The Nanton fox family – as I saw it by Susan Armstrong, May 2017
It was Monday morning and I decided to go to Nanton where I had heard there was a family of foxes with six or seven kits. I was excited when I found the den, but when they all came out, I only counted five.
They seemed oblivious to me and began bouncing around the field, happily playing. They only stopped to take cover when the sound of a passing vehicle startled them. I was in my car using my 800mm lens and a 1.4 converter, which gives me a chance to take pictures that give the impression that I’m close. I always try to capture wildlife in their natural setting without my presence being a factor. It’s not always easy, but I try.
The vixen (mom fox) came out of the den, stretched and nursed her young before offering them food from their cache. She then lay in the grass for a while and watched them play. An hour later, she quietly slipped away and the kits retreated back into their den.
On Tuesday morning there were only three kits. Something had happened to two of them since I had been there on Monday, but everything else seemed normal. The feeding, playing and grooming by the vixen was done as if none were missing. I left that day thinking about the missing kits.
Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday again with just three kits at the den site. I was there until noon that day and in that time, only the dog (dad fox) appeared. I didn’t see any fox feedings that morning but the magpies had been raiding one of the food caches. When the dog showed up he didn’t have food, but carried a big rock in his mouth which he dropped over the cache to stop the birds from stealing.
On Thursday, only one kit came out of the den. I waited from 6:45am for the usual show of the vixen or dog, but none came. In fact, the hours ticked by and I began to grow increasingly concerned. I started thinking of some scenarios that were not so simple…coyotes, poisoned ground squirrels, unhappy neighbours, a forgotten kit, car incident…where were all the kits and where were the parents?? By noon on the previous days, I’d witnessed at least one parent come by and check on the kits. It was getting on in the day but I felt I couldn’t leave until I saw at least one parent show up.
I decided to call my good friend Sheilagh who had volunteered at the animal rescue center to get her thoughts. She said it was best to talk to an expert and contacted the wildlife rescue center. Their advice was not to do anything until the following morning unless the kit was showing real signs of distress. Sheilagh and I discussed the possibility that the family was relocating. If that was the case, we didn’t know if all the kits are typically moved at once or a few at a time. No one was able to tell us how long a kit could go without milk or food.
The last kit seemed to be checking for it’s litter mates in the different den holes and looking in the direction along the path that the parents typically used. He whimpered from time to time but other than that, did appear okay. During the day he tried to dislodge the rock from the cache, but wasn’t quite strong enough. It was obvious he was hungry. This was getting hard to watch. I stopped taking pictures and started looking for signs of real distress.
After more than nine hours, the vixen finally appeared. The kit was ecstatic and so was I.
She briefly nursed the young one who, by this time, was extremely hungry.
Next, she retrieved some food from the cache. This would be the incentive to move the last kit. To my delight, she began to lure him from the den area with the food. As she headed out of the field she’d stop briefly and let him eat a bit. She would then take it back and lead him further away. This pattern was repeated until they were out of sight.
On that final day I spoke with many locals as they passed by. I was told that foxes living in that field had upset some people in previous years. The belief that foxes carry disease, would harm their cats or dogs etc. had been the subject of a town meeting last year and the decision was made to relocate the family. I have no idea how that was done or to where. After the foxes had moved, the site was filled in to discourage any further denning. One year later, surprise! The foxes had dug another den in that same field.
That day I also witnessed people deliberately behaving in ways that would encourage foxes to relocate. That final afternoon, I saw a young man bring his large dog into the fox field and head directly towards the den. I was speaking with a woman at the time and we both stopped and thought that we needed to warn him. I started shouting frantically but he paid no attention to us and continued right up and over the den site. The woman even honked her horn, but he carried on. Later that afternoon a couple walked through the empty field right across the site. I’m not kidding. Then it hit me. This was behaviour by caring people that wanted to compassionately get the foxes to relocate. Although some of the locals enjoyed watching the foxes grow and were happy to have them in town, there were those who were worried about it. In the end, a humane solution was implemented. I’ve heard about stories of extermination so I was grateful that these people were encouraging the foxes to relocate on their own.
As I reflected on the week, I thought about of the behaviour of the vixen. She’d felt threatened and so over the course of the week had created a new den and then had attended both to look after her kits. She’d made sure the new site was safe before methodically relocating the entire family. Although I had only seen five kits, if there were six or seven, then she’d begun the relocation before I had arrived on Monday. The dog also displayed his intelligence by bringing a rock to stop the birds from taking their food. He’d have had to find a rock that was a certain shape so he could carry it in his mouth and it would have had to be heavy enough to do the job. That takes planning too! I found this experience absolutely remarkable and something I won’t soon forget. The intelligence of animals can never be fully appreciated, but, if we stop for a moment and observe, we might just notice that the animals around us are not just randomly living-they are all doing something miraculous.