Belling a Fox
THE fox is so wary of approach, and has such uncanny knowledge of a trap, that the problem of getting his pelt usually reduces itself to a matter of mere brute force. A special breed of hound, having superior strength and endurance, is used to wear him out and, finally, run him down. The foxhound, compounded of the greyhound, the bloodhound and — as some think — the bulldog, for the combined qualities of fleetness, fineness of scent, and tireless tenacity, is a substantial reminder, not to say a loud advertisement, of the qualities of the fox. For the foxhound, aside from the growl and bark of a dog, has a voice like a town crier; and this large part of him has its practical uses in the chase. It enables his master to keep track of him in the distance, to read his mind and emotions, and, by this knowledge of what is going on, to head him off in his work, and get the fox away from him before he has torn it to pieces.
Some writers hold the hound in such high esteem as to pronounce him the most sagacious of the dog tribe; but I could never see a hound in that way. He gets his impressive countenance from the bloodhound; and a bloodhound is not as wise as he looks. He is a dog of one idea, and that idea simply has him by the nose. When he is being led on by a fresh trail, he will run till his feet leave bloody tracks in the snow; and, like all monomaniacs, he lacks the initiative to quit. He is, in short, a hound.
I can see, however, that the proprietor of a hound, or of a kennel of thirty or forty hounds, being influenced by live memories of the hunt, might conceive the same enthusiasm toward a hound that the average man has toward a dog. George Washington, who was a devoted fox-hunter, usually hunting three times a week, had a well-trained pack and a fine stable of horses at Mount Vernon. With his usual attention to detail, he had int imate knowledge of each of his horses, and knew every hound by name and according to his particular merits. Among the hounds were Vulcan, Ringwood, Singer, Truelove, Music, Forester, Rockwood, and Sweet lips. When I reflect upon certain of these names, I begin to suspect that Washington would hardly have shared my sentiments toward the ever-bellowing hound.
Here in Wisconsin we do it differently. We have a method of hunting the fox which employs nothing of this mere conquering force, but moves purely along lines of fox nature and human nature. It is known as belling the fox, and consists in following his trail in the snow and ringing a good-sized dinner-bell. For this work an old man is best adapted, the reason being, not merely that he has had years of experience and is hard for a fox to throw off the trail, but that his weight of years will keep him from getting in a hurry. Youth, becoming wrought up and interested in the chase, unconsciously walks faster and faster. Age and philosophy is willing to save its strength and to keep trudging along. There is plenty of time to catch a fox. This form of the hunt has regard for the Shakespearean adage that what you have n’t got in your head you have got to take out of your heels. Grandpa, who is playing the part of the hound, with the assistance of the dinner-bell, is fully as wise as he looks; and it is an axiom of the chase that haste is not required. He keeps in mind that other old adage — the more haste, the less speed.
Of all the methods of circumventing the fox, this is the one that is the surest of success. It is, therefore, the method of the professional fox-hunter, and has been since before the time when Wisconsin became a state. There are several generations of experience behind it.
The art of belling the fox first came to my attention fourteen years ago, when I took up my residence in the country; and it has been of constant interest to me, for the reason that it is such an infallible clue to the fox’s habits. And not only to his habits, but to the workings of his mind. By this trail in the snow, Reynard becomes his own biographer. Every act of his life is written down and made manifest. Here he halted and poked his nose into a burrow, in the hope of getting a rabbit or a mouse; there he crossed over to the swamp in search of better hunt ing; then he looked into the end of a hollow log and seemed to be curious about a woodchuck’s winter quarters. Finally, after much casting about, he caught a rabbit and feasted on it; and having thus made a night of it, and got his stomach comfortably filled, he curled up in the snow to spend the day.
To t he man who follows him day after day, winter after winter, it is the true history of the fox written down on the white page of nature. Not a detail is omitted. Every doing of the night is put on record;and the snowy bed whereon he slept bears witness for itself.
If the reader is disposed to follow him through a sample night and day, we will start at the beginning, early in the morning, with Grandpa Wellington Dewey to bear the bell and Charlie Tto operate the gun. I might explain before we start out, that not for a moment are we going to see the fox — that is, not till the final moment when we have outmanœuvred him and stretched him on the snow. The fox is a natural scout and spy. He has senses that are wonderfully acute, and a nature that is all suspicion. He believes in being neither seen nor heard; and he has every art of precaution that the most accomplished spy could ever think of.
