When Nature Destroys … and Creates

Jackson Creek icing up in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s late December in the old-growth riparian forest of Jackson Creek, Peterborough. A light snow is falling on the cedars. When I walk by the creek through this deep forest, my senses reach out like tendrils, touching the mysteries of Nature’s complexity. To my right, the river’s multi-timbral chorus gurgles and chortles in chaotic symphony. Occasionally, I hear the percussion of ice cracking and booming like a designer rearranging furniture. The cedar pine forest sloping up to my left hisses and giggles as the snow falls and melts. My footfalls crunch over a frozen sponge of litter and loam. Nature’s sounds and aromas coarse through me like sweet nectar and my soul rejoices. I quiet my mind and become one with all of it. Serene in discovery. In sensing. Feeling. Embedding. I’m awestruck with the simple beauty of complex form, pattern and purpose: from the tiniest moss covering a boulder erratic to the largest cedar trees creaking and swaying above me in the whisper of a brisk winter wind. 

Today is different. 

I see something unexpected. A skull.

Red fox skull embedded in frozen shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been following the icing of Jackson Creek. Huge ice “islands” have formed over boulders, creating new channels for the freezing water to coarse around. I stop near a small tributary of the river to study the formation of ice “pearls” on either side of an ice-formed channel. I venture out onto an ice shelf and set up my small tripod to take slow shots of water magic. The sun paints the water a brilliant turquoise hue.

Ice forming “pearls” in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Breathing hard from my efforts and satisfied with the shots I’ve taken, I stand up and step back from the shore. It’s then, as I look down to where I’ve placed my feet, that I see it. A small white “rock”—No! A skull! Embedded in the frozen leaf litter and ground, not more than several centimetres from the frozen shore of the river, lies an animal skull the size of my hand with a long snout. How have I managed not to step on it and crush it with all my tramping there? I must have stepped past it several times to get to my photo op. I bend low to get a better look. What is it doing there? Who—or what—had brought it there, depositing it on the creek shore?

I returned the next day, eager to show my discovery to friend and naturalist Merridy Cox; she suggested it was a red fox. Excited, I returned the following day with a ruler to measure it and a trowel and some hot water to help me extricate it for better examination. A light snow had fallen the night before but the top of the skull was still visible. I removed the snow and the skull came out of the ground rather easily, revealing several back teeth still embedded in it. While the skull was mostly intact, the lower jaw was missing and a loose tooth lay on the ground below it. I removed my prize and brought it home. After cleaning it with some bleach, I examined it further.

Red fox skull. Left to right: front view; back view; ventral view (photos by Nina Munteanu)

The skull showed no signs of trauma or injuries to the head. I guessed that while this fox was an adult, it was young; the teeth that were there were in excellent condition. The skull measured 133 mm from end of snout to external occipital protuberance (inion). The average skull length of an adult male measures 129 to 167 mm and vixens 128-159 mm. Steve Harris in BBC’s Discover Wildlife tells us that dog foxes also tend to have broader and more domed skulls than vixens; my skull was rather sleek, I thought. From this I guessed that the skull belonged to a young adult female, a vixen. Statistics for fox deaths also favoured a young fox (see below). 

MeasurementValue
Skull LengthInion to prosthion133 mm
Skull widthWidest interzygomatic distance70 mm
Facial lengthNasion to prosthion63 mm
Facial widthWidest interzygomatic distance45 mm
Cranial lengthInion to nasion79 mm
Cranial widthWidest interparietal distance47 mm
Cranial heightMiddle of external acoustic meatus to bregma43 mm
Red fox skull, lateral view (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I couldn’t help wondering about this fox which had appeared as if by magic at my feet. What was Vera Vixen’s story? (Somewhere between bringing her home and cleaning her, I decided to name her). How did Vera meet her demise and where was the rest of her? Had the skull recently washed onshore or was it recently brought to the shore by a scavenging racoon, badger (they’re more common in this area than most people think) or another fox? Or had the skull been there longer and the winter ice and water just washed away the litter to reveal the embedded skull? Was it a death of misadventure? Had Vixen drowned when Jackson Creek flooded? Or was she hit by a car at the edge of the park, torn up by scavengers and her skull brought here to eat? Jake McGown-Lowe of BBC’s The One Show shares that “Fox bones are hard to find.” He had found his specimens at the edge of a wood. “In the countryside the main predator of foxes are farmers and gamekeepers, especially around lambing time, and the gamekeepers usually take the bodies away to dispose of… Be careful with the canine teeth because they easily fall out.”

Jackson Creek is an urban park. Thirty percent of its perimeter is surrounded by urban and suburban streets of Peterborough; sixty percent of the park is surrounded by farmland and some marsh at its upstream end. A Bristol University study on cub survival determined that major sources of mortality included hypothermia, attack by domestic dogs, attack by badgers, and death of the mother. 

Red fox skull, dorsal view (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Various hunters have indicated that in a temperate climate it takes several weeks to several years for decomposers (insects, fungi and bacteria) to clean a skull left in the elements of nature. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects and water play key roles in the process of skeletonization. The skull at my feet could have died as recently as the fall of 2020 and as long ago as spring of 2019 during lambing season. Had Vera been shot or poisoned (including indirectly through scavenging) as she hunted for her kits? 

Bristol University estimated that two thirds of the fox population die each year by predators (including humans), disease and vehicles with the single largest cause of fox mortality being through road collisions.An Oxford study corroborated this with observations that 60% of the fox population were run-over by vehicles. Apparently most of the fox deaths are the young. In their 2004 review of the red fox, David Macdonald and Jonathan Reynolds at Oxford noted that “roughly 75% of the fox population die in their first year.” Studies in Europe have also shown that three to seven-month old foxes are most susceptible to traffic collisions—associated with the cub’s increase in ranging behaviour around the den and their lack of experience—and larger propensity for misadventure.

BBC Wildlife Magazine tells us that “spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species, and skulls can be found virtually anywhere.”

Red fox pups explore Delaware wild sanctuary (photo by Jennifer Cross, USFWS)

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of Canada’s most widespread mammals, living in a wide range of habitats including forests, grasslands, meadows and farmland. Known for their ability to adapt quickly to new environments, foxes have adapted well to urban settings and ecotones between city and wilderness; in fact, they prefer mixed vegetation communities such as edge habitats and mixed scrub and woodland. They are highly athletic, agile and incredibly fast (they can run up to 30 mph); foxes are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents, burrowing in the snow using the earth’s magnetic field to help them hunt. Foxes have good visual acuity, capable of seeing small movements from far away and for navigating dense forests as they sprint after prey; but their most useful sense is their ultrasonic hearing. Treehugger reported on a 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences who discovered that “red foxes have the best known maximal absolute hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from 100 feet away.” This along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild.

Foxes are monogamous. They live in family units in which both parents take equal part in raising their young. Older siblings also care for the young pups. The young kits remain with their parents at least until the fall of the year they were born in and sometimes longer, especially females. Pups are typically born from February-April. They are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. Mom fox stays close to guard the kits and nurse them for several weeks and the father or barren vixens feed the mothers. The kits leave the den a month after and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks. The mother and her pups remain together until the autumn after the birth. After the pups are weaned and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad fox helps watch them while Mom fox gets in some hunting. If the mother dies, the father takes over caring for the pups. Kits reach adult form by seven months and some vixens reach sexual maturity by ten months—enabling them to bear their first litter at one year of age. 

Red foxes help balance ecosystems by controlling population of prey animals such as rodents and rabbits. They also disperse seeds by eating fruit. Steve Hall of Adirondack Almanack reminds us that red foxes play an important ecological role: 

“Now and then, vulnerable farm animals such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal; secure enclosures for hens and [use of] guard dogs to keep the fox in the field but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation.”

James Fair of BBC Discover Wildlife noted that a single fox during its lifetime may be worth £150-190 to a farmer through rabbit predation. Most farmers in Wiltshire consider the fox a helpmate in reducing the pest of rabbits. Hall adds that while, “Deer are significant carriers of the tick, Lyme disease starts with rodents… [the red fox] eats huge quantities of rodents. If for no other reason, fox hunting and trapping should be banned.”

Foxes take shelter in thickets and heavy bushes in the autumn until March of the next year. They are omnivores with a varied diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of plants, berries, other fruit and nuts. Foxes have good eyesight but very keen hearing and sense of smell; this along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild. 

Jackson Creek Park cedar-pine-hemlock old growth forest at first snow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Red foxes feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures with which they are sympatric. In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen, was a gigantic fox that was destined never to be caught. The fox was one of the children of Echidna. In Japanese mythology,the kitsune are fox-like spirits that possess magical abilities which increase with age and wisdom. This includes the ability to assume human form. Some folktales suggest that kitsuneuse this ability to trick others; others portray them as faithful guardians, friends and love. In the Cotswolds, witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. In later European folklore, Reynard the Fox symbolizes trickery and deceit. Fox is a trickster. In the actual world, this translates to resourcefulness, a quick study, and swift and decisive action. And perhaps that is the true meaning of Vixen

Image of the fox and the crow in Aesop’s Fables

Amanda Bergloff on Twitter shares the folklore associated with Red Fox’s cousin the Arctic Fox and Revontulet, the Northern Lights in Finland:

Fox teaches us that gender equality helps to create a strong family, says Chris Lüttichau, author of Animal Spirit Guides. Fox’s medicine is family, survival andvoice. Fox embodies resourcefulness and daring in her quest to feed herself and her young. “Fox survives and flourishes because she is clever and adaptable; she is now found living in cities. Fox teaches us to be flexible rather than to resist change.” According to Lüttichau, Fox’s medicine is “swiftness, surefootedness and a quick mind that always knows what to do.” Foxes have a wide vocal capacity and range, from screams and calls to low barks—something for each case as the fox calls and listens and calls back. We can learn from Fox’s varied voice to transcend traditions and prejudices through healing council and stories.

