Friday 28 December 2007

Dog Days in December

Things have been very quiet on the fox front...while correspondingly lively on the domestic front. I have been too busy baking and shopping to spend much time watching back gardens. But we usually don't see much action in December. This month I saw a fox by daylight only once. Mid-afternoon, about the 15th, a tight coil of amber fur under my neighbour's "palm" tree.

I was surprised to see it, because that is a favouirite spot for summer sunbathing, but on the day in question the weather was very cold. I would have thought it would be warmer underground. Anyway it never moved so I could not make any ID.

That night, and again several nights later, I heard the distinctive triple barking of a fox. Actually, the "triple" is the most distinctive part - otherwise it just sounds like a dog barking but in a slightly gruffer voice. Think of a wuff-wuff-wuff uttered hoarsely, repeated several times.

Several times, too, we have heard a ruction of protest from magpies, the furious chattering they used to greet foxes with. Nothing to see, and they do the same to cats, so not much help there.

Even though they have been careful to stay out of sight, this is peak mating season for foxes. If they mate around New Year, they will have cubs around St Patrick's Day (typical time-frame) and we may see baby foxes at last in late April.

Sometimes courtship is noisy - one may hear screaming or snarling: or one may see furious chases through bushes and gardens. I hope some of our local foxes are doing the necessary, even though they are quiet about it!

Sunday 25 November 2007

Another sighting

This was on Friday afternoon, the 23rd November. Just saw one next door in the early afternoon, gazing up at my neighbour's kitchen window. I know she watches them too.
I grabbed for binoculars but it wandered away behind her house so I didn't get a good look. I have really rotten eyesight so can never see well without binoculars. Thus, I can't be sure if it was Notch, the new one from last Tuesday, or even Chubby, (who may turn out to be the same as Notch!).
I'm glad to still see them, they raise my spirits. Other years, we went for months seeing none at this time of year.

New Fox!

Things have been quiet on the foxwatching front...and then a sighting last Tuesday. About 4.15 in the afternoon, a fine mild day after the end of the wet weather. I glanced into Martin's as I was tidying upstairs and saw a large handsome fox sitting and grooming on the lawn.
I have definitely never seen this one before! The white edges of the face were wide and very white, with a distinctive 'point' going into the cheeks. Front legs black to the knee, back legs black on feet only. The tail - had a separated double tip with a ragged bit of white showing and a large patch of dark fur on the underside near the base. (Perhaps he had been in a scrap, or his grooming wasn't very expert!)
Anyway, he squatted on the grass for a long pee, quite a stream. Then he sat and rubbed his bottom along the ground, always a very graceless performance. (Years ago, we had a cat that did this when she was constipated: we used to call it "doing the Lambeth Walk")
The fox was clearly scent marking the garden, very abundantly. He was certainly a male, by the way, I had a crystal clear look at the fixings as he raised his tail.
He went away and I went on working. About 20 minutes later I looked out again and was astonished to see a fox in my own garden. By now, it was almost dusk on a dull November evening and I couldn't be sure if it was the same one! But this one went all around: the frog-pond, the Rowan, the gap in the hedge. Hmmm. Frustrating that I could hardly see his tawny fur in the dusk. But I could see that it was stocky. Too much rich food from humans? You don't often see a fat fox!
Well, well. Where are the former residents of this territory? The new guy seems very possessive. We'll see what happens!

Saturday 17 November 2007

The Scattering

It's been a month since I posted and in all that time I've only seen two brief glimpses of my foxes out the back. One was about 18 days ago, on a fine afternoon, (a perfect fox day), just a bundle which I couldn't identify. S/he soon went away, too cool these days for outdoor sleeping.
The other sighting was just yesterday; about 9 o clock in the morning. As I went down the garden with my cup of coffee I heard a scuffling of footsteps and spotted orange fur making a getaway across the back wall into Jackson's. Could have been a marmalade cat but cats usually stand their ground, and there isn't a ginger one in the neighbourhood anyway. I think a fox.
I've had just one sighting out in the street, one evening after dark: Tipless furtively sliding through a hedge onto the footpath. His thick, blunt tail with no trace of white is very distinctive. yet what a contrast, this Tipless who was so brazen and relaxed in my neighbour's garden only a month ago.

