It is the “dead of winter” or so the sobriquet for that time of the year goes. It is the time when the trees stand as gray skeletons and the piercing winds come questing down from the arctic and the snow comes in storms to blanket the land. It is a time of darkness, a time when the sun seems to rise only for the purpose of setting once again with the ancillary effect of torturing sun-worshiping humanity with its sallow winter rays.
And so our kind curses the winter. Much of our natural history occurred in the tropics, so this relatively recent remove to the middle and higher latitudes means that we spent the winter yearning for the sun upon our skins.
Most of the herbivores don’t like it much either. The deer had better have built up a nice layer of fat for this time of starvation. If oaks don’t drop tons of acorns in the autumn, then the deer don’t built their fat, and the hunger sweeps through them. The does reabsorb their fetus, and the old ones die in agony.
But not all things suffer through the long winter darkness and cold. A gray fox vixen, which we last saw mousing in the July swelter, has come to run the logging roads in search of cottontails that might be trying to graze a bit of sustenance from the dead winter forage. They are not the dumb bunnies of high summer but predator-tested quarry that can give a fox a good course. But as winter’s famine takes its toll, they become weaker and weaker, and the coursing runs more often end with a squealing rabbit in the vixen’s jaws than a white tail diving for the impenetrable thickets.
She is a lone vixen still, but she is a master of the cottontail hunt. She has come to know where the rabbits hang during the long winter twilight and when they likely will run when she puts pressure to them.
What’s more, she has found a good winter supplement of corn, which gets shot of out of a deer feeder every night. Omnivory is another of her tricks. Corn shot from deer feeders and sand pears from an ancient tree at the edge of the old meadow have been welcome additions to her diet.
But a lone vixen can only be alone for so long. By winter’s end, the estrus clouds will rise from her genitals, and the male foxes will want her.
Unlike a domestic dog, which will typically come in heat and mate with the first male she encounters, the gray fox is a bit more choosy. She will pair up with a mate before the estrus time hits, and he will breed her and then stay with her through her pregnancy and help raise the young.
Now is the time for the pair up, but every night, the vixen goes on her hunts. She smells where people and dogs have crossed the road. She smells where a sow raccoon and her two nearly grown kits have moseyed along the ditches in hopes of catching a hibernating frog. She smells the skunks and the deer and the wandering opossums.
But not once does she catch wind of another of her kind.
However, as she sniffs a bit of grass that she likes to mark with a few drops of urine, the pungent odor of a dog fox’s urine rises into her nostrils. She lifts her nose and casts it into the wind as if hoping to catch scent of his body.
Gray foxes are so territorial that the scent of a stranger would have her a raging war dog by now, but this time, she’s not in the least aggressive. Instinct and hormones are telling her to be curious and flirty.
Air scenting doesn’t reveal the stranger’s location, so she casts about, trying to pick up his trail in the leaf litter.
A great rabbit tracker like her soon finds his scent and begins trailing him along the logging road. Her receptors tell her that this dog fox is one of this year’s kits, one that has spent the autumn months trying to catch voles and chipmunks. He will be long and lean from those days of running long and hard for such little food.
She tracks him along the edge of the multiflora rose thickets. He’s been trying his luck as a rabbit courser, but he’s had no luck at all. He’s just been running like a fool, and the rabbits have been scared off.
If this were a normal time of the year, she would be ready to fight. But not now. Right now, she is intrigued by this stranger.
She sniffs to inspect his urine marks, which he leaves every hundred yards or so, and she becomes almost intoxicated by them. The smell is so good, so pure, so perfect.
She soldiers on through her long track. As she makes her way along the logging road and visits each thicket, she becomes lost in the scent. She begins to prance with an air of cockiness, the way only truly confident animals can. This is her domain, and this dog has her fancy.
As she sniffs along another stand of multiflora rose, a raspy gray fox bark rises from a boulder some 50 feet away. The dog fox knows the vixen is about, and he has his defenses up.
She lets loose some whines and whimpers and soft little fox chuckles. She is calling to him, telling that she comes in friendship.
The little dog fox rises from the boulder. and he is gaunt and rangy from running so much and catching so little. He left his mother and father’s land back in August, and he has spent most of his time chasing quarry or running from coyotes or dogs or resident gray foxes that don’t want him around.
A big dog gray fox took the tip of his right ear in September when when decided to go grasshopper hunting a little too close to that mated pair’s den.
His life has been that of an urchin, a vagabond, and now when he hears the approach of another gray fox, he becomes flighty.
But it hasn’t been since those warm spring days when he suckled his mother’s teats that he’s heard another fox make those noises. He wonders if his mother is calling him, and so he runs down to the thicket to the vixen.
She hears his approach and runs toward him. They touch noses and lick faces. He instantly knows he’s not looking at his mother, but the softness of her eyes and the gentleness of her face tell him that she is all right. She is more than all right. She is good.
They whimper and whine in the darkness. Young dog fox and wise mature vixen, now begin the process of pair bonding in the night. They lick each other’s muzzles and ears,
They are fully smitten.
That morning, they den up in the great boulder pile where the vixen has made her home. These are ancient rocks of Permian sandstone, more ancient than even the old lineage of canids from which gray foxes are derived.
The flinty wisps of snow flurries fill the air. Bigger snow coming tomorrow. The rabbits will be lying low in the thickets, easily caught by the fox who knows where to sniff.
The two foxes sleep near each other. They haven’t quite bonded yet, but they will soon be curled up together, a truly mated pair.
And the estrus clouds will rise in the frosty air, and they will be together.
The meadow fox has found a mate once again.
She doesn’t need one to survive.
But now, she can thrive.