The British, ever adroit in matters related to furry-four footed creatures (except perhaps for the English beaver that disappeared in the 1500s), report that there are forty to sixty thousand urban foxes in England. They’re everywhere. Church lawns. Looking at you from beside a wall.
And here too, especially Montreal. You might say we’ve welcomed them with open arms. The postwar demographic shift from rural to urban entirely reversed the one-third’s two-third’s dichotomy of city and country people. So it’s natural, perhaps, that fox joined this influx to our expanding urban environment.
The fox has long represented the cultural trickster, a figure that breaks the rules and catalyzes change. Popularized in legends and stories. And there’s something special in the way in which the fox is attuned to humans. They understand our boundaries and know exactly how to co-exist.
Changing habitats: Moving to the city, of course, entails adaptation. And here, the fox is simply a hands-down winner. In the bucolic state, foxes are shy of one another. They need lots of room. Their rural profile is that of a loner. But in the city, for instance at the Mt. Royal Cemetery on the south-facing slope that yields to the northern vista of the U of M, there’s a rock haven one might call a fox hotel. They’ve learned to live ‘together’. In harmony!
Two years ago at the Cemetery, I was on a bird-watching tour with about 75 people. Right where the cannons are, a mother and her very curious older cub, became a star attraction. And they weren’t fussed. They know they’re safe.
Their other amazing adaptation – and here’s where humans can take note – they regulate their populations, in town, that is. They seem to know exactly what food supply to depend (and forecast), and how to go about exploiting an environment equitably.
From pictures taken of mothers with their cubs, there’s every evidence that the young get very good parenting. That’s true of all species. A mother duck and her raft of ducklings at any public ‘venue’ like the long Sulpician meditating pool (Sherbrooke & Atwater) or at Beaver Lake (Duck Lake, shurely!) the amount of dependency the female parent allows with humans and their food handouts is fascinating to watch, especially as the migratory season approaches. The mother plays a very strong role in calling her ducklings to order, even when they have morphed over the summer into what looks like a duck football team. Like a coach she will emit a growly quack and they swim away together.
Bonjour Montréal: Railway lines extend to the core of the city, and the vast railway yards that existed until recently at the Glen Yards (Westmount) with lots of brush and wildness, and the easy accessibility to the mountain – Mt. Royal & Westmount – are like a magnet for this four-footed migratory impulse, a phenomenon that includes coyotes, and on the west island, pockets that still have marten.
More than poutine:
Mt. Royal, with its peanut-fed squirrels, many more than could ever exist on their own without tourists like Parisians coming here and saying O! l’ecureuil! (It’s so funny seeing these sophisticates in an ecstasy over our ‘wildlife’ because the City of Light has no such blandishments.)
So: easy access, places to stay, and a natural squirrel larder. One might add, no game laws, no tiresome people unloading shotguns and 22s in town.
Habits, regular: Chances are, if you see a fox, you’ll see it again at the same time and place. One recent summer I often went at daybreak to the Cemetery. At six AM the same fox crossed Camilien Houde. The same pair of cubs are gamboling around the tombstones. The same siblings enjoying a sunny snooze at their summit perch. But the circumstances have to be right. They like a warm sun just breaking over the trees after a night on the prowl. And they all have their comfort zones, as to how close you may approach.
How smart? Very smart. Exceedingly so. Two examples:
It’s easy to get locked into a pattern with the same fox or foxes. Wintertime I went cross-country skiing at Meadowbrook with my old dog. And exactly at a juncture on the back nine holes, we would see a fox returning to the hedgerow. There’s a big dumping area for garden debris, broken branches and the like, about 80 feet square and six feet high (the ice storm added a lot). I call it the Brer Rabbit Exchanger.
See fox run. See dog take after fox. Fox enters exchanger, where there is a profusion of tracks and pee and whatever, that takes the fastest sniffer hound a few moments to figure out which is the freshest track. Meanwhile the fox has already emerged at the far side and is safely headed across the next fairway, to another, even denser wood lot.
