Nature’s intellectual giant

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-226XFtJbBm.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘The red fox is one of the smartest animals in the wild kingdom.’);

The other evening I was taking a leisurely twilight stroll along a barely identifiable trail through the Harlem Hills Nature Preserve located off Windsor Avenue in Loves Park. I was watching a hawk making lazy circles in the sky when I was suddenly startled by an animal that suddenly appeared out of the tall grass a few feet ahead of me and loped off down the ill-defined path. After regaining my composure, I realized the dog-like creature was a beautiful red fox that had a small rodent of some type in its mouth.

The fox seemed oblivious to my presence, and I was able to follow it as it nonchalantly moved easily down the trail. I followed it at a discreet distance until it entered its den, an excavation under a tree in a gully. I had known that there were red foxes present in this area but had not seen one previously. What a thrill to bump into old Reynard in such a situation!

Vivacious, handsome, debonair, the red fox is the Beau Brummel of the wild world. He is impeccably dressed in a yellowish-orange, red coat, with black leggings fore and aft, a bit of white at the throat and on the cheeks, and possessing a magnificent tail tipped in white waving jauntily behind.

Brer Fox, as Uncle Remus called him, has erect ears, piercing black eyes under a wide forehead, and the sharply pointed muzzle gives him an alert, intelligent appearance that is indicative of his personality. “Cunning as a fox,” “Dumb like a fox,” and “foxy” are a few of the expressions used by humans to describe what has been called the Scarlet Pimpernel of the wild.

The tricks used by the red fox for the purposes of outwitting his pursuers, capturing prey, and coping with the environment are legendary. In the wonderful Joel Chandler Harris stories for children, Brer Rabbit always outsmarted Brer Fox, but, rest assured, this does not happen in nature.

There are many tales told that describe the fox’s cunning and sagacity. For example, it is widely believed that when it is heavily infested with fleas, the fox will take a stick in its mouth and head for the nearest body of water. He then slowly backs into the water until all that remains above the surface is the stick and a small black nose. He then releases the stick that is teeming with fleas that have sought refuge there. He then emerges from the water supposedly rejoicing in this freedom from the pestiferous ectoparasites.

There are also many stories told of the manner in which foxes outwit pursuing hounds: doubling back in their own tracks, running along fence tops, racing along shallow streams, circling the hounds, and then taking a breather on a high knoll to watch with glee the confusion of his pursuers, both hounds and the fancy-clad humans who should be considered to be true sportsmen. Most fox hunters who ride to the chase know that it is next to impossible for their hounds to catch a fox in prime condition and are delighted when the quarry almost always escapes. In Maryland, as well as in many other parts of the South, riding to the hounds is a sport available only to the few who can afford a horse, a pack of hounds, and the other paraphernalia associated with the hunt.

At the present time, the common or eastern red fox ranges throughout the eastern United States, and there is some question as to its primeval origin. Some fox experts contend our species is directly descended from its English cousin that was imported from the old country in colonial times to supply the gentry of the South with hunting pleasure. Most wildlife biologists, however, believe our red fox is a native American species that interbred with and absorbed its imported and inferior European relative.

It would be a sad day if the red fox ever vanished from our land. But this is not likely to happen as the intelligence of this beautiful animal rivals that of its relative, the coyote. Though he is cursed, cheered, admired, hated, and loved, old bushy tail is an important part of our natural heritage. Long may his brush wave in the wild kingdom.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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