In spite of his superior equipment in the way of ears and nose, the two hunters will deliberately undertake to outscout him and out-spy him. The sport has a deep and peculiar fascination, entirely aside from the fifteen or twenty dollars at stake. We are coping with the animal, sight-unseen, relying upon our knowledge of how a fox will play the game. He is being hunted in the abstract; and the work combines with this purely mental interest a feature that is generally considered the better element of sport — a square deal for the animal that is hunted. It is a contest of wits, never descending to mere brute force; and it has none of the cruelty of trapping. When the fox is beaten at his own game, his end will be quick and sure.
Having with us an accomplished bellman, and a more active man who will know how to come in opportunely with the gun, we strike out into the country and begin casting about upon the face of nature. During the night a light snow has fallen on what was already a substantial crust; and this is the board on which we are going to play.
Presently we have the luck to discover what we think must surely be the trail of a fox, and we sing out the news to Grandpa Dewey. He comes to pass upon it, and very soon informs us that it is the track of Farmer B-’s young collie. We had been told to look for tracks that were all in a line, as if they had been made by an animal hopping along on one foot; and so far as we can see, this trail fits the description exactly. A collie trotting in the snow does make a trail that is remarkably straight; and he steps in his own tracks with such precision as to give little clue to the number of his legs. But it is not quite the trail of the fox.
Again we spread out over the territory and continue our search. Finally Grandpa Dewey proves himself the true fox-finder; and he lets it be known with a laconic ‘ Hyar we are.’ Whereupon we all hurry over to the point that is to be the beginning of our travels.
Desirous of learning the secrets of a bellman, we stoop over and bend our mind upon one of these intaglios in the snow. The fox and the dog belong to the same large family, the Canidœ; and the more closely we look at this track, the more the fact seems evident to us. There are the same little cushions, the toes arranged around the heel, and the same straight line leading off toward the hills. If the other was a dog, we would be willing to swear that this was a dog, too. Not until Grandpa Dewey and Charlie Thave united in the state-
ment that the two are quite different do we get our attention down to the matter; and then we begin to see. The difference is like that between two signatures— at first very similar, and then distinguishable at a glance. Reynard differs from the dog in having a pad that expresses slenderness, the toes being more elongated in their arrangement round the heel. His paw is more ladylike and spirituelle, and the line of his footfall is, if anything, straighter and more precise than that of the collie. On the paw of every animal Nat ure has set the family seal; and this is the Fox, his mark.
The experienced fox-hunter, however, would be able to recognize the trail by its general record, independent of any such assistance from canine palmistry. He notes the wide, light leap as Reynard clears an obstruction, and reads the nature of his quick decisions as he changes his course to this side or that. He knows the Fox’s handwriting in general; and, by a knowledge of the swamps and ridges and runways that the fox is likely to have in mind, he makes a guess at the nature of the message.
I have said that there was a fresh fall of snow during the night. By this means we know that the trail is a fresh one. It is not the record of a fox’s wanderings two or three nights ago. But while this fresh fall of snow is very welcome to a hunter, as giving him a clean slate, he does not need any such adventitious happenings to tell him whether a trail is old or new. A footprint that has stood long in the cold has its interior covered with fine spiculœ—a mat, frosted appearance. The bellman knows it at a glance, as a jeweler would judge a diamond or a cameo.
Now that we have Mr. Wily on the line, our interest in him goes up several degrees; and we naturally expect, as we walk along in the direction in which his toes are pointing, that there will be some signs of an intention to hunt the fox. All this while Grandpa Dewey has been carrying the bell by the clapper; and he still continues to do so. It has been about as much use to him as any other dead weight would be — a mere dumb-bell; and he is in as little of a hurry as he was before.
But we readily agree with him that there is no great call for hurry, when he reminds us that, as this is daytime, the fox is sleeping. The fox has elliptical pupils like those of a cat; and being that variety of animal, he hunts all night and does his sleeping by day. Somewhere ahead of us he is comfortably curled up, taking his nap and digesting the rabbit; and as he has no idea that we are after him, he may be depended upon to wait till we come. His bed may be fifteen minutes ahead of us, or it may be an hour; but, anyway, we have him on the line, and he cannot very well break the connection. We just keep trudging along, and sooner or later we shall find where he put up for the day.
