Fox pups learning how to live

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Two red fox pups have begun explorations around the entrance to a den site. These youngsters are curious, innocent and playful at this stage of their young lives. At least six pups were born to an adult pair that live in and around the southeast side of Albion. Several people have spotted the fox family at various times now that outside explorations and learning make them more visible. Red foxes are typically nocturnal as they hunt for food. Classified as a carnivore, this species will supplement its mole, mouse, rabbit, shrews and insects with fruits, berries and a few other plant materials.

The RED FOX, (Vulpes vulpes), is more common than we think. It appears to be similar to a small to medium sized dog in body form. Reddish brown fur and a long bushy tail are conspicuous characteristics. As a sometimes urban dweller, it does find a bit more refuge from a tough competitor further out in the country, the coyote. But it still remains an adaptable canine species with its hard won knack of surviving even within close proximity to mankind. As a species it has almost world wide dispersal in North America, Europe, Asia , Australia and North Africa. Only Antarctica is devoid of foxes.

For today’s featured creature, the family of young foxes contained six young initially. It is the young ones that are making themselves visible as they begin explorations. Meanwhile, the adults are shy, nearby perhaps, but staying completely secretive. As nighttime darkness approaches, school for the youngsters will resume when they follow the parents into the real world. Learning must be relatively fast because in a few short months, these young will be completely on their own to hunt and capture food. Hunting alongside parents this summer will be typical. By fall, they will have learned enough to go it alone and disperse from their parents.

A few interesting biological facts about red foxes includes the pupils of their eyes. Instead of being round, the pupils are elongated vertical ellipse shapes. While still young, the body fur color is more subdued grayish red. Later as an adult, the body fur will become a brilliant reddish brown. Leg fur is usually black. Front feet have five toes while the rear feet have just four toes. A slender pointed muzzle is perfect for poking into grassy confines, small ground burrows, or for plunging into deep snow at winter time. Fox will use their acute hearing to pinpoint locations of rodents scurrying around at the snow/ground boundary. With a careful quick diving plunge, its muzzle will be directed at the morsel of food awaiting below. The mouse or vole is unaware of its fate.

Communication between foxes uses a combination of senses. Smell is top on the list as they decipher odors left by other fox. Vocalizations include whines, barks, yelps, yips, huffs, coughs and growls. Most of these calls are made during night time ventures when humans are not in the right place to hear them or even know what may be making the sounds. Most of all the above calls are somewhat high pitch. It is nice to know that this furry critter will do its best to earn its place a predator in the mouse and rabbit control business Mother Nature set out for it.

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Fox are predators, just one of many varied links in nature’s food chain. Everything the fox eats it had to hunt for. From insects, small birds, mice or rabbit, it all counts. And when the sum of the total is rung up, the end game is a vibrant and healthy fox. Foxes live by the skills nature has set for them as a species. Not every hunt a fox undertakes will be rewarded. Perhaps in the big scheme of things, one out of ten attempts may be successful. Those times when success eluded it, the fox hopefully became more skilled at its methods to procure food. It needs to do that because its very survival as an individual and as a species depends upon being successful just enough to go on living.

All up and down the food chain from the very smallest algal forms to the mightiest large carnivores, life continues because each step in the food chain web depends upon one form of life giving its life to the next higher rung on the ladder. What we humans have devised is a way to harness the energy of life into distinct skills of fantastic agrarian complexities to grow our foods on our schedules, on lands close to where we live, using products of the land to support a food web specifically for our needs.

Great fields of fruits and vegetables are involved in this process. Many crops grown on the land are best fed to livestock so that these animals can in turn convert plant material into the protein forms our bodies can utilize. So even though we do not have to be hunter/gatherers as primitive man had to deal with, we do our hunter/gathering in modern ways. In the end a wide variety of food products await us at delivery points called grocery stores where we pay for the work done by others. Our time then is valuable so it can be focused on other needs of products and services for society. It works well.

I am a hunter by choice. I enjoy the quiet solitude of a spring turkey hunt or a fall deer hunt. I enjoy and soak up as much as I can all the sights and sounds of the seasons as laid our for me by nature. I’m submerged in the grandeur of being part of the web of life and I respect and appreciate fully the position I’m provided to be part of a fantastic ecological system. My desire to be a functioning part of the ecosystem is deeply rooted, an intimate connection to the natural world that may be hard to communicate to some, but is very real and personal. To do so legally and with the highest ethical applications leaves me with nothing to be ashamed of.

I also shop at local grocery stores where foods of all types have been cut and wrapped, boxed or canned, and conveniently advertised to catch my attention. Those foods may be less expensive by comparison to the dollars I spend to hunt wild game species in Iowa or other states. Certainly my survival does not depend solely on my hunting or fishing abilities. However, wild meats from deer, elk, pheasant, or fishes are more satisfying because I have a first hand understanding of the effort of time and money required to bring those protein sources to the table. When properly cared for and cooked to perfection for a family meal, a personal banquet is set with wild sources of food as its basis.

Every one of the wild food types ever brought to the table to eat and share is a trophy. While some may get way to picky about what they think a trophy is, to me it is the successful bringing into possession any legally taken fish, wild turkey, deer, elk, pronghorn or other animal. There is no requirement that the animal had to be the longest or heaviest fish, the biggest antlered deer or elk. That is nice if it happens. But is not the primary reason for me to go hunting. Nutrition is the foremost goal. Every animal becomes a trophy and a deeply imbedded memory of anther successful hunt.

Speaking of success, here is another definition of success. Just attempting to connect during a hunt, just being there in wild and scenic places of the world, and not taking an animal home still qualifies as a form of success. I’m the richer for the experience and the attempts I may have made to legally take an animal. Just like the fox that tries and tries again, time after time, it only has to connect about one time in ten to keep living. My competition of any hunt is within myself and not trying to outdo what others may expect.

As a wildlife photographer, I’m constantly challenged by situations where the combination of light, animal or plant and its unique setting all come together to allow for creating a new image. It could be from a duck blind, a special photo hide-away blind, a turkey tent, tree stand or just a quiet wait while standing motionless against a big oak tree. In each of these cases I continue to be a predator in the sense of trying to blend into the environment for the purpose of creating photographic images. Just like hunting with gun or bow, there are no guarantees. Just like hunting, nature rules. I’m just part of the mix that places me in the outdoors where anything can happen. No matter the outcome of the day, it will have been a great day.

As a person with a strong biological background in biological studies, I understand the importance of retaining adequate habitats such as wetlands, forests, prairie grasslands and clean water in streams and rivers. Properly managed, habitat can support a wide variety of plant life, game and non-game animals. Biological surpluses taken by hunters in one year are offset by the ability of surviving populations to fill the void by next fall. What everyone needs to know, hunter and non hunter, is that permanent loss of native habitats means a permanent loss of the natural resource base. This is especially apparent in Iowa where our pre-settlement landscape has been so drastically altered. We all benefit in many regards from the technologies of modern times. However it also places a greater need to cooperatively protect remnant parcels of wild places on both private and public ground. Long term conservation efforts require the diligence of informed professionals who strive for outcomes that will enrich all of us.

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“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

— Aldo Leopold, author of

A Sand County Almanac

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.