The Foxes Are Back!

Dave saw them first and was so excited he stuttered a little.  Foxes “Two…two f-f-foxes just r-r-ran into the ravine!”

I was too slow that time, but just a couple minutes later, he said, “They’re crossing that big log! Come quick!”

That time I made it to the dining room window in time to spot the two white-tipped bushy tails as they chased up and down the far side of the ravine. They looked like they were playing.

“They must be yearlings,” I said.

“No,” Dave answered, “They’re full grown, just small.”

We haven’t seen foxes in a few years now. The first spring we lived here on the ravine, two mamas had two bunches of little ones. We loved watching them play and grow. And then they were gone. Maybe it was the mange that ran through the skulk, or maybe it was Grandpa clearing brush from the banks of the big ditch. We miss them.

Like my friend Maybelle, I think fox sightings are a sign. I’m going to say that seeing two foxes running through the back yard and down into the ravine is an omen of good to come in this new year.

2017 was a rough year. I thought it was better not to even attempt resolutions because, at The Compound, not only do they not come when you build it, but they don’t cooperate when you plan it too well.

Sounds like Maybelle is a bit weary of resolutions, too, and Maybelle definitely doesn’t want to be a bada**.  Check her out.  Maybelle says she plans to do the best she can. I can’t fault her for that. In fact, I think I’ll follow her lead.

Maybelle, guess what! We saw foxes in the ravine again. We saw two of them; one for you, and one for me. Happy New Year, Everybody!

Always We Begin Again–Happy 2014

I jumped from my chair when something hit the window beside my desk. A cardinal…on the pavement of the patio. And as quickly as my feet brushed the floor, a Cooper’s hawk snagged the wounded redbird and took to the sky. I breathed jagged ins and outs. My heart sped.
 GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

“This is nature,” I told myself. But it’s the piece of nature that I do not love. It’s been several days now, and I still semi-shudder at the thought of that few seconds.
GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

I have watched the hawks swoop upon the back yard for months. What I expected was that one of the doves who gleans the leavings from the feeders would be swept away, one of these birds that my bird-hunting Uncle Hugh Lee would never fire upon. “The dove is the Bird of Peace,” he said. “You don’t kill a Bird of Peace.”

The first year on the ravine, we installed birdfeeders to mimic the layout of the yard at our former home. When our expected yellow finches did not arrive, we changed the seed and the feeders, and greedy blackbirds descended in flocks. We learned that blackbirds do not like safflower seeds, but everybody else does, so we changed the menu again and welcomed cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, purple finches, and all the common varieties of wrens and sparrows. Doves gathered under the feeders to clean up. For three years, we had Lonesome. Who knows what happened to his partner, maybe a hawk. And now, who knows what happened to Lonesome. The doves now congregate in even numbers.

So much of our life here has been tied to the animals. The first two years, there was the skulk of foxes in the ravine. Lots of foxes, including two litters of pups, three in one and five in the other. One of the yearlings nested under the ramp to the porch on the side of the house, always taking leave before the humans might interfere. We watched them dig for moles and bury food for future meals.They caught pieces of hotdogs in mid-air that the neighbor tossed to them in the summer dusk. We noticed that, while they were off the ground, they were snapping up fireflies. When we returned to The Compound following some evening outing, the headlights caught the eyes of little heads peeking up over the ravine banks. It seemed that they’d been waiting up for us.

The raccoons showed themselves almost immediately. There were three kits that trailed after a waddly-wooly mama when she came to the yard to scout for food leavings, and then a hulking old fellow, biggest raccoon I’d ever seen, completely silver, that we did not see again after that first year. One evening, Dave and I watched a raccoon scale one of the tall trees, probably fifty feet, to rest in a crook between two of the top branches. We figured he was a young one.

The feral calico cat came the first year. We are such creative and original thinkers that we named her Kitty. We watched her stand off a fox one afternoon between our yard and the neighbor’s. She crouched to the ground and backed the vixen up with a threatening feline crawl, until the foxy lady acknowledged Kitty’s superiority by turning white-tipped tail to run. Kitty and I became so close that sometimes she would allow me within fifteen feet of her, then she was gone. No, I mean really gone–for two years. One spring morning, I heard her calling for breakfast from beneath my bathroom window, sitting kitty-pretty as if we’d had tea the afternoon before. She hung around for a year after our Welcome Back and then something caught her, or caught her eye, the something probably akin to a better living arrangement.

We found companionship living on the banks of this old gulch that we call The Ravine. My eighty-something-year-old dad, Grandpa, frequented the ravine by propping a tall ladder’s base against a big tree. He said if he missed a rung on the way down, he’d just slide.
“What about the trip back up?” I asked.
“I hold on with both hands,” he said.
Grandpa dug through the tangles of brush and vine to judiciously remove the deadliest tree-chokers. We laid out something of a feeding station so that we could better watch the comings and goings of our new friends. Grandpa and Grandma keep the blinds wide open in their upstairs den so that they don’t miss the squirrels’ antics in the tall trees on the west side.