With thoughts returning to my Vera Vixen, I think that perhaps she is not a young unlucky fox who met with misadventure after all; rather, she is a smart old vixen who’s birthed and nurtured several litters of four to six kits each spring. Her natural death after four to seven years of a rich life in the old growth forest and marsh of Jackson Creek would have led her to a quiet place to lay herself to rest; there her corpse was ultimately found by a badger, racoon or other fox and parts of her scattered throughout the forest to decompose and feed the ecosystem. Ever the mother, Vera now feeds the forest that nurtured her and her family’s existence. 

Early winter ice “pearls” forming in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Story of Fleet, the Fox of Surrey: In January 2014 it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban red fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s TV series Winterwatch, had unexpectedly traveled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting due to suspected water damage. Along with setting a record for the longest journey undertaken by a tracked red fox in the United Kingdom, his travels have highlighted the fluidity of movement between rural and urban red fox populations.

Fox Prayer for 2021:

I call on Fox.
Shapeshifter and trickster.
Edge-walker and messenger.
Help me blend with my surroundings and adapt to the changing landscapes.
Show me the hidden paths between the worlds.
Teach me the ways of invisibility and camouflage.
Gift me your keen senses that I might see more of what is around me and use it to accomplish my goals.
I call on you, Fox, to bring magic and discernment into my life.
Lead me at your steady gait to those places where I might do the greatest good.
Let us walk the borders between day and night and follow the scent of divine mischief.
Fox, I call on you.

TRAVIS BOWMAN

The Tale of the Prayer and the Little Fox

Map of Jackson Creek Park and surrounding area

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest:

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest (OGF) is a 4.5 hectare urban forest located on a glacial spillway slope littered with granite erratic boulders. The OGF lieswithin the Jackson Creek Riparian Forest, a 92-ha valleyland forest which extends into a major wetland of importance. Dominant conifers in the OGF include white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis). Sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, white ash and white oak contribute to the mixed riparian forest. Trees are commonly over 150 years old with some reaching over 250 years. Largest trees—which tend to be the pines and cedars—reach diameters of 97 cm dbh and heights of 35 metres. 

The Jackson Creek valley was formed by the torrent of glacial meltwater flowing from the ancient Lakes Algonquin and Jackson through the overlying till to create a glacial spillway approximately 12,000 years ago (Adams and Taylor 2009), when the outflow of glacial Lake Algonquin was channeled to the former glacial Lake Iroquois—a body of water larger than the current Lake Ontario but in the same general area (Ecclestone and Cogley 2009).

The Jackson Creek OGF is a good example of a mature White Cedar—White Pine—Eastern Hemlock stand on a glacial spillway slope in Ecodistrict 6E-8. This eco-district extends in a band from south of Lake Simcoe eastward to the Bay of Quinte, north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and is characterized by rolling till plains with drumlins, eskers, and intervening wide river valleys (Hanna 1984). 

Winter path through cedar-pine-hemlock old growth forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Adams, P. and C. Taylor. 2009. Peterborough and the Kawarthas (Third Edition). Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 252 pp. 

BBC. 2014. “BBC Two – Winterwatch, Urban Fox Diary: Part 2”. 23 January 2014

BBC. 2014. “Fleet the Sussex fox breaks British walking record”. 22 January 2014

Ecclestone, M. and G. Cogley. 2009. “The Physical Landscape of Peterborough and the Kawarthas.” In: Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Third Edition, ed. by P. Adams and C. Taylor, pp. 19-40. Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 

Hanna, R. 1984. “Life Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest in Site District 6-8.” Parks and Recreational Areas Section, Central Region, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Richmond Hill, Ontario. 71 pp. & map. 

Henry, Michael, Peter Quinby and Michael McMurtry. 2016. “The Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest” Research Report No. 33. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Online: http://www.ancientforest.org/wp-content/uploads/RR33-Jackson-Creek-OGF.pdf

Lüttichau, Chris. 2013. “Animal Spirit Guides.” Cico Books, London, UK. 160pp.

MacDonald, D. and J. Reynolds. 2005. “Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)” IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Online

Malkemper, E. Pascal, Vaclav Topinka, and Hynek Burda. 2015. “A behavioral audiogram of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Hearing ResearchVol. 320: 30-37: Online

Monaghan, Patricia. 2004. “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore”. Infobase Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4524-2.

The Nature Conservancy: Nature.org. “Wetlands Mammals: Red Fox.” PDF Online

“Relatives are the worst friends, said the fox as the dogs took after him.” – Danish

Red fox skull embedded in frozen shoreline of Jackson Creek in December (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s