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I have already spoken of the fox at some length, but it will take a chapter by itself to do half justice to his portrait.
He furnishes, perhaps, the only instance that can be cited of a fur-bearing animal that not only holds its own, but that actually increases in the face of the means that are used for its extermination. The beaver, for instance, was gone before the earliest settlers could get a sight of him; and even the mink and marten are now only rarely seen, or not seen at all, in places where they were once abundant.
But the fox has survived civilization, and in some localities is no doubt more abundant now than in the time of the Revolution. For half a century at least he has been almost the only prize, in the way of fur, that was to be found on our mountains, and he has been hunted and trapped and waylaid, sought for as game and pursued in enmity, taken by fair means and by foul, and yet there seems not the slightest danger of the species becoming extinct.
One would think that a single hound in a neighborhood, filling the mountains with his bayings, and leaving no nook or byway of them unexplored, was enough to drive and scare every fox from the country. But not so. Indeed, I am almost tempted to say, the more hounds, the more foxes.
I recently spent a summer month in a mountainous district in the State of New York, where, from its earliest settlement, the red fox has been the standing prize for skill in the use of the trap and gun. At the house where I was staying were two foxhounds, and a neighbor half a mile distant had a third. There were many others in the township, and in season they were well employed, too; but the three spoken of, attended by their owners, held high carnival on the mountains in the immediate vicinity. And many were the foxes that, winter after winter, fell before them, twenty-five having been shot, the season before my visit, on one small range alone. And yet the foxes were apparently never more abundant than they were that summer, and never bolder, coming at night within a few rods of the house, and of the unchained alert hounds, and making havoc among the poultry.
One morning a large, fat goose was found minus her head and otherwise mangled. Both hounds had disappeared, and, as they did not come back till near night, it was inferred that they had cut short Reynard's repast, and given him a good chase into the bargain. But next night he was back again, and this time got safely off with the goose. A couple of nights after he must have come with recruits, for next morning three large goslings were reported missing. The silly geese now got it through their noddles that there was danger about, and every night thereafter came close up to the house to roost.
A brood of turkeys, the old one tied to a tree a few rods to the rear of the house, were the next objects of attack. The predaceous rascal came, as usual, in the latter half of the night. I happened to be awake, and heard the helpless turkey cry "quit," "quit," with great emphasis. Another sleeper, on the floor above me, who, it seems, had been sleeping with one ear awake for several nights in apprehension for the safety of his turkeys, heard the sound also, and instantly divined its cause. I heard the window open and a voice summon the dogs. A loud bellow was the response, which caused Reynard to take himself off in a hurry. A moment more, and the mother turkey would have shared the fate of the geese. There she lay at the end of her tether, with extended wings, bitten and rumpled. The young ones, roosting in a row on the fence near by, had taken flight on the first alarm.
Turkeys, retaining many of their wild instincts, are less easily captured by the fox than any other of our domestic fowls. On the slightest show of danger they take to wing, and it is not unusual, in the locality of which I speak, to find them in the morning perched in the most unwonted places, as on the peak of the barn or hay-shed, or on the tops of the apple-trees, their tails spread and their manners showing much excitement. Perchance one turkey is minus her tail, the fox having succeeded in getting only a mouthful of quills.
As the brood grows and their wings develop, they wander far from the house in quest of grasshoppers. At such times they are all watchfulness and suspicion. Crossing the fields one day, attended by a dog that much resembled a fox, I came suddenly upon a brood about one third grown, which were feeding in a pasture just beyond a wood. It so happened that they caught sight of the dog without seeing me, when instantly, with the celerity of wild game, they launched into the air, and, while the old one perched upon a treetop, as if to keep an eye on the supposed enemy, the young went sailing over the trees toward home.