It is a very different story out in the wider streets. We still do see plenty of foxes as we drive at night-around eleven seems a favourite hour-but we see far more dead bodies on the motorway.

All summer, the young cubs born last spring have been getting bigger and braver. Many litters are still together. Winter is approaching and the stronger animals will be claiming territories and mating soon. The young ones must disperse to find homes of their own.

What happens to these young foxes? I'm afraid that a goodly percentage of them - at least a quarter, maybe even half - don't make it past their first dual carriageway. They may well survive the quiet suburban streets in the dead of night -but there are a lot of foxes there and stiff competition for the best breeding earths, sleepover spots and food supplies.

Down on the N11 and on the motorway, there's carnage. I can't help noticing, as I drive, how many of the pathetic bodies are young ones who never even finished one year on Earth.
I am, however, realistic: without this ruthless annual weeding-out, numbers would rapidly soar. Then there would be the consequence of overcrowding: the spread of horrible, destructive mange. And foxes fighting each other, and householders laying poison.

In the meantime, what of the young wanderers? They will need to be astute, and brave, and lucky. Wow, there's natural selection in action! The ones who make it across the dual carriageways and motorways will have to find a territory which is either vacant or which they can occupy by brute force (males) or blandishment (females).
Young dog foxes will exhibit the signs of adolescence found in all mammalian males: a hostile attitude and a readiness to square up to the dominant male. They may be able to wrest a patch from an older male by fighting. Meanwhile, the resident males who have a good piece of turf are standing by ready to repel intruders.

The ladies have the same challenges but may handle them differently because they have different options. (But let's not be too anthropomorphic: both sexes travel and hunt and fight and seduce)

All of them are looking for mates, except perhaps the stay-at-home sisters. The males, having won a patch of turf, want a vixen to share it with. The vixens do the same but some may just find a willing male already available and walk into a good home. Vixens, and dogs, who are staying on, will have to fight off invasion by the young and hungry of both sexes.

Small wonder that the fox world becomes so cagey at this time of year: we know they are there but they are as wary and cautious as the gangs of an American city and keep their heads well down: when they must hunt or patrol borders, they do it with an almost supernatural stealth, slipping silently from shadow to shadow.

And the daytime sightings that are a joy of summer are gone for the next few months!

Wednesday 17 October 2007


I'm back from a fortnight's holiday and fully expecting the Autumn Vanish, as we call it. Normally sightings at this time of year are few and far between, as young foxes disperse to find territories and mates for themselves. The seniors may be left on the home turf but they will have to fight for it against ambitious immigrants. And there is a mortality rate, from traffic accidents mainly, as young or old foxes travel afield. And it's often a wet or windy season; and if there's one thing foxes detest, it's rain!
So I was pleasantly surprised to see, on a fine sunny afternoon last week, (11 Oct) the familiar two mounds of amber fur curled up in Mary's garden. Couldn't see which ones, but later saw Broadhead stretching comfortably. How they do love a sunny spot.

Today's sighting was even better. (17 Oct)

The spell of fine, dry weather continues, a nice change after the wet cold summer we endured this year.

About 3 in the afternoon, I glanced out my bedroom window and saw a thickly-furred fox arrive on a favourite sunbathing spot, look around leisurely, and lie down in a comfortable coil. The fur is healthy and it gets thicker as the weather cools, so I wasn't sure at first but thought it was Broadhead. I eagerly snatched up my binocs, and confirmed that it was him, looking very well. Evidently the good feeding has gone down a treat. Then as I admired him, there was a small flurry in the big macrocarpa tree, (at the back, an area I've never seen them use,) and out crawled, one sleepy leg at a time, Tipless, unmistakeably. He yawned and shifted, then sat down.