‘In his den?’ we inquire. It has suddenly occurred to us that we should like to see a fox’s den. This alone would make the trip worth while. But it is evident that this query has no meaning to either Grandpa Dewey or Charlie T-. When we repeat the word, emphasizing it, we see that it has no place in the consciousness of the fox-hunter, or of his cousins or his uncles or his aunts. Whereupon we say what we mean — his burrow, his hole in the ground, the place where he lives. But this elicits no look of understanding. It would be impossible to find a fox in such a place. A fox sleeps in the open, even in the coldest weather. He simply curls up and drops down in his tracks; but he always sleeps with his nose pointing back on the trail; for he knows that, if he has callers, they are likely to come by that route. He may make his bed on the lee side of a juniper bush, or, if it is very cold, among t he undergrowth of a tamarack swamp; but he is fond of a slope facing south. He has even been known to make his bed on top of a pile of field-stone, possibly because it afforded him a good lookout. A fox finds safety by knowing what is going on around him, not by hiding in a hole, where he can neither hear nor see, and where he would surely be cornered and caught. Grandpa Dewey knew a man who, several years ago, followed a trail that led to a burrow. It was a woodchuck burrow, which some fox had enlarged the year before to put her cubs in. But this fox that hid in it was wounded.
As this seems contrary to Æsop and the Bible, and even the Encyclopædia itself, it is not welcome news. We do not like to see authority put in the wrong. It is even contrary to the expression, a ‘fox’s den.’ But Grandpa settles the whole matter by telling us that the best way is to wait and see. We shall find that this fox has been sleeping in the snow somewhere ahead of us. And so we decide that, as he has been following these records since the early sixties, and the fox has no way of erasing any of the facts by night or day, we had better hold our opinions in abeyance.
When we have come to the place where the fox is now resting, as we surely shall, we shall see his empty bed in the snow; but there will be no fox in sight. And as we should never be able to overtake him, even though we had the swiftest horse in the county, that is another reason for not being in a hurry.
It is a beautiful winter day, sparkling and crisp. The sun shines across the white fields; it illumines the armfuls of snow that the trees have caught in their crotches, and makes the distant tamarack seem all the darker by contrast. And as the fox will know that we are coming, by the rustle of our coats or the squeak of our boots in the snow, quite as well as if we were making what we should call a noise; and as he would be likely to smell us if we made no noise whatever, there is no restraint upon us. We are free to admire the scenery and talk things over.
After much trudging up hill and down dale, Grandpa suddenly does get in a hurry. He sees the fox’s bed ahead of him — a round place in the snow; whereupon he breaks into a running walk like that of an Indian. The moment he reaches it, he stoops over and passes his hand round its interior, and then straightens up, with his hurry all gone. Instead of being soft and spongy, as it would be if the fox had just left it, this bed has had time to freeze and form a crust. A touch of Grandpa’s finger has been enough to tell the story.
A fox settles down with the intention of spending the day; but he does not always remain of one mind. Something disturbs him; he becomes restless and suspicious, and finally moves on to another locality. This is what has happened here. And lest we should have conveyed a wrong impression by the word bed, let us explain that it is nothing that the fox makes. He simply curls up and lies down on the surface of the snow as lightly and daintily as he does everything else; but the warmth of his body gradually settles the snow and melts it, and lets him down into it. Now we know that the fox is not very far away. As we shall presently come upon the bed that finally suited him, we follow along with rising expectations.
Meanwhile we seem to have lost Charlie T-. He wandered off with the gun on his shoulder, to one side of our route and a considerable distance in advance. Now he is nowhere in sight, and we wonder what has become of him. He does not seem to care whether we start the fox or not; and Grandpa Dewey, still carrying the bell by the clapper, does nothing but trudge along.
Again he breaks into his jog-trot and makes for the summit of a little knoll. This time he has started the fox. The inside of this bed is spongy and damp. The fox is only two or three minutes away. Immediately the bell comes into act ion. Grandpa sets it going at a great rate, clanging away as if it were three or four dinner-bells, and all the dinners in a hurry. He explains that this is to let Charlie Tknow that the fox has been started. Charlie is ahead somewhere, a mile or more away. And then, having made so much ado about it, Grandpa settles into his former state of calm deliberation and follows along the trail, ringing the bell as he goes. Instead of hastening, now that he has the fox at hand, he becomes even more leisurely; and the bell settles down to a steady, monotonous clangety-clang, swinging with every step and giving forth its note with the uninspired regularity of a scissors-grinder going his daily rounds. It may be a long walk that we have before us, and there is no use in wearing ourselves out. And besides, the slower we go, the sooner we are likely to get the fox. This, it seems, is about all we have to do. Meanwhile, we have learned the art of starting the fox, which is t he first step in belling him. And we have learned fact number one, upon which these hunters always depend: which is, that a fox does not live in a den.
Charlie T-, a mile or so ahead, has got to his present position by describing a big circle. And now his business is to keep well ahead and strictly out of that fox’s sight and out of his hearing and powers of smell. He must keep moving on in order to do it. He has not seen the fox; because, if he had, the fox would have seen him.
As for ourselves, we need observe no precautions. The fox is perfectly aware that we are behind him. He knew it before we reached his bed, and it took no bell to apprise him of the fact. If we had seen him at the moment he left his bed, we should have seen little more than a streak of reddish color flashing across the snow. Once in a great while you might catch a fox napping. If, for instance, he had his bed on a hillside, and you came up the opposite side of the hill, with the wind blowing your scent away from him, and such snow underfoot that your boots did not crunch in the least, you might catch a fox in bed. But you would hardly be aware of his presence before he was aware of yours; and then it would be too late to take action. A hunter near Pike Lake came across a fox in such favoring circumstances a few years ago. He had his shot-gun in hand, but could not get it to his shoulder in time. It was, he said, ‘just as if a puff of wind came along at that instant and blew the fox out of sight like a leaf.’ This was a very good description of the fox’s lightness and speed. His coloring, too, is that of the autumn leaf. One instant he flashed upon the sight, and then he was gone.
The three parties to the present transaction, Grandpa Dewey, the fox, and Charlie T-, are now moving along out of sight of one another. Charlie T-, far in the lead, is listening to the bell and trying to strike a position where it will come steadily toward him. By taking a stand and listening closely, he is able to tell whether it is coming straight on or veering to this side or that; and he manœuvres about accordingly. But when he corrects his course and takes up a new experimental position, he must also move on, and keep well in advance. By the sound of the bell, the fox’s route is being projected ahead of him. Charlie is very deliberately dealing with the fox’s future, surveying it by sound. The fox is free to go where he will; and if, after he has come straight on for a while, he suddenly strikes off, at an angle, the hunter has got to circle about and st rike up anot her position. Sooner or later the fox will come straight on; and when he does, the hunter will be there to meet him.
All this sounds very well in theory. But it st rikes us as being altoget her too deliberate a way of working with a fox. So here we begin to ask questions. If Charlie Thas not seen the fox, how does he know that the fox is somewhere between him and the bell?
This brings us to fact number two in fox-psychology. A fox will run no faster than he is chased. This is a fact which may be stated without any reservations. It is no exaggeration to say that there is no limit to the slowness with which a fox will travel in suiting his pace to that of his pursuer. He will stop and look back, curiously. The veriest cripple, a man on crutches, could keep up with a fox as well as the average horse or hound. He will go fast or slow according as it is necessary to keep out of harm’s way; but in neither case is he a fugitive. If you were to see a fox at the moment he discovered your approach, you would no doubt th ink that the panicstricken animal would keep on running till his fright wore off. But not so. He goes like a streak until he has put his established distance between you and him; and then he does not run at all. How fast he goes after that depends entirely upon yourself. A wolf will not act like this. When he is surprised by the human presence, he simply ‘lights out’; he makes tracks for distant parts, with the idea of leaving all trouble behind. He becomes a fugitive at once. But the fox would rather skulk than run. As I have said, he is a natural scout and spy.
A man who hunts the fox with hounds is not in a position to learn this fact; at least, not to its full extent. To see a hound running hour after hour behind a fox who manages to keep just so far ahead, you would be likely to think it was a race. You would say that t he dog was almost as fast as the fox. If the dog could only go a little faster! It isnipand tuck! And the owner of the hound, with that justifiable pride which every man feels in his dog, would be inclined to see it in the same way. But this is not the truth in the case. An experienced beller of the fox, understanding the whole psychology of the animal, sees it from a quite different point of view. There is no race going on. The fox will run slow before a slow hound and fast before a fast one. And, by the same token, he will walk if you do. The fox is simply keeping his distance; and whether he does it by going fast or slow docs not alter the essential fact. This difference in point of view is important; for it is by knowing the inner facts rather than by mere appearances, that the man with the bell is able to go out after a fox and deliberately cope with him.
A fox, surprised by a hound in a small patch of woods, will take out across the open at a speed that is surprising. Then, not only will he slow up, but he may sit down on some convenient elevation and look back. He keeps his wits, or rather his cunning, about him; he wants to see what is going on. When the hound has struck his pace, the fox will soon gauge it and lead him a chase accordingly. The spectator of such a chase, knowing that the hound is a slow one, turns admirer of the witty Reynard, and says that the fox is doing this just to ‘tease’ the dog. Many entertaining writers upon the fox have said this. A veteran bellman would not see it in that way. He knows very well that, when the fox gets half a mile or so ahead of him and skulks along at a set distance and out of sight, the fox is not doing it to tease him. This is to humanize the fox without warrant. The plain fact is, that the fox will not retreat before you any faster than he is driven. And this because it is his nature to be cunning and to depend on strategy. And the bellman has, to use a current expression, psychoanalyzed him.
Of all the hunters of the fox, the rider behind a pack of thoroughbred English foxhounds is furthest from any opportunity to learn the whole inner nature of the fox. Some generations ago the English foxhound was a much slower animal; he could wear out a fox in time, but the contest was likely to be long. For the sport of riding to hounds, this was impracticable; the chase dragged out unconscionably. Consequently, the hound was bred up for speed, until a good pack can now overtake a fox in the space of thirty minutes. Such hounds can push a fox from the start, and wear him down so quickly that the fox is doing his best to keep away from them. A hunter who never follows the fox except under such circumstances would hardly become fully acquainted with him. He would be likely to conceive of the fox as an animal that gets away from you in a panic, and keeps up his best gait to the end. But here the fox cannot very well do anything else. A writer in an English encyclopaedia, having seen an American red fox before a hound, put on record his opinion that the American fox was much slower than the fox in England. I think the American fox had him very much fooled.
The art of belling the fox is just the opposite of this. It takes the fox according to his nature, and meets him on his own ground. The hunt becomes pure strategy, scout against scout, spy against spy, and trick for trick. The fox, having taken his distance, will go no faster than he is driven. But, to get within that set distance, you have to cope with an animal whose every sense is bent upon keeping you from doing it. It is practically impossible to approach within gunshot of a fox.
How then, we ask, does Charlie Texpect to do it?
This brings us to fact number three — and the one that gets the fox. The eye of an animal, or of a man for that matter, is not caught by color or form so quickly as it is by motion. Charlie Tis not going to approach the fox. He is going to let the fox approach him. He is going to be a tree, a log of wood, a bump on the face of nature, anything but a man that moves. And he must be careful to have no smell; for which reason, he will place himself down the wind from the prospective path of the fox.
But we must get back to our belling. While we have been talking, the trail has led us across a wide field in the direction of a range of hills. Suddenly, in the very middle of the field, the trail comes to an end. It stops as abruptly as if the fox had taken wing and flown. Evidently the age of miracles is not past. We had been supposing that a fox, earth-bound like ourselves, could not travel without leaving footprints in the snow. The fox has back-tracked. He has turned carefully about and come toward us, following his own trail. But we have noticed no trail leading off from this one. It must have escaped our eye. The reason is that the fox, before striking out in a new direction, has leaped wide of the present trail, breaking the connection. Moreover, he has been at pains to let every footstep fall accurately into the tracks he made before. The result is that there is no double trail to show where he leaped off.
That a fox will double on his trail has been known to fox-hunters since before the time of Shakespeare. A pack of hounds, hunting by scent and coming to this abrupt end of things, would be said to be ‘at fault,’ or, to use an expression that Shakespeare was fond of, they would be ‘at a check.’ But the hunter who depends upon hounds, following the trail on the bare ground, is not in a position to observe all this fine attention to detail, which the bellman becomes so familiar with. The hounds in such a case as this would have to spread out in all directions, and scour the surrounding territory, in the effort to pick up the new trail. If they did not succeed, the huntsman might ‘ lift them,’ trying some place of his own purely by guess.
Grandpa Dewey, being his own hound, turns back at once, keeping his eyes about him. The fox has thrown him off the main track and run him into a blind switch; but he understands all this sort of work. Presently he has found where the fox leaped off. The new trail leads off from the other like the branch line of a railroad, which falls short of connecting up with the main system. So now we are on our way again, clangety-clang, clangety-clang, the bell heralding our advance like the bell of a locomotive.
This, of course, is not the only little trouble a fox can make for a bellman. It sometimes happens that his route lies across a ploughed field, where the snow has all blown into the furrows, leaving the clods standing bare. In crossing such a field the fox will keep to the bare places, carefully picking his way and stepping from clod to clod. This puts the hunter out and delays him in his work. Whether the fox does this purposely or not, we shall not presume to say; but the hunter, thus impeded, puts it down to the rascality of the fox.
Again, the fox’s preference for the south side of a hill as a place to spend the day helps him in breaking his trail. The prevailing winds being from the north in winter, the tracks on the opposite side of the hill, where he came up and over, are in a position where they will soon drift full of snow. If there is any wind moving, that important part of his trail will be obliterated. Such things so frequently happen just at the point where the fox is casting about and getting ready to go to bed, that the hunter becomes convinced of their deliberate purpose.
There is no question, however, that the fox has an instinct for breaking his trail. Closely pressed, he will run up the trunk of a half-fallen tree, for the sake of making a wide jump and putting a bigger hiatus in his line of scent; and he seems to be quite as conscious of the visibility of his trail as of its telltale odor. A farmer of my acquaintance related to me, with some surprise, the following experience. He was standing in his woods, thinking of some work to be done, when a fox came along, hotly pursued by a hound. Suddenly that fox ran ‘ right plumb at a big tree, quicker ’n scat.’ He struck the tree a considerable distance from the ground; and at the moment of striking, he gave another spring and shot off to one side, making a wide break in his trail. Considering what a fox will do with a tree that is half-fallen, I see no reason to doubt this. It would be but a step further in his practice, to make use of a vertical surface in an emergency, especially as the rough bark would make the trick quite practicable. It is in line with his known instincts.
Many things happen on the trail of a fox, some of them the most evident artifice and some of a nature that might be accounted for as mere chance, but are yet open to doubt. Usually the fox is considered the guilty party, the hunter knowing that he is quite capable of such things. As it is with a man’s reputation, so it is with that of the fox. If he is known as a rascal, everything he does comes under suspicion. If he has a reput at ion for business or polit ical acumen, his most accidental success is imputed to him for surpassing wisdom.
From a few such experiences on the trail, we begin to see that Grandpa Dewey has to be a man of parts. There is more to do than follow a plain track and ring a dinner-bell. He is the detective in the case, the shrewd solver of mysteries, who knows the workings of t he fox’s mind and cannot be thrown off the trail. Charlie T-, on the other hand, is the scout and spy, the master of stealth and camouflage. While the fox tries to fool Grandpa Dewey, Charlie undertakes to fool the fox.
About this time, things ought to be growing interesting on the other end; so we will leave the bellman to his own devices while we circle round and watch the outcome.
Charlie Tis still scouting about warily with his gun, keeping well ahead, taking a stand, and bending his ear to determine whether the bell is coming straight on. The bell grows plainer and plainer, neither to the left nor to the right. Several times he has done this; then had to make a large, circuitous forward movement as the fox changed his course. In no case must the fox be allowed to come in sight. The sound of the bell serves to gauge the distance of the fox.
This time he seems to have struck it right. The bell advances steadily in his direction. Charlie goes a little farther down the wind, making a final correction in his position. The bell comes steadily on. He is coming to close quarters with the fox; pretty soon the wary animal will appear on the scene. And now is the time for decisive action.
Charlie Thas had his eye on a tree that might serve as a screen to shoot from; but this is no longer available. Not far along the route, he sees a small decayed log with a fringe of weeds and brush. He drops down flat behind this, pointing his gun over the top. From now on there must be no movement, no sign of life. The barrel of the gun must not move and wobble about in getting the prospective aim. Anything like that would certainly be noticed. The prospective aim must already be taken. Charlie’s cap is of a dull russet color, blending with the weeds and the bark of the log. A red plaid would hardly be advisable. Next to motion, color is the quickest to attract attention. The two together would be fatal. Form is not so important. Even the whole form of a man, if he remains quite motionless, is not readily picked out from the surroundings.
Charlie has hardly got himself into position when the fox comes in sight, picking his way along. Sometimes he pauses and looks back, as if to make sure that he is well ahead of this strange sound that keeps haunting his trail. But there is no dog in the case, — the fox is well aware of that, — and hence no occasion for hurry. So he pursues his wary way and keeps straight on.
Meanwhile Charlie T—, peering over the log, is as motionless as death. The cap does not bob up and down; he does not become nervous with the gun. It is plain that he has a firm grip on fact number three. He waits till the fox crosses the path of his gun before he takes finer aim and fires. And the next instant it is all over. A beautiful specimen of the red male fox, with his fur at its prime.