The two hounds above referred to, accompanied by a cur-dog, whose business it was to mind the farm, but who took as much delight in running away from prosy duty as if he had been a schoolboy, would frequently steal off and have a good hunt all by themselves, just for the fun of the thing, I suppose. I more than half suspect that it was as a kind of taunt or retaliation, that Reynard came and took the geese from under their very noses. One morning they went off and stayed till the afternoon of the next day; they ran the fox all day and all night, the hounds baying at every jump, the cur-dog silent and tenacious. When the trio returned, they came dragging themselves along, stiff, footsore, gaunt, and hungry. For a day or two afterward they lay about the kennels, seeming to dread nothing so much as the having to move. The stolen hunt was their "spree," their "bender," and of course they must take time to get over it.
Some old hunters think the fox enjoys the chase as much as the hound, especially when the latter runs slow, as the best hounds do. The fox will wait for the hound, will sit down and listen, or play about, crossing and recrossing and doubling upon his track, as if enjoying a mischievous consciousness of the perplexity he would presently cause his pursuer. It is evident, however, that the fox does not always have his share of the fun: before a swift dog, or in a deep snow, or on a wet day, when his tail gets heavy, he must put his best foot forward. As a last resort he "holes up." Sometimes he resorts to numerous devices to mislead and escape the dog altogether. He will walk in the bed of a small creek, or on a rail-fence. I heard of an instance of a fox, hard and long pressed, that took to a rail-fence, and, after walking some distance, made a leap to one side to a hollow stump, in the cavity of which he snugly stowed himself. The ruse succeeded, and the dogs lost the trail; but the hunter, coming up, passed by chance near the stump, when out bounded the fox, his cunning availing him less than he deserved. On another occasion the fox took to the public road, and stepped with great care and precision into a sleigh-track. The hard, polished snow took no imprint of the light foot, and the scent was no doubt less than it would have been on a rougher surface. Maybe, also, the rogue had considered the chances of another sleigh coming along, before the hound, and obliterating the trail entirely.
Audubon tells us of a certain fox, which, when started by the hounds, always managed to elude them at a certain point. Finally the hunter concealed himself in the locality, to discover, if possible, the trick. Presently along came the fox, and, making a leap to one side, ran up the trunk of a fallen tree which had lodged some feet from the ground, and concealed himself in the top. In a few minutes the hounds came up, and in their eagerness passed some distance beyond the point, and then went still farther, looking for the lost trail. Then the fox hastened down, and, taking his back-track, fooled the dogs completely.
I was told of a silver-gray fox in northern New York, which, when pursued by the hounds, would run till it had hunted up another fox, or the fresh trail of one, when it would so manœuvre that the hound would invariably be switched off on the second track.
In cold, dry weather the fox will sometimes elude the hound, at least delay him much, by taking to a bare, plowed field. The hard dry earth seems not to retain a particle of the scent, and the hound gives a loud, long, peculiar bark, to signify he has trouble. It is now his turn to show his wit, which he often does by passing completely around the field, and resuming the trail again where it crosses the fence or a strip of snow.
The fact that any dry, hard surface is unfavorable to the hound suggests, in a measure, the explanation of the wonderful faculty that all dogs in a degree possess to track an animal by the scent of the foot alone. Did you ever think why a dog's nose is always wet? Examine the nose of a foxhound, for instance; how very moist and sensitive! Cause this moisture to dry up, and the dog would be as powerless to track an animal as you are! The nose of the cat, you may observe, is but a little moist, and, as you know, her sense of smell is far inferior to that of the dog. Moisten your own nostrils and lips, and this sense is plainly sharpened. The sweat of a dog's nose, therefore, is no doubt a vital element in its power, and, without taking a very long logical stride, we may infer how much a damp, rough surface aids him in tracking game.
A fox hunt in this country is, of course, quite a different thing from what it is in England, where all the squires and noblemen of a borough, superbly mounted, go riding over the country, guided by the yelling hounds, till the fox is literally run down and murdered. Here the hunter prefers a rough, mountainous country, and, as probably most persons know, takes advantage of the disposition of the fox, when pursued by the hound, to play or circle around a ridge or bold point, and, taking his stand near the run-way, shoots him down.