The behaviour of the first fox was interesting - he immediately got up and trotted away down the garden path towards the "den area" - a hidden corner where cubs have been raised in other years. Neither fox made any greeting or acknowledgement of the other, and no hostility was shown; but Broadhead left the premises without delay, though also without undignified haste.
I think this illustrates the changing dynamics in a fox family group very neatly.

No, I haven't forgotten that I promised to pursue the topic of fox diet: next was to be birds: I'll see to it next time!

Monday 17 September 2007

Sauce for the Goose

The fox is one of the most adaptable animals. You can find the Arctic fox in the far North and the Fennec fox in the hot desert. They're found all over Europe and the Americas. A species couldn't be as successful as this unless it was very adaptable.
Foxes are opportunistic feeders and can live on almost anything. The conventional childish picture book always shows Mr. Fox (or Brer Fox) pouncing on a rabbit or stalking the farmer's fowls. And there is no doubt that these are very good eating for a wandering red dog; meaty, tasty and just the right size for catching. However, that's in the countryside. Nowadays, you are more likely to see a fox in a Dublin suburb than in a rural area. So what are town foxes living on?
Here follows a list, in no particular order, of what our foxes eat.
1. Insects. Over the years, I've noticed that cubs in particular seem to eat a lot of insects. Maybe they are less skilled at hunting for themselves, or sometimes they are left unsupervised just mooching around the garden, waiting for Mam or Dad or Auntie to bring home some real bacon.
In any event, a fox looking for insects looks remarkably like a sheep grazing: head down, turn over tuft of grass at edge of path, nibble, move on a little...they get more experienced as the summer passes: they know to turn over flowerpots and stones for woodlice underneath. And they don't have to be cubs to do this: any of our adult foxes, sunbathing in a warm spot, will snatch and catch and swallow a passing moth. For them, though, I guess it's a snack; for cubs, more of a hungry stopgap or emergency rations.
Next, birds: see the next blog entry.

Thursday 13 September 2007

evolution of a colony

This year's foxes have puzzled us since we first saw them together. In previous years we first saw cubs above ground in early summer, like 27th April (2003) or 8th May (2004). Of course we always watch and listen eagerly for signs of a new fox family, though this year there had been little to suggest it. We were resigning ourselves to another summer without cubs like last year. And then this bunch showed up.
Earlier this year I had been logging sightings of two foxes, regularly seen, sometimes together. One was skinny and pale and was named "Bootlace" from the tail, which was hairless with mange. This is a common look with mangy foxes. I squinted and peered but never got a definite look to sex it, but thought female. However no nipples visible, and they usually are in a recently delivered vixen. The other one was certainly male, of stocky build and large wide head. I called him "Broadhead" and I think he is still with us. Broadhead and Bootlace behaved very like a mated pair but we never saw a cub with them. Surely it could not be a second year of sterile mating? Cubs could be elsewhere of course.
And then, on the 31st of May, we see three foxes in the garden, next door.
*I should perhaps explain at this stage that virtually all of the sightings here recorded are in the back garden of our next-door-neighbour, Mary Martin. We get a ringside view from our bedroom window. Now read on:*
The three were; Broadhead, as before, with his grey bib and white blob of a tail-tip. Tipless, who seems to be the same fox as we saw last August, 2006, already adult then; he has no tail tip, grey bib, bright amber coat, 2 small patches of mange on haunches; and finally, one with a whiter bib and a pointed narrow tail-tip, posibly female, possibly adolescent. She (or he) is Pointer.
The puzzling thing is, this was the end of May, and none of these was a cub of this years batch except maybe Pointer. yet they are clearly a fox family group and have been seen greeting with the classic double-gape, and grooming each other.
The possibilities are;
Broadhead is the father, the mother was Bootlace, now dead of mange, Pointer the only cub to survive. Tipless would be an uncle? Not usual. Related foxes do help to rear orphaned cubs but that would normally be low-ranking, unmated females.
Maybe all three are sibs? Pointer the sister of Broadhead, helping to rear his family after death (presumed) of Bootlace? They certainly act like sibs, sometimes "getting up a game" by pawing the ground and crouching, just like domestic dogs who want you to throw a ball for them. But the two males are too grown-up to be this year's litter and they wouldn't be still together after a year, not two males, I think. I could be wrong about that.
Anyway, Nature is now taking it's usual course; Tipless spends a lot of time in Martin's, sleeping the day through on the lawn, under a tree, even on the footpath today. A second fox is also seen, just a brown patch and a pair of ears in a corner. Tipless is strong and experienced, and he is claiming this turf.

