Several inches of snow blanketed the ground when I went to the barn to feed the animals. Snow stuck to every branch, stem, and twig, but my eye caught a glimpse of movement in the buffer of trees along the stream. Ducking behind the barn to avoid detection, I glimpsed a red fox about to spring into the air and pounce on a mouse.
In one fluid motion, the fox arched into the air and landed in the snow. Then, lifting its muzzle from the snow, it tossed the mouse in the air, caught and swallowed it. Whereupon it turned and trotted into the woods. Postponing remaining chores, I rushed to get my spotting scope, cell phone, and camera adapter, and hurried back across the paddock. I was pleased to find the fox still intent on hunting breakfast. I was able to get some video of her hunting mice in the woods.
Because of a purely subjective impression that it was female, I refer to the fox as “she.” Treading carefully and craning her neck, she was clearly using her ears to locate unseen prey. She cocked her head like a dog listening to the sound of its master’s voice. Since then, I’ve read that foxes do indeed use their ears to pinpoint prey hidden by grass or snow. Like an owl’s, a fox’s ears are attuned to high frequency sounds mice make as they move around.
The fox made several stalks and two unsuccessful launches at mice. When I could no longer see her between the snow-covered branches, I returned to the house. Half an hour later, I stepped onto the front porch to look outside, and to my great surprise, the fox had entered the lower paddock. My luck held while I set up the scope and managed once again to zoom in on the fox. This time she was hunting out in the open and was more visible. I marveled at how easily she slipped through the squares of woven wire fence, her bushy tail floating behind her like a balloon. Red foxes look so big in winter, you forget they weigh between twelve and fifteen pounds.
Despite the overcast weather, my view from the porch through the spotting scope was spectacular. The scope revealed everything she did in dramatic detail. For example, I noticed the depth of snow covering the coarse grass and weeds was just enough to make her footing unsteady at times. She halted often to cock her ears. Twice she gathered herself as if to pounce but then moved on, stopping again and listening. Ignoring the sounds of passing cars, she clearly was hunting more by sound than by scent or by sight. Finally, after another false start, she sprang into the air. Only the top fence board obscured what could have been a perfect video of her pounce.
Unsuccessful but undaunted, the fox slipped through the fence and trotted up the hillside. Three deer galloped by, causing her to pause briefly before finally fading out of sight for good.
This was a delightful glimpse of a fox’s wintry world!
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the art for this piece, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.