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Levin: Foxes in spring

04/10/09 7:55AM By Ted Levin
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(HOST) Signs of spring can include sounds and smells - as naturalist and commentator Ted Levin reminds us.

(LEVIN) I first heard the fox call on a dark February night. It was one of those rare midwinter nights when the sky was clear and the temperature above freezing. A
short run of yips and barks carried up the valley to my porch from the darkness of the woods beyond the wetland. It was my first audible sign of spring, as flush with urgency as a chorus of wood frogs.
    
All winter the fox slept in the tall grasses west of the marsh, head to the wind so his long outer fur - rust-colored and silky - stayed still. Beneath those long protective hairs a wrap of dense under-wool held a warm envelope of air. Once aroused, the fox wandered into the night, marking the snow and a cattail stalk, running a fox version of a classified ad announcing both his presence and his desire.
   
Fox urine has a faintly skunklike smell, and it's used like a semiprecious fluid - a few drops here, a few drops there - the pungent odor clings to stems and stumps until washed away. If it's fresh, I can smell it without bending down. But if it's old, I'm out of luck. Four weeks before the equinox, as testosterone coursed through the fox's body, he sought company, attempting to attract a mate by leaving his scent everywhere.
   
He crossed the wetland and headed through the woods, south down the valley, pausing only to mark the snow. In the woods the snow was deeper and travel slower, so the fox plowed instead of padded, his long, fluffy tail dusting the surface. He caught the scent of a vixen that had followed the brook up hill. His pace quickened. Alongside a fallen maple, the vixen had left her own mark. His nose told him that she, too, was ready to breed.
   
By early morning he had crossed the brook at the lower end of our valley, nearly a mile from the wetland. A single set of tracks marked the snow. The female's scent grew fresher, almost over powering. A long line of prints snaked through woods alongside the brook. At the end sat the vixen. Beneath the vaulted February sky, now flush with the rising sun, the two red foxes came together.
   
Then, just the other day, I saw the fox in the beam of my headlights as he crossed the road, his yellow eyes aflame. He carried a grouse in his mouth, whose wings hung down like a party mask, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the fox's gait. Somewhere in the woods snug in an earthen den, the vixen and her tiny kits, blind and deaf, waited.
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