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What does the fox say?

Perhaps this has happened to you. Late one night you hear the ungodly scream of what sounded like a raven possessed by a demon. So haunting was the sound that it roused you from your bed, heart thudding and palms slick, wondering, what the hell WAS that? Has someone been murdered? Should I call for help?

Creative Commons photo

Creative Commons photo

Yet you hesitate. There’s something wild about it. Primal. The sound is not quite right for a human. After much internal debate you head back to your bed, and return to an unsettled sleep. In the black of night you would never suspect that a tiny red fox made this terrifying sound.

It’s true. I invite you to Google it. Like their coyote and wolf cousins, foxes use different sounds to communicate. Their alarm call, also called a warning call, has been likened to a woman screaming. They also bark, a sound that some describe as high-pitched yipping, while others confuse it with owl hoots. In one study, red foxes were recorded making 20 different sounds. What does the fox say? Apparently a lot of things that, well, sound like other things.

What are your chances of hearing one? First you have to know what you’re listening for, but it also depends on how many are around. Every year there are a few sightings around town, according to Mark Bradley, Jasper National Park’s wildlife biologist. Although seen, “foxes don’t get into much trouble around here,” he said, meaning that unlike other predators, interactions with humans rarely lead to conflict. As the cliché goes, they are sly and can pretty easily avoid detection when they want to.

Bradley said there are no good estimates of how many foxes are in the park. In other places, the number of small mammals, like rodents, generally determines their populations, according to Bradley. For such a small animal, they can eat a lot of them. Bradley observed this first hand when he spent an hour watching a fox tossing back mice in a wet meadow on Maligne Lake Road.

Fox populations may also be influenced by the presence of other predators. For example, sometimes coyotes kill foxes. Prior to wolves being introduced to Yellowstone National Park, there were more coyotes than there are now, and more small mammals because coyotes killed so many of the foxes that fed on them. When the wolves were introduced, coyote numbers went down, and fox numbers went up. It’s dog eat dog in the world of dogs.

Despite having to be wary of the big dogs, foxes are just as smart and very adaptable. Though they love the small mammal buffet, they are omnivores and can eat almost anything, making them able to exploit a massive range across the continent.

“They are amazing in that they live in almost tropical conditions in the southern states, and up to 1,000 miles north of the trees where it’s 40 below,” said Bradley, who’s seen them during time spent in Glacier Bay, Alaska.

I have lived in Jasper for a good chunk of my life, and have only seen a fox three times. One encounter happened a couple of summers ago as I was coming home just after dark on my bike. As I road past the Mountain View Co-op houses adjacent to the RCMP barracks, a little grey-morph red fox popped out on the road beside me. At first I thought it was a cat because it was about the same size. It ran along beside me for about three blocks, like a dog I had trained as a biking buddy. Then, after giving me a quick side-eye, it trotted back into the trees, without making a sound.

Niki Wilson
Special to the Fitzhugh

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