Near Fennville, Arnold and his co-operators carried out a field study which showed that, over winter, local foxes were getting away with 44 pheasants per square mile! That figure isn't gladsome news under any circumstances; but out of context it could really set off the alarm. Some further figures are significant:
This farmland near Fennville is a state game refuge, and it has long been a winter concentration area for pheasants. Census figures showed that the food-rich fields were boarding 268 ringnecks to the square mile. The fox haul amounted to 16.8% of this nonhunted population.
That's quite a few, but not cataclysmic. It should be added that this ringneck winter resort is surrounded by sandy "oak grubs" and river bottoms that are fine fox country. In all of Michigan you probably wouldn't find a combination where Reynard has a better chance to massacre the pheasant.
A report on this exceptional situation could be sensational. But state averages give a different picture.
During the past two winters, field men in southern Michigan tracked foxes on snow for a total of 763 miles. In this distance foxes killed 293 known prey items, including 45 cottontails, 23 pheasants and 7 quail. The calculated winter kill of ringnecks by foxes in this part of the state was 1.66 birds out of a post-hunting average of 64 to the square mile. Michigan had an excellent pheasant season this year.
The sources of Reynard's protein are known from many a report of the past quarter century. A food study by Errington in the late '30s showed the usual thing: the mainstay of Iowa foxes was small, four-footed prey such as mice and rabbits. Birds and poultry were side-line items, with pressure on pheasants and quail increasing for a spell in early spring. Foxes picked up nearly anything dead on the highway; and this sort of complication is one reason why research men have long been cautious about using stomach and "scat" analyses not tied directly to field work.
Of all game animals, the rabbit takes the biggest beating from Reynard. Dave Arnold's Michigan work indicated that the average winter kill by foxes was 16.2 per square mile, which was calculated to be 6.6% of the rabbits left after the hunting season. It sounds high, but rabbit breeding and survival certainly allow for such losses. It's known that in good range you can shoot 60% of your fall rabbits, although we seldom come near it.
DISEASE TAKES OVER
Game men are acutely aware that the fox and coon, in particular, are too plentiful for their own health and welfare, not to mention the weal of mankind. It's the history of such conditions that disease will take over?and it has, but not to the extent we expected. Among the carnivores, virus afflictions like distemper, rabies, and encephalitis are the usual thing. You can practically bet on mange. There were disease outbreaks among foxes as early as 1945, and you hear of new ones all the time; but Reynard hangs on, frequently mangy and ailing, at too high a level. If there were a workable and economic way to cut his numbers back, few people would object. Certainly not the biologist; and the fox hunter prefers to run vigorous, clean-coated animals.