I recently had the pleasure of a turn with some experienced hunters. As we ascended the ridge toward the mountain, keeping in our ears the uncertain baying of the hounds as they slowly unraveled an old trail, my companions pointed out to me the different run-ways, — a gap in the fence here, a rock just below the brow of the hill there, that tree yonder near the corner of the woods, or the end of that stone wall looking down the side-hill, or commanding a cow-path, or the outlet of a wood-road. A half-wild apple orchard near a cross-road was pointed out as an invariable run-way, where the fox turned toward the mountain again, after having been driven down the ridge. There appeared to be no reason why the foxes should habitually pass any particular point, yet the hunters told me that year after year they took about the same turns, each generation of foxes running through the upper corner of that field, or crossing the valley near yonder stone wall, when pursued by the dog. It seems the fox when he finds himself followed is perpetually tempted to turn in his course, to deflect from a right line, as a person would undoubtedly be under similar circumstances. If he is on this side of the ridge, when he hears the dog break around on his trail he speedily crosses to the other side; if he is in the fields, he takes again to the woods; if in the valley, he hastens to the high land, and evidently enjoys running along the ridge and listening to the dogs, slowly tracing out his course in the fields below. At such times he appears to have but one sense, hearing, and that seems to be reverted toward his pursuers. He is constantly pausing, looking back and listening, and will almost run over the hunter if he stands still, even though not at all concealed.
Animals of this class depend far less upon their sight than upon their hearing and sense of smell. Neither the fox nor the dog is capable of much discrimination with the eye; they seem to see things only in the mass; but with the nose they can analyze and define, and get at the most subtle shades of difference. The fox will not read a man from a stump or a rock, unless he gets his scent, and the dog does not know his master in a crowd until he has smelled him.
On the occasion to which I refer, it was not many minutes after the dogs entered the woods on the side of the mountain before they gave out sharp and eager, and we knew at once that the fox was started. We were then near a point that had been designated as a sure run-way, and hastened to get into position with all speed. For my part I was so taken with the music of the hounds, as it swelled up over the ridge, that I quite forgot the game. I saw one of my companions leveling his gun, and, looking a few rods to the right, saw the fox coming right on to us. I had barely time to note the silly and abashed expression that came over him as he saw us in his path, when he was cut down as by a flash of lightning. The rogue did not appear frightened, but ashamed and out of countenance, as one does when some trick has been played upon him, or when detected in some mischief.
Late in the afternoon, as we were passing through a piece of woods in the valley below, another fox, the third that day, broke from his cover in an old treetop, under our very noses, and drew the fire of three of our party, myself among the number, but, thanks to the interposing trees and limbs, escaped unhurt. Then the dogs took up the trail and there was lively music again. The fox steered through the fields direct for the ridge where we had passed up in the morning. We knew he would take a turn here and then point for the mountain, and two of us, with the hope of cutting him off by the old orchard, through which we were again assured he would surely pass, made a precipitous rush for that point. It was nearly half a mile distant, most of the way up a steep side-hill, and if the fox took the circuit indicated he would probably be there in twelve or fifteen minutes. Running up an angle of 45 degrees seems quite easy work for a four-footed beast like a dog or a fox, but for a two-legged animal like a man it is very heavy and awkward. Before I got halfway up there seemed to be a vacuum all about me, so labored was my breathing, and when I reached the summit my head swam and my knees were about giving out; but pressing on, I had barely time to reach a point in the road abreast of the orchard, when I heard the hounds, and, looking under the trees, saw the fox, leaping high above the weeds and grass, coming straight toward me. He evidently had not got over the first scare, which our haphazard fusillade had given him, and was making unusually quick time. I was armed with a rifle, and said to myself that now was the time to win the laurels I had coveted. For half a day previous I had been practicing on a pumpkin which a patient youth had rolled down a hill for me, and had improved my shot considerably. Now a yellow pumpkin was coming which was not a pumpkin, and for the first time during the day opportunity favored me. I expected the fox to cross the road a few yards below me, but just then I heard him whisk through the grass, and he bounded upon the fence a few yards above. He seemed to cringe as he saw his old enemy, and to depress his fur to half his former dimensions. Three bounds and he had cleared the road, when my bullet tore up the sod beside him, but to this hour I do not know whether I looked at the fox without seeing my gun, or whether I did sight him across its barrel. I only know that I did not distinguish myself in the use of the rifle on that occasion, and went home to wreak my revenge upon another pumpkin; but without much improvement of my skill, for, a few days after, another fox ran under my very nose with perfect impunity. There is something so fascinating in the sudden appearance of the fox that the eye is quite mastered, and, unless the instinct of the sportsman is very strong and quick, the prey will slip through his grasp.
A still hunt rarely brings you in sight of a fox, as his ears are much sharper than yours, and his tread much lighter. But if the fox is mousing in the fields, and you discover him before he does you, you may, the wind favoring, call him within a few paces of you. Secrete yourself behind the fence, or some other object, and squeak as nearly like a mouse as possible. Reynard will hear the sound at an incredible distance. Pricking up his ears, he gets the direction, and comes trotting along as unsuspiciously as can be. I have never had an opportunity to try the experiment, but I know perfectly reliable persons who have. One man, in the pasture getting his cows, called a fox which was too busy mousing to get the first sight, till it jumped upon the wall just over where he sat secreted. Giving a loud whoop and jumping up at the same time, the fox came as near being frightened out of his skin as I suspect a fox ever was.
In trapping for a fox, you get perhaps about as much "fun" and as little fur as in any trapping amusement you can engage in. The one feeling that ever seems present to the mind of Reynard is suspicion. He does not need experience to teach him, but seems to know from the jump that there is such a thing as a trap, and that a trap has a way of grasping a fox's paw that is more frank than friendly. Cornered in a hole or a den, a trap can be set so that the poor creature has the desperate alternative of being caught or starving. He is generally caught, though not till he has braved hunger for a good many days.
But to know all his cunning and shrewdness, bait him in the field, or set your trap by some carcass where he is wont to come. In some cases he will uncover the trap, and leave the marks of his contempt for it in a way you cannot mistake, or else he will not approach within a rod of it. Occasionally, however, he finds in a trapper more than his match, and is fairly caught. When this happens, the trap, which must be of the finest make, is never touched with the bare hand, but, after being thoroughly smoked and greased, is set in a bed of dry ashes or chaff in a remote field, where the fox has been emboldened to dig for several successive nights for morsels of toasted cheese.
A light fall of snow aids the trapper's art and conspires to Reynard's ruin. But how lightly he is caught, when caught at all! barely the end of his toes, or at most a spike through the middle of his foot. I once saw a large painting of a fox struggling with a trap which held him by the hind leg, above the gambrel-joint! A painting alongside of it represented a peasant driving an ox-team from the offside! A fox would be as likely to be caught above the gambrel-joint as a farmer would to drive his team from the off-side. I knew one that was caught by the tip of the lower jaw. He came nightly, and took the morsel of cheese from the pan of the trap without springing it. A piece was then secured to the pan by a thread, with the result as above stated.
I have never been able to see clearly why the mother fox generally selects a burrow or hole in the open field in which to have her young, except it be, as some hunters maintain, for better security. The young foxes are wont to come out on a warm day, and play like puppies in front of the den. The view being unobstructed on all sides by trees or bushes, in the cover of which danger might approach, they are less liable to surprise and capture. On the slightest sound they disappear in the hole. Those who have watched the gambols of young foxes speak of them as very amusing, even more arch and playful than those of kittens, while a spirit profoundly wise and cunning seems to look out of their young eyes. The parent fox can never be caught in the den with them, but is hovering near the woods, which are always at hand, and by her warning cry or bark tells them when to be on their guard. She usually has at least three, dens, at no great distance apart, and moves stealthily in the night with her charge from one to the other, so as to mislead her enemies. Many a party of boys, and of men, too, discovering the whereabouts of a litter, have gone with shovels and picks, and, after digging away vigorously for several hours, have found only an empty hole for their pains. The old fox, finding her secret had been found out, had waited for darkness, in the cover of which to transfer her household to new quarters; or else some old fox-hunter, jealous of the preservation of his game, and getting word of the intended destruction of the litter, had gone at dusk the night before, and made some disturbance about the den, perhaps flashed some powder in its mouth, — a hint which the shrewd animal knew how to interpret.
