constellations #46: foxy

Hi again.

  • This weekend we saw a fox. Then we saw it again. Then later we saw it again, soon enough after but far enough away from where we had seen it before, that we realized we were indeed spending time among multiple foxes. Foxes aren’t necessarily rare in New England but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve stumbled upon one, up close, in the light of day, and I didn’t expect to see them where we were: by the coast, dense with people, no forest to speak of.

  • My first stop was Google: “fox in daytime?” As it turns out they are primarily nocturnal but seeing one during the daytime doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rabid, which, embarrassingly, we both kind of assumed it did.

  • “Here are a few facts to put the presence of foxes in your yard in perspective,” the Humane Society website told me, and which I then read aloud: They aren’t dangerous to humans except when rabid; they’d really rather flee than fight; kits — that’s baby foxes — will stay in the den until about nine weeks, when they start hunting with their parents; they eat fruits, but won’t bother garden vegetables. “Sometimes foxes are blamed for damage they did not cause,” the site goes on, in a defensive tone that I found charming, “such as when they are spotted eating from spilled trash when neighborhood dogs or other animals were responsible for the overturned trashcan.” (The poor neighborhood dogs, now saddled with the blame!)

  • Foxes, of course, have a reputation in the folklore of many cultures for cunning, cleverness, and trickery. Some linguists say that the word “shenanigans” is derived from the Gaelic “sionnachuighim,” meaning “I play the fox,” though other linguists dispute this.

  • In my eleventh-grade French class we had a handful of assignments throughout the year that involved memorizing a poem and then recording yourself reciting it. One of them was the fable of the fox and the crow, whose lesson is about not letting flattery go to your head. I can still do a decent rendition of most of the poem, though I wouldn’t necessarily claim to have entirely retained the lesson.

  • Driving back from town, we saw one of our local foxes trotting down the middle of the street. We were impressed by its brazenness, and, as we got closer, we realized it was holding an entire rabbit in its mouth. I was aghast; M. was intrigued. “How can you look away?!” he asked, but I said I did so easily. The fox has a family to feed, he said, and I said, yeah but the rabbit had a family too. It always makes me feel supremely naive to impose my own feelings about the circle of life on an animal with sharp teeth who needs to eat. But I can’t help it. I remember once in a documentary seeing a trio of hungry orcas work together to knock a solitary seal off a chunk of ice and feeling shaken, unable to lift my lens — that this was an act of cruelty — from what was a totally natural occurrence. (Is cruelty unnatural?)

  • Foxes are largely monogamous. They grin when afraid. They have a five-octave vocal range.

  • One of the first episodes of Radiolab that blew me away was this one about a Russian geneticist who studied animal domestication by selectively breeding foxes. Generation after generation, simply after selection for friendliness, their ears got floppier. Their tails got curlier. Their faces got cuter.

  • One night as we were falling asleep, we heard the foxes calling out into the night. Strange, but not as eerie as a coyote or as shocking as an riled-up dog — a little friendlier, maybe, but still wild. “Do you hear that?” M. asked. “Five-octave range,” I whispered.

May you be clever this week! Probably only one perfect song to go out on, now, in my opinion: