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A LITERARY DISCOVERY
The editors of SI proudly present the first in a series of hereto unpublished essays by one of the great American naturalists of the 20th century
There were four veteran fox hunters and some young hopefuls in my native New England town when I was a small boy. From the veterans I learned—at times by overhearing their talk at the village store, more often by following at a discreet distance when they went afield—that they loved hounds above all other animals, and that in their ears the clamor of a pack in full cry was the sweetest of music. They hunted the red fox exclusively, the pestiferous gray not having yet appeared in our locality; but their pleasure in the chase was more than merely harking to hound melody. When on tired legs they turned homeward in the brief winter twilight, every one of them, even the sorefooted hounds, felt much better if the brush of a fox floated like a banner from a pocket of the old shooting jacket.
Long before I was considered old enough to enter the fox-hunter clan, I had learned a little of fox ways by watching the cubs play around their den and by trailing many a grown fox in the snow to find out what game he ate and how he caught it. One of my small-boy discoveries was that a fox, after hunting all night long, usually returns in the dawnlight to rest or sleep near the den where he was born. All red fox cubs desert the den in early summer, when they begin to follow the vixen afield, and I have never known one to enter it again, not even when chased by dogs. In the autumn they scatter to hunt by and for themselves; but for some reason (by force or early habit, possibly) they spend the daylight hours in a place that is associated in their minds with the feeling of home and safety.
Remembering this early lesson when at last my turn came to hunt, I kept the hounds in leash, or trained them to follow at heel, until we were near a recently used den, instead of letting them waste the better part of a frosty morning by roaming at random or by puzzling out a cold trail. Often it happened that they jumped the fox in a few minutes after they were turned loose.
One lucky day while trailing a male or dog fox (you may be sure of that last because he cocks a leg like any proper dog or wolf), a gleam of ruddy color caught my eye, and there was my fox, curled up in his day bed. Unlike bears, that hide away in thick cover, or gray foxes, that often den up for the day, a red fox habitually sleeps where he has a clear outlook on every side. This one lay on a granite ledge from which the sun and his own body heat had melted the snow. He was just a formless mat of fur, golden bright, like a gorgeous cock pheasant half hidden in a white nest. After watching him a while I pursed lips to squeak like a woodmouse, his favorite dainty in the way of food. At the first skeek-skeek up came his head, its black nose, yellow eyes and furry ears pointing straight at me.
Since then I have occasionally gone fox hunting with a .22 rifle when a holiday and a tracking snow lured me into the winter woods. This new kind of sport, be assured, is quite as thrilling as the stalking of any other wary game. If you hit the trail of a fox near the beginning of his nightly hunt, you have a long day ahead; for he travels far, and what reward you bring home will be hidden where a fisherman carries his best catch, not in his creel but in his heart. If luckily you hit the trail where the fox turned with full stomach toward his day bed, what you then bring home will depend on how carefully you stalk and how straight you shoot.
By way of friendly warning let me add: never follow directly in the tracks of game, but keep well to the leeward or downwind side. A sleeping fox, like a sleeping deer, watches his back trail, knowing by instinct or experience that an enemy may follow it. And if you would make your squeak very mouselike, press two fingers against your lips and pull your breath in sharply between them. This call seems to be magical to a fox, even to one that is gorged with food.
One summer day I left my tent on the Castor River in Newfoundland to carry some letters to the nearest port of call. On the bank of a nameless little river I was searching for a place to ford or to jump when a motion that was not of the wind froze me in my tracks. Across an opening on the other side drifted a head that looked foxy, and I gave the mouse call. Bushes quivered as if a great snake was crawling through them. They opened silently; and there, hardly five yards away, stood a fox with raised head—a black fox, with every hair of his king fur tipped with frosty white. He was one of the only two silver foxes I have ever seen in the wild. He had answered my call not because he was hungry, I think, but because he had seen a man for the first time and was as inquisitive as are all his kind.
Years later, on a winter outing in the Ontario wilderness, I camped near a ridge that for ages past had been a denning place for foxes. One evening I wound up an alarm clock, found in a ranger cabin, and covered it with fir boughs beside a runway. Next morning there was a ring of tracks around the clock, with depressions that told where two or three foxes had sat down to watch and listen. Evidently the tick-tock was a new sound in that vast solitude, and they wanted to know what it meant.