By Kenny Salwey
A feature story from
Big River Magazine
By Kenny Salwey
Slow and steady, like a gray shadow, the vixen gray fox climbed a white oak tree that leaned slightly downhill deep in the steep deciduous forest. Gray went up the tree about 30 feet, and then she stopped where two big limbs and the huge trunk formed a sort of basket. She had packed leaves in the basket. It looked like a giant squirrel’s nest. She curled up in her nest. From here she could see, hear and smell everything happening around her, pretty much safe from predators or all kinds.
It was the tag end of November. The fallen leaves made a thick carpet on the forest floor. Brother Sun played peek-a-boo from behind steel gray clouds.
When the sun found a little time, he shone down on Gray in her nest. Her three-foot-long body, from nose tip to tail tip, weighed maybe 10 pounds. She was in good shape from a summer and fall diet of insects, wild grapes, elderberries, acorns and small birds.
Her coat ruffled in the crisp breeze and showed its true colors: gray and black on the upper part, and reddish-brown on the sides of her neck, legs, feet, sides of her belly and back of her ears. Her erect ears were black-tipped along with her bushy tail, which also has a black band running down the center. Her cheeks, throat, inside of the ears and belly were white. She is very colorful and beautiful to be called simply a gray fox.
Red foxes are a more common species and do not climb trees.
When Gray came down from her resting tree, she put her nose to the wind. There was a hint of snow in the air. She set off with a sense of urgency to hunt for mice and voles in an abandoned field nearby.
That night the first snow of winter drifted down through the naked treetops. For the next several months, as the snow deepened, life was about survival. She fed on rodents, now and then a squirrel or a cottontail rabbit, and several times she found a gut pile left by deer hunters.
As February turned to March, Gray felt a yearning deep inside. Lately she had caught the scent of a male gray fox in her area. Now she must find him, and a couple of days later she did. They mated and stayed together for about a week. Then, as was their habit, they parted ways till next year.
With the coming of spring, life became easier for Gray. Food became plentiful. Often she would go to her resting tree to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the gentle south breezes. It was a time of leisure.
After about 50 days, Gray felt the pangs of birthing. She went to her natal den, which had served her well in past years. It was located under a sandstone outcrop. The hole was worn smooth and deep. She set about to line it with grass, leaves and shredded bark.
A few days later she gave birth to three blind, naked pups. After she licked them dry she nursed them. Each day she had to leave the den to hunt for food. The nursing pups took much energy from her. In a couple weeks the pups had sprouted fuzzy fur and their eyes had opened.
By the time spring began to turn to summer, the pups were weaned. Now Gray spent much of her time hunting. When she caught a large meal, like a rabbit, she took it back to the den and tore it to pieces so the pups could share. And, she made sure they did.
On sunny, warm days she would lie nearby, while the pups frolicked and rolled and tumbled about. Their bellies were full. They were growing fast. Those were happy days for the little family.
One moonlit night, Gray was awakened by scratching and snuffling at her den entrance. One sniff filled her with fear. Coyotes! She curled up around the pups. During the rest of the night the coyotes worked at trying to get at their prey. The sandstone den, however, proved to be too hard for them to tear apart.
The rising morning sun brought relief from her night of terror. The coyotes had moved on.
In mid-August Gray was teaching her pups how and where to hunt. She also taught them how to climb certain trees. This was not a pretty sight! They looked like cub bears wearing boxing gloves. Time after time they would get a short way up the trunk only to tumble back to the forest floor. However, they were not quitters — not by any means. They showed the tenacity of bulldogs and the stubbornness of mules.
By early fall they were hunting on their own and were fully-grown.
Now the circle of the seasons came around once again to late autumn. The pups had gone on, each to find their own area to live in.
The sky was a deep azure. Along the Mississippi River, fog was rising to meet the late morning sun. The sun shone down on Gray in her resting tree. It had been a good year for her. She had helped to make sure there would always be a Gray shadow in the forest. All was right in her world.
Kenny Salwey is co-author of The Last River Rat, along with J. Scott Bestul. He has written several other books and recently released Swamp Stories, a CD of stories he recorded.