see what had Luka’s laser-beam gaze.
I squatted to peer under the tree branches for a look. There, calmly sitting on its haunches, was a kit. He stared straight at the much larger, fiercer Luka. Direct eye contact is a provocative move in dog body language, but the fox appeared curious, not frightened or hostile, despite his proximity to an animal that would have chased and killed him instantly. Then he stood, stretched languidly, and sauntered away. I was at once charmed and afraid for him. If this was his reaction to a predator, I wondered how he’d survive in the wild.
The next afternoon, I looked out the back window to see a kit just outside the dog fence looking at a squirrel on the bird feeder. The squirrel scampered away, spooking the kit momentarily. It jumped back, but then calmly continued on into the woods. A few minutes later, my wife saw a fox — likely the same one — trotting down the ridge atop the gully that runs by our house. The foxes, at least one of them, didn’t seem afraid of us at all. And they were straying farther from the nest.
As they grew, they continued to perform for the camera, but less energetically. More often, they seemed content to lie around and doze.
The camera records no sound. So we have only our memories of what we heard one night. At first, as I groggily focused on what woke me, I blamed the neighbors’ teenagers for what sounded like voices and laughing. The clock read 3 a.m., so I wondered when the neighbors had gotten so lax to allow an all-nighter. Then I realized whose voices I heard. In the dark of my room, I stared at the open window, transfixed by the yelps and yips coming up the hill, from our fox family.
The party ended as abruptly as it began. In the final days of spring, with the leaves filled in throughout our woods, the kits became difficult to distinguish from their mother, they’d grown so much so fast. An even bigger change appeared in their demeanor. They looked wary, less carefree. They also must have been away from the burrow more often, as the volume of videos in the second week of June dropped to just a few a day. For hours on end, the camera’s motion detector detected no movement around the shed.
Their minds had wandered. Then their bodies followed. Not a single new video of the foxes showed up on the camera after the summer equinox. It was if they had a calendar that told them it was time to move on with the official turning of the season. The burrow openings under the shed grew inactive and the stench gradually dissipated. In the woods, two burrows sprang to life with wider, well-used openings.
In the years that followed, our shed hosted a succession of fox families, probably our kits having grown into parents and bringing their own kits into the world at the same place. I learned that this seemingly unlikely maternity ward wasn’t that unusual. Foxes will often give birth and keep their newborns in human spaces, because there they are safer from coyotes and other predators. As soon as they deem the woods safe enough, they move away from us.
I kept videotaping, although the novelty wore off and processing the videos became something of a chore that I often neglected. A few seasons into our roles as the accidental guardians of multiple fox generations, we enjoyed a particularly active year in which we saw — with our own eyes, not just the camera — the kits numerous times; enough that I felt we were truly getting to distinguish one from another.
Early one morning as I approached the road to fetch the newspaper, turkey vultures circled low overhead. Two flapped loudly as they took flight from a nearby tree. I assumed I was about to encounter a dead raccoon, or maybe a deer. Instead, I saw two reddish lumps, one mangled in the center of the road, the other on the shoulder. Two kits, killed together. Grimly I fetched a shovel and buried them, unwilling to let the vultures finish their work on my kits.
If this is the pain we must endure by getting close to these creatures, I thought, then please spare me the closeness from now on. My wish was granted. The next year, the trail camera died. In the years to come, we saw no more signs of activity under the shed, at least during fox-breeding season.
A red fox in the wild might only live a few years. It’s now been eight years since our first encounter, so those kits have long since died, I hope of old age. Thanks to proximity, good timing, technology, and a let-it-be approach to nature, we enjoyed an encounter that wouldn’t be duplicated. That privilege — to witness one brood’s wonder years compressed into a few magical weeks — was enough to last our lifetime.