Tom Lounsbury: Legendary 'Old Reynard' still alive and well

The red fox has quite a range, which covers the entire northern hemisphere. Experts describe it as being this and that, according to a set region, but in my eyes, it is the same very unique critter, whether it is found in England, for example, or locally in Michigan.

When it comes to wild critters, the red fox happens to be one of my favorites, and I have grown to recognize it as truly being “Old Reynard,” the legendary trickster, which can, at times, even have an obvious sense of humor.

Back when I began trapping as a kid, I discovered that a red fox was patrolling our farm’s orchard on a regular nighttime basis, and being a male, he would routinely mark his territory by urinating on a certain cedar fence post, which leaves a telltale “skunk-like” odor.

Although having some experience at trapping raccoons and muskrats, this was my first attempt at fox trapping, and I eagerly went about setting, and carefully covering up a leg-hold trap close to that specific cedar fence post. I could hardly wait to check it out the following morning.

Well, folks, my discovery was quite a humbling experience. According to the fresh tracks in the snow, the fox did his nightly routine of urinating on the cedar fence post, and then sensing something amiss, circled my trap location several times to assess the situation. He then kicked snow and some debris on the trap until it went off. After that, he left me a very undeniable message when he pooped directly on the trap. Obviously, messing with me wasn’t his first rodeo!

When I fortunately had the opportunity a couple days later to discuss this incident with an old trapper, I was informed that the way to “outfox” this particular trickster was to reset the same trap, and then flank it on each side a short ways away with a couple more concealed traps. The theory was that the clever fox would enjoy duplicating the process of circling and then setting off the trap. Yep, it worked, and even though the fox managed to set off two of the traps, the third one got him.

A passion of mine since childhood is tracking wild critters in a freshly fallen snow, which began first with cottontail rabbits, and that is how I bagged my first rabbit. This would soon lead to tracking down a red fox (I refer to it as “walking up” a fox), which can be quite a challenge, and you can learn quite a bit about a critter when you track it.

Fox do a lot of nocturnal hunting and typically rest up during most of the day, and usually do so from a high vantage point, such as on top of a rock pile or brush pile. I’ve been able to successfully stalk into a range of napping foxes when I’ve been able to spot them while I’m tracking, but it isn’t easy because they have their backs to the wind and seem to always have one eye open.

If they realize you are tracking them, the fun really begins, especially for the fox! I have seen them fishhook around and calmly watch me go by, sometimes quite close, and then head back in the opposite direction. They can keep doing this until you decide to quit, but I do enjoy the game we are playing. My goal is to eventually jump the fox and hopefully accomplish a shot, which is usually at a fast-moving target when it happens.

My armament varies for this particular pastime, and is often a .22 rimfire rifle, which will readily handle matters. Another favorite is a light-to-carry-and-to-handle 20-gauge shotgun stoked with number 3 buckshot. Shots in this type of environment are usually up close and personal.

One particular red fox I tracked was a true wizard to match wits with, and it never left its range, which was basically only one square mile. The fox did the frequent fishhooks, yet I remained doggedly persistent, and sometimes we crossed some tracks in the snow we had just previously made. Finally, the fox tracks went to a plowed field and abruptly disappeared, which left me puzzled for a bit.

Although the plowed field was snow-covered, there was a steady supply of exposed clumps of earth protruding up, and I eventually spotted soil debris sprinkled on the snow and recognized the distinct pad print of a fox on the top of the sun-softened soil. The fox had obviously figured out that I was visually following its tracks and tried to disguise matters.  I was then able to continue my tracking efforts by the slight soil debris being left on the snow.

I have always disliked the term “dumb animal” because I don’t believe there is such a thing, especially in regards to a red fox. Right after I made it across the plowed field, I jumped that fox and managed a snapshot, and missed, as he was leaping over a fence row.

I can state for a fact, folks, that a fox which has just been shot at and missed, can cover ground at an amazing amount of speed. Old Reynard sure won that contest, and I had a feeling he enjoyed the entire event as much as I did, especially when I missed!

When coyotes first started to become quite prevalent in my home Thumb area almost four decades ago, I became a bit concerned about the local red fox population, because coyotes and red foxes don’t cohabitate a set area well. It is known as “interspecific competition,” when different species compete for the same food sources.

A prime example of this is when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, and once reestablished, the wolves began to systematically annihilate or drive out the coyotes, which had become quite prevalent in the park. In turn, coyotes will do the same thing to red foxes when they move in. The end result is that the red foxes can move to another territory, or die. That might be a blunt way of putting matters, but it is what it is in the real world.

I personally look upon the coyote moving into the Thumb area as being an interloper of sorts, and I was quite dismayed when I discovered coyote tracks regularly on my farm and the red fox tracks immediately began disappearing. And that would be the case for several years until recently. Last year, I started noticing the presence of red foxes again on my farm, much to my delight.

During the 2021 deer season, my son Jake observed a very large, deep rusty-red fox (obviously a male) travelling by the deer-hunting stand at daybreak, was soon followed by a smaller, blonde-colored fox (obviously the female) carrying a dead hen pheasant in its jaws. Jake obviously witnessed a mated pair which were hunting together in our neighborhood.

Coyotes are definitely still around, but territories can change for whatever reason. Maybe coyote numbers are locally down a bit, because I’ve been getting quite a few red fox sighting reports. One is from a farmer I know, whose wife raises Muscovy ducks, and recently the ducks normally roaming about near a pond began noticeably disappearing, one by one.

The farmer, also being an avid trapper, soon resolved the issue when he trapped a pair of red foxes near his outbuildings. When it comes to easy-to-obtain and delicious poultry, Old Reynard has never been a saint!

I will never forget a snowy December pheasant hunt on my farm with friends and our dogs. We had moved through a field, and pheasants we had flushed ahead of us out of range (or that were missed) circled around and landed well behind us. Later, when we hunted through that area, I discovered quite a story by reading the tracks in the new snow.

A large red fox had been shadowing and flanking our movements, and had been ready and waiting, a ways back, when flushed pheasants came soaring in and landing nearby. According to the tracks, feathers, and fresh blood on the snow, an unlucky rooster pheasant had landed nearly on top of the waiting fox, and matters abruptly came to a conclusion!

I do believe it was a well-planned hunting move made by a very clever red fox, which says a whole lot about the character of Old Reynard, the trickster. A very unique wild critter which I deeply admire.
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