Wildlife in suburbia: Photographer watches fox kits grow up
When wildlife photographer Melissa Groo was tipped off by friends about a fox family that set up home in a backyard shed, she promptly put up a blind and spent a season with them. Here's what she saw.
Fri, Feb 07, 2014 at 08:00 AM
All Photos: Melissa Groo
Foxes have captured quite a bit of attention lately, from the sticks-in-your-mind-like-glue song "What Does The Fox Say" to the fox that's been seen flitting around Capitol Hill lately and who even has its own Twitter stream. But how much do we really get to see of daily life of a fox family? Wildlife photographer Melissa Groo can fill us in on some of the details of growing up as a red fox, as she spent an entire season with a family of them, watching the kits grow up and learn the ropes.
A couple friends let Groo know that a pair of red foxes had denned under a shed in someone's backyard in Lansing, New York. She set up a pop-up blind near enough to see the daily life of the family but far enough to not disturb them in their natural behavior. She spent weeks checking in on the adults and kits, photographing them and learning a lot about fox family life in the process. Here are her words and images:
"I took this on the first or second day I photographed them. The original crew. When I would approach the blind upon each visit, if the foxes were in view, they would warily watch me, but once I was out of sight, they seemed to take no notice of me -- although occasionally when they would hear my camera clicking, they would look my way. On a sad note, by the time I stopped photographing them, there were only three kits left. One was killed by a car; a similar fate may have been met by the others, as the nearby road was very busy, although there are a host of other threats to foxes as well. The average life span of a red fox in the wild is only one-and-a-half to two years."
"As time went on, they became more and more adventurous, venturing farther from the den, sometimes alone, sometimes following mom or dad. I watched them hone their hunting techniques, stalking and pouncing upon one another, and carrying around dead prey. I also noticed that the kits became increasingly ferocious in play, as if there were a growing edge of competition between them."
"I was struck by how much fox kits resembled puppies, in their play, their curiosity, their rambunctiousness. They stole my heart. I watched one fox play with a leaf for about 10 minutes, tossing it up in the air and catching it. It's no surprise they are similar to dogs, of course, as they are in the Canidae family. I think one of the reasons foxes are so fascinating to us is that they are sort of a bridge animal between our domestic dogs and pure wildness."
"I think what I found the most interesting is that it was the father who was the one almost always with the kits. The mother was often absent. I know that for part of the time she was certainly hunting, as I photographed her bringing home prey at least once. But apparently this is a common division of labor once the kits leave the den after the first 5 weeks or so of life. The father was constantly grooming the kits, and his tender way with them was very touching to me."
"I always had to laugh when I would see the mother or father return from an absence. The kits would be completely ecstatic, and leap all over the adult. Sometimes a kit would assume a submissive posture as it approached the returning adult, crouching down, putting its ears back, and baring its teeth. And sometimes one would be cowed into submission when its boisterous greetings annoyed the adult, particularly the father, who would growl at it, quickly subduing it. But I would say my favorite moments were when the father and one or two of his kits would snuggle together, taking a quiet moment and looking perfectly at rest and content."
"Only by spending many hours with an animal, observing its every move and interaction, can one begin to understand even just a fraction of what its life is like. I want to tell stories about animals through my photography, stories that illustrate how much we have in common with the other animals we live among. I want to be a 'wildlife biographer,' as a young friend of my daughter's called me one day. She meant to say 'wildlife photographer' but the second she said that, I fell in love with the label. Yes, I thought, that's it, that's what I want to be."
"There is no 'us' and 'them'. There is only 'we,' and everything we do is interconnected. Writer Henry Beston said it more eloquently than I ever could in his famous quote:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
I think it's very important to educate people about suburban and urban wildlife. These animals are struggling so hard to survive in increasingly challenging settings. We have encroached on their habitat, not vice versa, and we should strive to accommodate them as best we can."
"Give a fox den wide berth during the kits' first 5 weeks or so of life. During this time they don't emerge, and are being nursed constantly by their mother. The father fox will come and go, bringing food to the mother. Foxes are known to move their dens from time to time, and your close presence may distress them unnecessarily and cause them to move while the kits are still very vulnerable. Once the kits are out and about, if it's an urban or suburban setting to begin with and the foxes are used to human presence, set up a pop-up blind for observation and/or photography purposes. You can find pretty reasonably priced ones in hunting catalogs. Another option is to set up a trailcam on a nearby tree. Or to ensure no disturbance, simply watch through binoculars or a scope from your window if you're lucky enough to have a line of sight to the den from your house!"
"Don't ever feed wild foxes to try to get them to come closer. A fed fox is a dead fox. They will come to trust people and even seek them out, for handouts, and there are plenty of people who will use the opportunity to shoot them, seeing them as a pest or danger. If there is a fox family on your property, ask the surrounding community to drive more carefully at least until the kits disperse. Document the story of your own fox family and find ways to share that story within your community, to educate people about the joys of watching a fox family, and how to celebrate wildness in the midst of our urban settings."
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