Monday 10 September 2007

Naming names

Tipless is so called because he has no white tip visible at the end of his tail. The brush in question is a fine, rotund, black-over-tan appendage and it has a blunt rather than a pointed end. I am told that every fox's tail has a white tip, but if so, you would have to catch Tipless unconscious to look for perhaps two or three white hairs at the very tip.
I have always used the tail-tip as a means of identifying the foxes. These animals are not easy to recognise, especially moving fast or at a distance, or, as we most commonly see them, slumped in a sleepy pile. They are particularly difficult to sex, unless they adopt a pose that allows a glimpse of the undercarriage. That old phrase "a big dog fox" doesn't hold water: we've seen large vixens and small males.
So mostly I name them from what I can see. The tail-tip is good because it varies a bit, from pointy to blunt, large or small, narrow or wide or shaped in some way. The bib area on the chest can be dark or white, deep or narrow etc. The feet always have a bit of black but it varies also; we once watched a cub we called "inkyfoot" because he seemed to have been dipped in treacle right up all four legs. There is also coat colour, a little shading or marking, and any scars or limp etc.
All that said, it is still quite tricky to identify them even if one knows them well; a pair of binoculars by every window is a great help. Over the last decade or so we have watched at least twenty foxes from our window; now I am running out of names!

Sunday 9 September 2007

playing with prey

This morning, about a quarter to eight, I looked into the garden from my kitchen window and was thrilled to see one of the foxes on the lawn. Up to know we have mostly had to watch them from an upstairs window. But about two months ago our dear old family dog had to be put down. Foxes used to just ocasionally flit through after dark, and the dog would whine and yelp in the house. If we let her out, the fox would vanish like an arrow. She was a darling dog, a Lolly, and I still miss her sadly.
Lately however the foxes from next door have been cautiously colonising this space, since we now have neither dog nor cat. And of course I have been feeding them, ironically on raw meaty bones that were got for the dog and were still in the freezer.
So I was delighted to see Tipless this morning. He was nuzzling something on the short grass beside the Frogway. Then he tossed it into the air and caught it again. Then he dropped it and prodded with a paw. I ran for binoculars to see what he had, hoping it was a mouse but worried for my frogs. Annoyingly I couldn't see well, just a smallish dangly dark object which Tipless played with exactly - but just exactly - the way a cat plays with a mouse. He flung it a yard in the air from his mouth and as it landed, pounced with two paws. Then he tried burying it behind a tuft of long grass.
This is something I have often seen them do, hiding food. In fact sometimes I come across a little hollow with a bit of earth on top which often contains a dead worm. On this occasion he sort of abandoned the game and went mooching about our rockery as if looking for something - either insects or hidden food. Found something because he munched and licked a bit. Went out of sight under the windowledge, then reappeared.
Back to the long grass and retrieved his toy. Seemed to wonder if it was dead (I hope it was!), tossed it about. Every now and again he would try to munch on it and drop it with an air of dislike. Hmmm, if it had been a mouse he'd probably have eaten it.
Anyway I began to knock and gesture at the window and Tipless simply sat down and watched me. I took my coffee-cup and went out. Even as I came out of the side-passage entrance he was still on the lawn and only trotted away as I came down the steps. I tried looking for the prey where Tipless had been but could not find it. Eaten? Tossed into darkest corner? Wrong spot?
It's nice to see the foxes occupying my garden at last but I must try harder to protect the frogs. Can't win against Nature!

Sunday 8 July 2007

What This Blog is About

I have spent several years observing successive families of foxes in my own, and my neighbours, suburban back gardens. I hope to share my observation, so far preserved in a paper log, on this blog.