I’m cross-country skiing in the Jura. It starts to snow thick heavy flakes. Open pasture, a solitary beautiful huge spruce in the middle of the slope. Along comes a fox, it wants comfy place. Goes under tree, but the comfort zone with me in the vicinity bothers him. Takes off. I follow. It’s perfect tracking conditions, and I have some speed. Somehow, this fox makes me feel competitive.
The nimble creature leads me to a bluff with big boulders. No problem. I’m not far behind. Suddenly, it’s gone. Vanished. Aha! It has doubled back on its tracks. It must’ve walked backwards placing each paw in its matching print, because I couldn’t discern any altered trace. And then it sprang into a convenient cleft. No, I didn’t hear any laughing from its den.
: There’s something about seeing an animal in the ‘wild’, there is that moment of contact, when they drill you with their eyes (this happened to me with a puma, once, outside of Geneva), and in the case of the fox (this is no fat raccoon), you sense that upon contact, all of its sensors whirr like a mental computer, during which, and in that split second or two, it is sizing you up with total and unerring instinct. The fox will forever have you pegged, what your job is, what kind of a car you drive, how fast you can accelerate.
The killing ground: Once a pattern is established, it’s great to ‘click’ with an animal.
Wintertime. on the north face of the summit woods, there’s a gully, and several times a week during February and March, every time I went past there, this fox’s tracks that had crossed the circle road and descended from the Summit Woods. To a spot with fresh blood in the snow, a well-satisfied pee, just the leftover of a squirrel tail, and the tracks leading away again.
Last summer, I noticed what looked like a lot of blackened banana peels, and it was later I realized they were squirrels eaten by foxes, likely that in the plentiful season, they eat only ‘the steak’ as it were. And leave the skin.
Habitats: This north face is very interesting. It has what is probably the last virgin cover of oak in the downtown. At the foot of the slope is a basalt outcropping. And what used to be, the best summertime blackberries. It was a place I visited for a decade, with this old dog, and we marveled at the fox dens. A huge foxhole, the local mogul presumably at the elbow of Belvedere heading down to Côte des Neiges. Year after year, fresh mounds of earth expelled in what must’ve been housecleaning.
And we also came across two snow dens, where a fox had spent the night in an igloo-type of shelter. And I also realized, that the foxes were using our trails that we maintained on snowshoe (at great effort). Talking to a friend of mine, a biologist, whose opinion was that they’re just as lazy as anyone when it comes to getting around.
But in all those years I never saw a fox there. All the consistent signs, but no fox. Then when my dog died and I went around alone, I saw the fox one spring dusk taking a snooze lying on the snow. They’re not big. The size of furry chickens with a long tail they wrap underneath themselves for warmth. It’s comfort zone was 18 feet. Closer than that and it flashed me a desultory look, like ‘give me a break’. I went back the next day, same time same place. Same fox walking along.
Beautiful: It’s always a thrill to see wildlife. For two years running a family of partridge lived on the upper slope of Villa Maria. There were seven, and in the evening, they would congregate to roost exposed on the brow. I realized this gave them a 360-degree unimpeded view of any predators.
And most days at dusk a fox came tripping in a south-north direction across the field. It’s funny to see them scurrying, they really do have that roadrunner padded whirr of their legs. But the most breathtaking, was on two occasions, under a blue sky in February on garbage pickup day on Sunnyside (la crème de Westmount), I chanced upon a fox, as saucy a creature if ever there was. And it’s coat in the snow and sunshine, was of a Vermeer chalky vermillion that dazzled my eyes.
Conclusion: The adaptation of the foxes to an urban environment is inspiring. There’s a sense that these animals are a perfection of nature, they find a balance that is intrinsic to the process of coexisting.
Not inspiring, is the loss of free passage between natural habitats in places as for instance in the upper slope of Villa Maria school, and Marianopolis, institutions that have gone ‘fence crazy’ insofar as the access is now choked in a chain-link prison. No easy fox ‘holes’ to let them through.
So if you see a fox in town, by the floral town clock or checking out your back yard, it’s probably a good thing. They are an addition, welcome I believe, to our ecosystem.