One season brought a doe and two spotted fawns. They bedded down in the across-the-street neighbors’ back yard. When Mama left, the twins stayed, mowing down roses, morning glories, and turnip greens. And then they were gone, we guessed to join the protected herd two miles away at the agricultural center.

The community of foxes scattered. After a few weeks, we saw sarcoptic mange on the few young males remaining. It’s the same mange that dogs get. We read up on the disease, especially in foxes, and bought injectible Ivermectin to shoot into treats. It was a long shot, according to all the literature, but we tried to save them.

Once the foxes were gone, rabbits appeared. One little bunny hopped around on the porch just in time for Easter.

Last spring, we watched a fat old mama raccoon stagger across the back yard at 6:00 A.M. like a drunk coming off an all-nighter. She climbed the steps to Grandpa and Grandma’s apartment, hopped onto the rail nearest the wall, shinnied up the porch column, and disappeared. We’d suspected squirrels in their attic space and had already called a carpenter to further seal in the eaves on the porch. We never thought about a nesting raccoon. Before Trevor, our construction guy, finished the work that might seal a creature in, he toured the attic space and pronounced it empty–and very clean.

Groundhogs greeted us early on, without damage, until they discovered just how good Grandpa’s produce tastes at its youngest and most tender. He named them, set live traps, and somebody (Dave or daughter-in-law Vicky, that tiny little hoss of a woman) hauled them, one by one–Fatso, Big Boy, Chubby, and all the others–to the spacious agricultural center property. All reports indicate that they hunkered down and belly-scrambled to the care and prosperity of the burgeoning Ag Center Clan. But last year, new-to-the-compound Gordo foiled us all, despite numerous attempts to move him to a better neighborhood for groundhogs. In late fall, neighbors sighted Gordo pinned to the ground by a coyote in their back yard, but we expect him back.  The neighbor showered the coyote with a hail of BB’s and when the tormenter loosened his grip, the un-injured Gordo made fast to the safety of the ravine. In April or May, we’ll all be complaining about the havoc among the gardens, both flower and vegetable. Gordo adores morning glories and cosmos, squash and Blue Lake bunch beans.

The intersection of human animals and their less domesticated relatives in the kingdom is a delicate point of balance. Every movement by either man or beast, any aid from the higher-ups in the food chain, and any modification made to the combined home turf informs and directs change for each individual. The great naturalist John Muir said it best, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

We feed the songbirds, and a hawk makes dinner of the prettiest one. We clear the vines that threaten to deaden the trees that anchor and define the ravine, and the vixens label us as too familiar. We feed the raccoons to deter them from the garbage cans, and they take up residence in the attic of the apartment. We seal them out and put them back in their place, the place we invited them from when we first fed them.

We continually re-evaluate our relationships to these animals, some who gathered here before someone thought of building brick ranch-style homes alone this great ditch, and others because someone did.

The thermometer read 12 degrees this morning–in the sun. The purple finches and chickadees flitted and darted between the almost-empty feeders. The doves, in their puffiest winter coats, gleaned whatever spill they could find.
GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

The supremely beautiful cardinals, male and female, orange beaks shining, took turns with the remaining small pieces of bread Grandma and Grandpa tossed from their balcony porch yesterday. The usually-present squirrels stayed in their warm beds. After I finished my third cup of coffee, I layered up to fill the feeders, and when I came back inside to the warmth of The Cellar, I ordered another fifty pound bag of safflower seed.

 

Maybe the coyote was just passing through. Maybe a family of foxes will birth babies here again. Maybe the hawk sightings will be fewer. Maybe Kitty will return for a twelve-month stint. Maybe Gordo will decide he really doesn’t like morning glories, after all.

Happy New Year~from all of us here On the Ravine.


GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Dreaming of Foxes

The first post I saw from my newest Facebook friend went something like this—Actually, it went exactly like this:  I know other people’s dreams are boring, but this one vexed (vixed) me. I was out at night, talking to a guy who had a dog with him. I felt what I thought was the dog nuzzle my leg, so I reached down and scratched under its chin. When I looked down, it was a fox.

“I could tell him where it came from,” I said to myself, “but who asked me?”

Kevin certainly did not ask. In fact, I wasn’t even sure we wanted to be FB friends, much less delve into a discussion of dreams. I friended Kevin based on a friend’s link for a subscription to a college literary magazine. His name was on the magazine’s Facebook page and it was the one I recognized. I’ve meant to subscribe for several months now.

But about that dream… Let’s see, what would I say to Kevin about it—if I said, I mean?

“Kevin,” I would ask, “Remember when you guys holed up at our place for the Southern Festival of Books? Did we ever talk about our foxes?”

We have foxes here on the ravine. We saw two young foxes the first week after we had moved in October, 2009. They seemed to be everywhere on our street but we most often saw them heading either into, or out of, the ravine in our back yard. There were two points of entry, one on the southwest side of Mom and Dad’s apartment and another across the courtyard on the north side of the property, where we’re cultivating a big flower garden.

Last year, the foxes loved the garden. They are expert mole-catchers. They even dig up grubs, the mole’s primary diet. One night in June, we watched several of the foxes leap into the air to catch fireflies lighting up the purple coneflowers, irises and roses.

