Smart as a Fox


Five cubs had been born to Red and Vixen only nine days ago. These young ones were still completely helpless, and their eyes were just beginning to open. Two of the cubs were the typical red color of their father; two were more of a cross like Vixen—reddish brown with a smoky stripe down the back and across the shoulders; and one had silver black fur sprinkled with white.

Red was now on his way back to his family, feeling rather smug after stealing some leftover meat that a wolf had cached for a future meal. Hunting was not usually so easy. As a matter of fact, when the snowshoe hare population was low and the marmots and ground squirrels were still in hibernation, death from starvation was a constant threat. As if that problem were not enough, a desperate lynx that depended on the hare for most of its diet might anytime add a red fox to its menu. But in recent years snowshoe hares had been plentiful in the north country, so Red had not noticed any extra attention from his lynx neighbors.

Another resident of the wilderness, however, lurked nearby. The clucking alarm and whirring wings of a willow ptarmigan were warning signals to Red. He stopped abruptly, forepaw in the air. His body was arrow straight, tense, ready to spring into action. Something was edging through the lodgepole pines. Suddenly a giant grizzly bear appeared. Its massive hump-shouldered body weighed almost a thousand pounds. The grizzly was one of the most ferocious of all wild animals.

The bear was headed toward the den of Red and his new family. Red couldn’t tell if the bear were aware of the den. But he knew that if the grizzly were not diverted before he had the scent of the cubs, they would be devoured.

Red was one of the smaller predators of the north country, but his intelligence, speed, and courage made up for his size. In a red blur of motion, the fox dashed out to meet the grizzly. He circled around the bear and then rushed in to nip at his heels. The bear turned and snarled. Red circled again and again, darting in and out as he went, teasing, taunting, challenging. He knew that he must draw the bear away from the den, so each time Red retreated from the savage claws of the grizzly, he backed a little farther away from Vixen and their cubs.

In one unguarded moment before the grizzly had completely turned, Red made a rushing leap and bit the bear on the rump. Snarling with rage, the grizzly lunged toward the little fox. The whole forest shuddered with the sound. But the agile fox dodged the lashing paw just in time, backing away in an effort to draw the grizzly still farther from the den.

By now the bear was breathing in hoarse huffs. He was rapidly losing his appetite for a red fox dinner. What may have once seemed like a good idea had become a painful, frustrating ordeal. With a resigned grunt, the grizzly turned and lumbered off into the pines.

Such an encounter is only one of Red’s many problems. In the subarctic regions of Alaska and Canada, the red fox is constantly faced with challenges for survival. He digs his den underground but does not hibernate during the winter, so he must endure temperatures that drop as low as eighty degrees below zero, lashing winds, and raging blizzards. But nature has provided Red with a remarkable body. His greatest asset is his thick, luxuriant fur tail. Even in the coldest subzero weather, he can sleep above ground if necessary. All he has to do is curl up and tuck his nose and feet into the warmth of his tail. Against incredible odds, the red fox of the north manages to survive.

The term “smart as a fox” must surely refer to the north country red!

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Hull