Tuesday, February 6, 2024

A Fox Among the Squirrels

I do a great deal of work from my kitchen table, which is a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by.  In the mornings, the bay windows fill the room with light, and in winter, I watch as a parade of birds flutter about our feeder.  Assuming, of course, that the squirrels aren't taking over the joint.

Here in the wilds of the suburban wasteland, squirrels are a birder's nemesis.  They're resourceful, relentless, and astoundingly agile, and for much of this winter, they've hogged most of the seed we've set out for our avian visitors.  They do much the same during the growing season, particularly with my tomatoes, which they delight in plucking and partially devouring.  They'd found a way to the feeder, as they almost always do, and were knocking down large amounts of seed.  The birds were getting barely a taste.

Recently, though, we've had the aid of an ally in our battle against the Eastern Grey Squirrel.  Ours is an older and inner suburb, in which there are spaces between homes that nature fills with tall trees and brush.  It's a great habitat for foxes.  We've got at least one extended family of foxes who grace our neighborhood, trotting serenely down sidewalks, rustling through the woods, utterly composed and obviously intelligent.  I'd feel differently about them were I raising chickens, but I am not, and as a gardener, I consider them a welcome sight.

On its morning patrol through our yard, one of the foxes recently stopped to inspect our bird feeder, which was empty after another assault by the squirrels.  

He was a handsome and self-possessed creature, as healthy foxes are, and his keen sense of smell had alerted him to the regular presence of plump and well-fed prey.  He sniffed about.  He nosed about some more, then, after a pause, marked the bird feeder pole with a little spray of urine.  He did the same in several other places around the feeder, then ambled gracefully away with a typically vulpine insouciance.  

Huh, I thought, watching him.  Why do that?  That seems uncharacteristically dumb.  Sure, you've claimed your territory.  But now the whole area will smell of fox, a scent that prey animals know to avoid.  Why set off alarm bells?  Odd.

The squirrels did come back, because that's where the siren song of easy food summoned them.  There was real caution at first, as I watched them approach, then retreat from the feeder in alarm.  Fox!  Run!

But soon that caution vanished, because for a day there was no threat.  Just a false alarm.  No fox here.  They soon returned to gorging on the sunflower seed.

The next afternoon, my wife told me that there'd been a great ruckus at the feeder, a rush of red and grey fur, the panicked scream of a mortally imperiled rodent, followed by a wild crashing in a nearby bush, as she'd watched a squirrel barely escape with its life.

I realized then that the fox was smarter than I.  

Of course the fox knew what it was doing.  Foxes always know what they're doing.  It wasn't marking that spot for other foxes.  It was marking that spot for the squirrels.  It was carefully, purposefully getting the squirrels to let down their guard.  It was masking its scent by leaving its scent, not turning off the olfactory alarm that rings in a squirrel's sharp little brain, but leaving that alarm on just a little, until it became nothing more than background noise, nothing to worry about, this smell is totally normal.

Nature has so much to teach us, if only we'd pay attention.