Kevin and a few of his friends staff a literary magazine, The Pinch, at the University of Memphis. Five of them slept over in various places here in The Compound during the Southern Festival of Books in October, 2010. Kevin slept in Dad’s library. He had to walk across the courtyard to join his friends in The Cellar, for food and drink.

“Kevin, did you know that there was a fox den not fifty feet from where you slept? Oh yeah, right there on the edge of the ravine, a rocky hole big enough to house a mama – right, a vixen!—and five babies. Kits. Or pups. Let’s see, Kevin, you were here in October, 2010. The youngest in the skulk would have been over seven months old at that time.”

There were eight of those babies born in March. According to naturalists’ reports, they’re “naked” when they’re born and don’t leave the den until they’re about four weeks old.
We first saw five little balls of grey fur romping around a small trailer in the neighbor’s back yard, just on the edge of the ravine. It was April 10. It seemed that Mama had brought them out to play in the sunny spot closest to the ravine. Better to be able to make a quick retreat to the den.

A week later, we counted eight babies on one of the play-dates. Three of them seemed a bit smaller. Sometimes the little ones were supervised by two adults, sometimes more. Sometimes it appeared that one mother was watching the whole lot. Maybe the other was taking a much-needed nap. After all, fox babies are like puppies. They’re exuberant, rowdy, pesky.

The mamas disciplined the octet with barks and an occasional slap when a playful pup nipped at mama’s face one time too many. More often than not, the offending youngster bounded off to pounce on a brother or sister or cousin. They played hard until the vixen-in-charge herded them into a ball and sent them marching down to the den in a quick, straight line.

We also became acquainted with the raccoons. One of the regular visitors must have been fifty pounds and twenty-five years old. Raccoons usually weigh about twenty-five pounds and half as long. This one was silver grey and as wide as the doorway into the neighbor’s garden shed. I say “was” because we haven’t seen this old fellow for several months now.

By the time Kevin and his friends were here, we had already begun to treat the local fox population for sarcoptic mange, a common malady in red foxes. The farm supply stores sell injectable Ivermectin for pigs, cows, and horses. It’s a liquid of the same chemical makeup as that stuff we all give our dogs to prevent heartworms. You don’t inject the fox. You inject the fox’s food. What an impossible image that conjures up, giving a fox a shot!

By the time The Pinch people were here, we saw foxes much less frequently than we did during the summer. The males would have left the territory to find adult homes. It seems the daddy runs them off. The vixens would have stayed longer, but not too much. The females hang around to help out a bit and then they’re off, too. In mid-October, 2010, we figured we were feeding and treating three foxes.

By January, we weren’t sure that there was more than one lone fox in the territory. Then there was a big snow and the tracks said that two foxes walked side-by-side across the back yard, along the ravine bank, through the corner garden and back across the yard toward the old den. They stopped to frolic underneath the window of Dad’s library.

December to March is mating season. Maybe we’ll have some spring babies. We hope the $40 bottle of medicine saved at least a couple of our skulk. When we realized that we hadn’t seen the raccoons for months, we hoped we hadn’t killed the rascals with the Ivermectin meant for the red foxes. There is such a thing as an overdose, even though raccoons are also treated for worms and mange with the same drug.

And all of this fox-tale leads back to the night that Kevin dreamed of a fox. We drove into The Compound after dark that Sunday evening and stopped to let the old folks out at the garage of their apartment. Dave started to open the passenger door. He would need to open van doors and turn on lights downstairs so that Mom and Dad could safely make their way to the lift in Dad’s library.

I stopped Dave with my hand on his forearm.

“Look,” I said quietly, “There’s a fox in the garden.”

He (could be a “she”) trotted down the ravine bank.

“Did you see him?” I asked.

“I just saw his tail,” Dave said.

“Wait,” I whispered, “There’s another. No, wait, it’s not a fox. It’s a raccoon.”

“Yep, it is a raccoon. I guess they’re not gone after all,” Dave said, and then grinned. “I’ll just go through the basement. Go ahead and park.”

We met in the den upstairs just a few minutes later.

“Well, I’m glad we didn’t kill those raccoons. If we don’t have fox babies, maybe we’ll have raccoon babies,” I said.

“I sure hope the foxes have some babies,” Dave said. “Wasn’t it fun to watch them?”

Today, I treated a pan of cooked chicken parts, bread soaked in broth, and leftover pork stew and set it outside, just in case a fox trotted in for the afternoon. I saved an equal amount of the same tastiness for after dark.

Right after lunch, the wary little creature showed up to eat. Dave called to me from the kitchen window and I ran to get the binoculars. Mr. Fox is skinny, but not decimated. He has some bare spots, but it looks like the coat is replenishing. He seemed overly cautious, even for a fox, but he kept returning to the pan until it was empty. Then he came back again and again to lick the pan clean.

“Kevin,” I would ask, “Do you get it?”

I felt what I thought was the dog nuzzle my leg, so I reached down and scratched under its chin. When I looked down, it was a fox.

I’m going to send Kevin a message on Facebook.

I’m going to ask, “Did you mail my copy of The Pinch? Are you guys going to stay at The Compound again this year?”

***