The more scientific aspects of the question may not be without interest to some of my readers. The fox belongs to the great order of flesh-eating animals called Carnivora, and of the family called Canidæ, or dogs. The wolf is a kind of wild dog, and the fox is a kind of wolf. Foxes, unlike wolves, however, never go in packs or companies, but hunt singly. The fox has a kind of bark which suggests the dog, as have all the members of this family. The kinship is further shown by the fact that during certain periods, for the most part in the summer, the dog cannot be made to attack or even to pursue the female fox, but will run from her in the most shamefaced manner, which he will not do in the case of any other animal except a wolf. Many of the ways and manners of the fox, when tamed, are also like the dog's. I once saw a young red fox exposed for sale in the market in Washington. A colored man had him, and said he had caught him out in Virginia. He led him by a small chain, as he would a puppy, and the innocent young rascal would lie on his side and bask and sleep in the sunshine, amid all the noise and chaffering around him, precisely like a dog. He was about the size of a full-grown cat, and there was a bewitching beauty about him that I could hardly resist. On another occasion, I saw a gray fox, about two thirds grown, playing with a dog of about the same size, and by nothing in the manners of either could you tell which was the dog and which the fox.
Some naturalists think there are but two permanent species of the fox in the United States, namely, the gray fox and the red fox, though there are five or six varieties. The gray fox, which is much smaller and less valuable than the red, is the Southern species, and is said to be rarely found north of Maryland, though in certain rocky localities along the Hudson it is common.
In the Southern States this fox is often hunted in the English fashion, namely, on horseback, the riders tearing through the country in pursuit till the animal is run down and caught. This is the only fox that will tree. When too closely pressed, instead of taking to a den or a hole, it climbs beyond the reach of the dogs in some small tree.
The red fox is the Northern species, and is rarely found farther south than the mountainous districts of Virginia. In the Arctic regions it gives place to the Arctic fox, which most of the season is white.
The prairie fox, the cross fox, and the black or silver-gray fox seem only varieties of the red fox, as the black squirrel breeds from the gray, and the black woodchuck is found with the brown. There is little to distinguish them from the red, except the color, though the prairie fox is said to be the larger of the two.
The cross fox is dark brown on its muzzle and extremities, with a cross of red and black on its shoulders and breast, which peculiarity of coloring, and not any trait in its character, gives it its name. It is very rare, and few hunters have ever seen one. The American Fur Company used to obtain annually from fifty to one hundred skins. The skins formerly sold for twenty-five dollars, though I believe they now bring only about five dollars.
The black or silver-gray fox is the rarest of all, and its skin the most valuable. The Indians used to estimate it equal to forty beaver skins. The great fur companies seldom collect in a single season more than four or five skins at any one post. Most of those of the American Fur Company come from the head-waters of the Mississippi. One of the younger Audubons shot one in northern New York. The fox had been seen and fired at many times by the hunters of the neighborhood, and had come to have the reputation of leading a charmed life, and of being invulnerable to anything but a silver bullet. But Audubon brought her down (for it was a female) on the second trial. She had a litter of young in the vicinity, which he also dug out, and found the nest to hold three black and four red ones, which fact settled the question with him that black and red often have the same parentage, and are in truth the same species.
The color of this fox, in a point-blank view, is black, but viewed at an angle it is a dark silver-gray, whence has arisen the notion that the black and the silver-gray are distinct varieties. The tip of the tail is always white.
In almost every neighborhood there are traditions of this fox, and it is the dream of young sportsmen; but I have yet to meet the person who has seen one. I should go well to the north, into the British Possessions, if I were bent on obtaining a specimen.
One more item from the books. From the fact that in the bone caves in this country skulls of the gray fox are found, but none of the red, it is inferred by some naturalists that the red fox is a descendant from the European species, which it resembles in form but surpasses in beauty, and its appearance on this continent is of comparatively recent date.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.