Here was a good-sized red fox, traditionally wise to the value of energy
conservation, frittering away precious
calories in the perfectly pointless act,
even in practical human terms, of
climbing a mountain.
For two miles and a couple of thousand feet in elevation gain I followed
the perfect line of prints, the placement of which was as measured as a
sewing machine’s stitches. The impression of each hind foot landed entirely
within the outline of each front foot on
the same side, a process trackers call
“direct registration.” Foxes and other
wild hunters do this as an economy,
the front foot prepacking the snow
for the hind. Repeated thousands of
times on a winter prowl, this small savings in energy can mean the difference
between surviving or not.
There were coyotes in these woods, I
knew, and a young coyote in December
can have a step length and print-size
that overlap that of the smaller fox. But
a coyote is a big animal with small feet
while a fox is a small animal with big
feet. In the same conditions the fox’s prints will look delicate
compared to the robust impressions of a coyote. The pad outlines, too, said red fox, for these canids have fur-covered feet at
all seasons, a useful vestige of their boreal heritage. In dry, loose
snow this results in a diffuse track compared to the distinct
impression of a coyote’s naked pads.
For over an hour I followed the neat trail with its nearly
perfect 14-inch step lengths and a straddle so narrow that the
prints were arranged in a nearly straight line. I had certainly to
grant the animal grace. The careless romping of a dog liberated
from the monotony of the house leaves a coarse, haphazard trail.
It can afford such carelessness since a can of Alpo and a hearth
await it at the end of the day. All right, I had to give the fox dignity, even elegance perhaps, but intelligence?
As I hiked, I found the thin layer of fresh snow punctuated by
the trapezoidal bounding patterns of white-footed mice that had
crossed the trail back and forth from one hole to another.
Was it stupidity that I was witnessing, after the fact, that the
fox didn’t investigate each one as he came upon it? Instead, its
measured stride never varied, not even an “indirect registra-
tion” to one side to suggest a turn of the head in the direction
of a potential meal. Perhaps the revisionists were right: this was
either stupidity or blindness. The unvarying perfection of its
trail might have been the hobgoblin of a little mind, indeed. I
began making mental excuses for this most beautiful species
of wild canid. Perhaps this particular animal had, in fact, poor
eyesight. Or wits. There must be half-witted foxes. Foxes...half-
witted...foxes.... My own phrases were repeating themselves
like a chant; the monotonous effort
of the climb was making my mind
whirr unmeshed. But stupid wild ani-
mals with poor senses don’t survive, I
insisted through the mental fog. And
here clearly was an adult with, by its
size and the sobriety in its trail, at least
a year of success behind it.
Occasionally, the animal would
leave the trail at an angle, usually
to give a quick sniff to a pillow of
windthrow that might hide a rodent
or hare, but then it angled back out to
the trail without so much as disturbing
any of the fresh snow on the branches
to discover if there was something
under the pile. How does such an ani-
mal live? By luck? If so, in these tem-
peratures it had better get lucky soon.
Finally, three-quarters of the way to
the top of the shoulder of the mountain the tracks stopped dead. The animal’s trail then led off to the left for
a few yards and ended in a patch of
Another yard ahead, angling back
toward the trail, showed some blood
and the gut sack of a small animal, neatly excised and left on
the snow. I poked at it with my glove; the entrails had frozen
solid in the morning cold. I had seen this sort of surgery before
by foxes and had always marveled at how an animal without
hands could manage it, like peeling a grape with your teeth and
elbows. Canids can barely articulate their toes and so their digits
would seem to be useless for any task more delicate than digging
out rodents. This rigidity shows in the lovely symmetry of the
fox’s track, with no mobile toes adjusting to the surface from
step to step as with a cat or a weasel. But to my frustration, such
symmetry conceals the workings of the heart, as beauty will.
One track alone is remarkably cryptic; at least a whole pattern of
them, if not a lengthy trail, is needed to imagine more accurately
what it was experiencing. I felt fortunate, then, to have a couple
of miles of continuous trail in good condition in which to read
this animal’s mind.
I felt better about my fox now. Here, in the snow before me,
was success at least, if not intelligence. But how had it been
achieved and why here, after the animal had ignored so many
possibilities lower on the mountain? I inspected the footprints
to the kill site closely. After the fox had stopped on the hiking
trail, it moved toward the prey with the tiny steps of a caution
that testified to the urgency of its need. First it had moved a little
to the left and then back and to the right. There was no mark
of its brush, nor were the tracks elongated to show any part of
the animal’s heel – it was not crouched to take advantage of the
pillows and undulations of the snow between it and its quarry.
Instead, the animal appeared to have been moving upright.
Deer mouse tracks – with no sign of a fox in pursuit.