Nor need we shed any tears over his fate, thus dishonestly dealt with and craftily waylaid. If he had conducted himself like a wolf, running from evil and giving it a wide berth, instead of flirting with it and placing such cheeky reliance on his trickery, he would not have come to this sad end. Moral: in any situation in life, the simple and straightforward method is the best. Be sure that your cunning will find you out.
Summing up our knowledge, we find that this most effective way of hunting the fox divides itself under three heads — starting the fox from his bed, following him with the bell, and waylaying him. And the uniform success of the method is based upon t hrec facts, which might be set down formally as follows. First, a fox does not live in a den. Second, a fox will not run any faster than he is chased. Third, you cannot approach within gunshot of a fox; but you may make arrangements to have him approach you.
Anyone at all familiar with the methods of the English fox-hunt, or who has read any one of thirty or forty books in the average public library, will find difficulty in accept ing these facts as good natural history. Fact number one will be especially bothersome. The first move in an English fox-hunt is based upon the fact that the fox resorts to a den, not only in spring, when it has cubs to care for, but at all times. The English foxhunt is a sport usually followed in late fall and winter. Of the various functionaries of a fox-hunting establishment, the one known as the ‘earth-stopper’ goes forth to prepare for the hunt. As the fox is an animal that hunts by night, the earth-stopper goes forth at night, and stops up the fox’s burrow in the covert (a patch of gorse or undergrowth). This has to be done in the fox’s absence, for the reason that, when the fox comes home in the morning, he takes to his den; or, if he is lying near it, he will immediately run to it when the hounds are turned into the covert, and will refuse to come forth. To stop his burrow is the only way to get him started. The earth-stopper at the same time visits all other burrows in a large territory, and stops them up, together with any drains or other holes that the fox could get into. For the fox, shut out of his own home, will put out his best speed to reach some other burrow, which he has in mind or can find by the way. His whole instinct is toward a burrow. That this is the fox’s habit in England we cannot question. The English foxhunter knows a fox.
This difference in the habits of the American and English fox would at first present no difficulty to the nature student. We should naturally infer that they are of different species, or wide variations of the same species. But here the plot thickens. Science and history agree in telling us that the American red fox was imported from England. He is not a native of this country. The first red foxes seem to have been imported by the Maryland colonists in 1738, and turned loose along the shores of the Chesapeake. Later, in 1760, others were brought over and liberated on Long Island; and these stocks multiplied rapidly in the new country.
The colonists, who were good Englishmen and enamored of their national sport, did not find the native gray fox good at the game. It seems evident that there were no red foxes in America, else they would not have sent to England for them. Science comes to the same conclusion in its own way. The bone caves show plent iful remains of t he gray fox, but they yield no traces of the red variety. If he was one of the original inhabitants of this country, these places of ancient memory have no knowledge of him.
Thus science and history are forced to the same conclusion. If this conclusion is correct, the American red fox is not only of the same species but is, in fact, the English fox himself. He is the offspring of English ancestors.
How then are we to harmonize the habits of the two branchesof the family? I must admit that, fourteen years ago, when I moved into a fox neighborhood, I doubted the word of every old hunter who told me about his habits. I thought that these hunters were fault y observers, like those neighbors who still plant their gardens by the phases of the moon. But the time is long past when I doubted the American hunter’s knowledge of the fox. This was one of the disadvantages of a literary knowledge of a subject, without practical experience.
When I had become thoroughly convinced that the fox had no instinct for a den in winter, and would hardly be caught dead in such a place, I began to look narrowly into the fox’s habits in spring and summer. The fox, like other wild animals, has got to have a place to shelter and hide her young; and the place has to be visited because the cubs need to be fed. But that is about all you can say about a fox’s den in spring. The old foxes do not sleep in it, or betray any instincts toward the burrow as a place of habitation. And never is it a place to hide in. They hunt by night; and by day they give the den a wide berth, sleeping at a distance, but in a location that commands a full view of the hiding-place of the young and of t he surrounding territory. If you approach a fox’s den, you will hear a peculiar yelping in the distance — a warning to the young to lie low. Very often the burrow is in a location that seems recklessly open to observation. Several years ago, a pair of foxes had their young hidden near my place, on a hill opposite a ploughed field belonging to my nearest neighbor. Whenever the farmer came too near that place, he would hear the warning in the distance. It has been asked (Burroughs puts this query) why it is that a fox will make her den in such an open place. I think the answer is to be found in the fact that the fox finds his safety in knowing what is going on, not in mere hiding.
