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!