Following the Fox Trail
Our first week back to Field School after our winter break was snow-filled and prompting for tracking. Many of the animals that roam the Rock Point landscape are nocturnal or crepuscular (active during dawn and dusk) and since we haven’t figured out the logistics of running programs throughout the night due to concerns for minimum sleep requirements, we try to take advantage of any signs these creatures have left behind to get a sense of what they’ve been up to.
During story time at the end of the day, where each guild gets an opportunity to share what shenanigans, explorations, and discoveries they got into, wide-eyed field schoolers were frequently reporting back “AND….AND THEN…AND THEN WE SAW FOX TRACKS!!!!” During these moments, we take the opportunity to dive deeper into exactly how we tell that a fox track is indeed a fox track, and not a trail from a raccoon, opossum, squirrel, deer, and so on. Even more tricky is determining if the fox track is that of a red fox or grey fox.
Fox tracks, like many wild canines, tend to be oval in shape with four toes. Each claw of the fox’s foot generally registers directly in front of each toe, although they may not always be visible depending on the substrate. If the details of the toes are obscured, this gives a clue that you could be looking at a red fox track. This is due to their fuzzy furry feet and small toe pads. Gray foxes have less furry feet and so their toes tend to show more clearly. Gray foxes can also retract their claws, so sometimes you will stumble upon tracks with no registered claw marks. Foxes are a part of the dog family, and their tracks can sometimes be mixed up with that of a domestic dog. But have no fear! Trackers often point to the palm pad that is inscribed with a chevron- (or boomerang) shaped bar at the rear of the track as a key differentiating factor between a domestic dog and fox.
If you go out looking for tracks yourself, bringing a measuring instrument along could be helpful. Red fox tracks generally measure between 1.75-2.5 inches long by 1.5-2 inches wide. Grey fox tracks are a bit smaller, measuring about 1.25-1.75 inches long by 1-1.75 inches wide.
The power of the nose should not be underestimated; it can be an invaluable tool for detecting fox activity. For a red fox, this time of the year is a very important one; breeding season! During this time, foxes will patrol the boundary areas of its territory and spray urine for scent marking, leaving behind a strong, skunky smell. The scent marking lets other foxes in the area know of its presence. It also lets others know of its sex, status, and individual identity and reduces the need for conflict among foxes. Fortunately for humans, this is neither effective nor socially appropriate.
Curious in exploring the wild world of tracking yourself? If you’re local, you can go for an outing with The Burlington Tracking Club, which meets at Rock Point Monthly and is open to all levels of experience. For more info on that, go to trackingvt.org. If you’re interested exploring on your own, we recommend getting yourself a field guide. If that feels too involved to begin, printing out some basic sheets from a simple google search is a great place to start! Go to your nearby woods or even park that may be connected to some larger wildlife corridors and see what you find! Stay open, stay curious, and don’t forget to use your nose.