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.

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

Photo: Laurie Hertzel • lhertzel@startribune.com,

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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

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