Keeping an eye on the foxes in St. Paul's Como Park

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2013 - 4:27 PM

Watching a litter of red fox kits grow up in St. Paul’s Como Park proves to be a lesson in the brutal and beautiful ways of nature.


Six fox kits lived for several months last spring under a walking path in St. Paul’s Como Park.

Photo: Laurie Hertzel •,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger


This year’s cold spring wasn’t good for much, but it was good for keeping track of the baby animals in Como Park. With no leaves on the trees until early June, I could monitor owlets on a branch every morning, and with no undergrowth in the woods, six fox kits were on full display, as long as you knew where to look.

It was late April when neighbors alerted me to the kits. Their underground den ran beneath a walking path in the woods, with entrances at the bottom of the slope on either side. I liked to imagine the cozy fug of warmth and fur and smells and life that lay just inches under the feet of oblivious passersby.

Some mornings, I watched the kits from a distance as they tumbled about right outside the den, playing like puppies. Other days, they poked their heads out of the hole and looked around, just their pointed ears and bright eyes visible. Most were skittish and dived back inside when they saw me, but one was bold. He seemed to like the sunshine. He had big ears, long black stockings and a thick, bodacious tail, and I was struck by how feline he was, yet at the same time how canine.

He toyed with a scrap of rabbit skin, shaking it in his jaws and worrying it. He hopped up on a fallen log and sat nicely while I took his picture. Then he lay down in a sunny patch of dirt and fell asleep.

I worried that he was careless. I was no danger to him, but the hawks, owls and eagles were, as was the coyote I had seen streaking through the park early one frosty morning. I did not want to think of him getting eaten.

Return of the bold kit

The weather eventually warmed, and the fox family vanished, their den perhaps too public now that the bicycles and the woods-walkers were back. But they didn’t go far, and in the autumn we often saw a fox, or two, early in the mornings — over by the golf course, usually, or at the edge of the West Picnic Grounds just across Horton Avenue from the old den.

The West Picnic Grounds are ringed with woods and studded with bur oak and pine, prime territory for squirrels and squirrel-hunting. After a while, I began seeing a fox there so regularly it was almost routine. He had black stockings and a bodacious tail and he was unafraid of me, and I thought of him as the bold kit now grown, though of course there was no way to know for sure.

In the mornings, I took to saying cheerfully to my dog, Rosie, “Let’s go see if we can find any foxes,” and we’d head over to the picnic grounds, and about half the time there he was — curled up under a tree; lurking by the woods; standing boldly out in the open, his rough fur outlined in silver by the rising sun.

One morning he was standing just to the left of the walking path. I stopped, and Rosie, normally a barker, stayed quiet at my side. The fox’s russet-brown hair was a nearly perfect match for the dead oak leaves that blew across the grass, but his fur glowed with a vibrant sheen that the leaves never had.

Twenty yards away, a squirrel busied itself in the grass, snuffling and chewing, oblivious to danger. The fox and I both saw it. We both watched. And then the fox moved. He went from motionless to full-bore sprint in a fraction of a second, racing over the grass, right past us, through the leaves, and it wasn’t until the fox was almost upon it that the squirrel looked up and let out a cry of alarm.

Rosie did not bark. She stared. So that’s how it’s done, she might have been thinking. I stared, too. Over the years I had happened across blood and feathers in the snow, and small, unidentifiable (to me) animal bones, and, once, a rabbit without a head — eaten, I assume, by an owl. I’d watched a bald eagle sitting on a branch above Como Lake, calmly ripping apart a fish with his sharp yellow beak. But I had never seen the moment of death, had never watched a silent owl swoop out of the night and grab a shrew, or seen a coyote corner a mouse or a rabbit. I had wondered, often, about the life and death drama that went on in our park every day, every night, invisible to those of us who lived safely nearby. It filled me with awe, the beauty of the fast-moving fox, so silent, so focused, so intent on its prey. This was a glimpse into that life-and-death world. This is how death happens, and how life continues.

When I told friends about it, I was surprised by how many people felt sorry for the squirrel. “Nature is red in tooth and claw and all of that,” one friend acknowledged. “Still, for me it’s sad to think of a being — human, squirrel, ant — who went out this morning expecting a normal day and instead had his/her life end. I don’t think this is a matter of anthropomorphizing. But it’s possible to understand how nature works and yet find it awful and tragic anyway.”

Yes, it’s awful that one must die so that another can live. And yet I felt fortunate to witness it, that silent race across the frosty grass, that streak of russet fur and black legs and bottle-brush tail, that final, fatal pounce.


Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 On Twitter: @StribBooks

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Toronto 104 FINAL
Indiana 91
Cleveland 103 FINAL
Detroit 95
Milwaukee 109 FINAL
Miami 102
Memphis 109 FINAL
Dallas 90
Chicago 113 FINAL
Golden State 111
Washington 98 FINAL
LA Lakers 92
NY Rangers 1 FINAL
NY Islanders 4
Arizona 3 FINAL(SO)
Philadelphia 4
Winnipeg 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 5
Washington 3 FINAL
Columbus 4
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL
Carolina 4
Dallas 2 FINAL
Montreal 3
Detroit 5 FINAL
Florida 4
Colorado 3 FINAL(OT)
Nashville 4
Buffalo 1 FINAL
Calgary 4
Minnesota 2 FINAL
Edmonton 1
Anaheim 4 FINAL
Vancouver 0
Ball State 47 FINAL
Akron 59
Northern Ill 46 FINAL
Bowling Green 56
Western Mich 71 FINAL
Buffalo 77
Ohio 40 FINAL
Eastern Mich 76
Xavier 66 FINAL
Georgetown 53
Vanderbilt 62 FINAL
Georgia 70
West Virginia 65 FINAL
Kansas State 59
Central Mich 53 FINAL
Kent State 63
Saint Josephs 48 FINAL
La Salle 53
Nebraska 44 FINAL
Michigan 58
Miami-Ohio 65 FINAL
Toledo 70
Tulsa 62 FINAL
Tulane 55
George Washington 48 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 72
Pittsburgh 67 FINAL
Virginia Tech 70
Indiana State 78 FINAL
Evansville 89
Tabor College 53 FINAL
Oral Roberts 94
Florida 52 FINAL
Alabama 50
Tennessee 64 FINAL
Arkansas 69
Texas A&M 71 FINAL
Auburn 61
Baylor 53 FINAL
Oklahoma State 64
DePaul 0 Postponed
Providence 0
Michigan State 0 Postponed
Rutgers 0
Wyoming 44 FINAL
Utah State 56
Fresno State 47 FINAL
San Diego St 58
Nevada 62
SD Christian 54 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 79
Colorado State 78 FINAL
Boise State 82
Temple 71 FINAL
UCF 54
Campbell 42 FINAL
Presbyterian 51
Coastal Carolina 65 FINAL
High Point 73
Gardner-Webb 49 FINAL
Radford 59
UNC-Asheville 58 FINAL
Liberty 62
Winthrop 63 FINAL
Longwood 62
Columbia International 33 FINAL
Charleston Southern 74
Tulane 63 FINAL
Houston 46
(3) Baylor 89 FINAL
TCU 67
Navy 49 FINAL
American Univ 59
Valparaiso 42 FINAL
Illinois-Chicago 60
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question