A fox will not take refuge in a den unless it is wounded or utterly exhausted and unable to go farther. The instances are so rare when a fox has been cornered in a burrow, that old hunters refer to them as the work of ‘fool foxes,’ the theory being that Nature occasionally produces an idiot, even among foxes. Considering that a fox’s trail can be followed, either by scent or by the tracks in the snow, a fox would be a fool to spend much time in such a place. The oldest hunter I know — he began hunting foxes in 1846 and is now 91 years old — remembers but three such cases in over seventy years. And usually these cases are accounted for by t he fact that the fox was young; and having been raised in that burrow, dropped into it in passing, by way of a visit.
The English fox resorts to a burrow at all times, regardless of having cubs to care for; and there is no object in such a practice except that of hiding itself away. The American fox sleeps out in the open in the severest weather, showing no instinct toward a den; and in spring and summer, the male fox gives the burrow a wide berth, remaining on watch, while the female makes visits to it. The English fox clings to a den; the other stays away, when the whole call of his nature would be toward it. Thus my inquiry into the history of the red fox served but to accentuate the difference between the English and the American fox in this regard.
And now, as to harmonizing these facts, I have been able to arrive at but one conclusion. It is that the fox in England is not living in a state of nature.
A wider knowledge of animals in general, and the study of instinct as inherited experience, tends to strengt hen this view. Wild animals accommodate themselves to the ways of man more than we are likely to think. We pride ourselves upon our study of animals, forgetting that the animals also study us.
But setting aside any theory of instinct and getting down to the fox’s own problems, a study of the English foxhunt brings the whole matter to a point.
In England, the fox is sacred to the chase. To kill a fox except in fair pursuit with horse and hound is vulpicide, — fox-murder, — a social crime. An Englishman seldom sinks so low in the social scale as to trap or shoot a fox. The hunt is surrounded by laws, some statutory, some social and traditional. The fox was originally vermin, and was hunted as such. Though now he is the very opposite of vermin, being carefully preserved, the old view of him is still kept up for legal purposes; for thus the riders get their right to chase him over the farmers’ land and tramp down fields that are in crop.
But, aside from the statutes, there are other laws, — gentlemen’s laws, — as strong as those of the Medes and Persians. It is not usual, for instance, to dig a fox out of a burrow into which he has escaped after giving the field a good run. It is sometimes done, as when young dogs are being given a practice run, and it is necessary to give them their first taste of blood. Here the little fox-terrier comes into play, his business being to hold the fox in a particular branch of his tunnel while the spade is being used. But this is exceptional; it is not a recognized part of the sport. So, also, if a fox got into a burrow, in his own covert, which the earthstopper had missed, the assembled field of riders would not dig him forth and compel him to start out for a run. They would rather go homo, however disappointed, and call the day a ‘blank.’ It is not part of the game.
Consider then the red fox in full flight across an English moor, with a pack of thirty or forty hounds after him and a field of swift riders on his trail. The hounds have been bred for speed, with the object of beating the fox in about thirty minutes. What are his chances for escape? He may, if he should get far enough away and have time, try some of his tricks for delay; but these will hardly avail him with such a regiment of hounds. His one great resource will be to take advantage of law — gentlemen’s law. If he has some distant burrow in mind, and his wind holds out till he can get to it, he is safe. A fox in a burrow has escaped. In view of this fact, and a long racial experience, would it not be a ‘fool fox’ that did not hunt a burrow? Naturally, such a fox would have a burrow to which he religiously came home in the morning, and a complete repertoire of holes in the surrounding country, which he had discovered in his nightly hunts. Would he not be an idiot if he had not? To apply the American language to the case, ‘ I ’ll say he would.’ There can be no doubt t hat an Englishman knows a fox; also that a fox knows an Englishman.
I must confess that, when I finally evolved this theory, after much bafflement over the fox in public libraries, it was a great relief to me. A large part of our standard literature on the fox seems to have been taken from English tradition. It is rather disconcerting to read dozens of books and articles on the red fox, every one of which is at variance with your own positive knowledge of the animal.
Thus the facts fall in agreeably with history and the evidence of the bone caves; and no other way will do, so far as I can see. This brings harmony into a set of facts that were very much at outs with each other. In short, the conduct of a fox in the midst of a foxhunting aristocracy is no indication of what a fox will do who gets back to nature in a free country. And this is good zoölogy.