List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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the trunk of a fallen tree which had lodged some feet from the ground,
and concealed himself in the top. In a few minutes the hounds came up,
and in their eagerness passed some distance beyond the point, and then
went still farther, looking for the lost trail. Then the fox hastened
down, and, taking his back-track, fooled the dogs completely.

I was told of a silver-gray fox in northern New York, which, when
pursued by the hounds, would run till it had hunted up another fox, or
the fresh trail of one, when it would so manoeuvre that the hound would
invariably be switched off on the second track.

In cold, dry weather the fox will sometimes elude the hound, at least
delay him much, by taking to a bare, plowed field. The hard dry earth
seems not to retain a particle of the scent, and the hound gives a
loud, long, peculiar bark, to signify he has trouble. It is now his
turn to show his wit, which he often does by passing completely around
the field, and resuming the trail again where it crosses the fence or a
strip of snow.

The fact that any dry, hard surface is unfavorable to the hound
suggests, in a measure, the explanation of the wonderful faculty that
all dogs in a degree possess to track an animal by the scent of the
foot alone. Did you ever think why a dog's nose is always wet? Examine
the nose of a foxhound, for instance; how very moist and sensitive!
Cause this moisture to dry up, and the dog would be as powerless to
track an animal as you are! The nose of the cat, you may observe, is
but a little moist, and, as you know, her sense of smell is far
inferior to that of the dog. Moisten your own nostrils and lips, and
this sense is plainly sharpened. The sweat of a dog's nose, therefore,
is no doubt a vital element in its power, and, without taking a very
long logical stride, we may infer how much a damp, rough surface aids
him in tracking game.

A fox hunt in this country is, of course, quite a different thing from
what it is in England, where all the squires and noblemen of a borough,
superbly mounted, go riding over the country, guided by the yelling
hounds, till the fox is literally run down and murdered. Here the
hunter prefers a rough, mountainous country, and, as probably most
persons know, takes advantage of the disposition of the fox, when
pursued by the hound, to play or circle around a ridge or bold point,
and, taking his stand near the run-way, shoots him down.

I recently had the pleasure of a turn with some experienced hunters.
As we ascended the ridge toward the mountain, keeping in our ears the
uncertain baying of the hounds as they slowly unraveled an old trail,
my companions pointed out to me the different run-ways,--a gap in the
fence here, a rock just below the brow of the hill there, that tree
yonder near the corner of the woods, or the end of that stone wall
looking down the side-hill, or commanding a cow-path, or the outlet of
a wood-road. A half-wild apple orchard near a cross-road was pointed
out as an invariable run-way, where the fox turned toward the mountain
again, after having been driven down the ridge. There appeared to be no
reason why the foxes should habitually pass any particular point, yet
the hunters told me that year after year they took about the same
turns, each generation of foxes running through the upper corner of
that field, or crossing the valley near yonder stone wall, when pursued
by the dog. It seems the fox when he finds himself followed is
perpetually tempted to turn in his course, to deflect from a right
line, as a person would undoubtedly be under similar circumstances. If
he is on this side of the ridge, when he hears the dog break around on
his trail he speedily crosses to the other side; if he is in the
fields, he takes again to the woods; if in the valley, he hastens to
the high land, and evidently enjoys running along the ridge and
listening to the dogs, slowly tracing out his course in the fields
below. At such times he appears to have but one sense, hearing, and
that seems to be reverted toward his pursuers. He is constantly
pausing, looking back and listening, and will almost run over the
hunter if he stands still, even though not at all concealed.

Animals of this class depend far less upon their sight than upon their
hearing and sense of smell. Neither the fox nor the dog is capable of
much discrimination with the eye; they seem to see things only in the
mass; but with the nose they can analyze and define, and get at the
most subtle shades of difference. The fox will not read a man from a
stump or a rock, unless he gets his scent, and the dog does not know
his master in a crowd until he has smelled him.

On the occasion to which I refer, it was not many minutes after the
dogs entered the woods on the side of the mountain before they gave out
sharp and eager, and we knew at once that the fox was started. We were
then near a point that had been designated as a sure run-way, and
hastened to get into position with all speed. For my part I was so
taken with the music of the hounds, as it swelled up over the ridge,
that I quite forgot the game. I saw one of my companions leveling his
gun, and, looking a few rods to the right, saw the fox coming right on
to us. I had barely time to note the silly and abashed expression that
came over him as he saw us in his path, when he was cut down as by a
flash of lightning. The rogue did not appear frightened, but ashamed
and out of countenance, as one does when some trick has been played
upon him, or when detected in some mischief.

Late in the afternoon, as we were passing through a piece of woods in
the valley below, another fox, the third that day, broke from his cover
in an old treetop, under our very noses, and drew the fire of three of
our party, myself among the number, but, thanks to the interposing
trees and limbs, escaped unhurt. Then the dogs took up the trail and
there was lively music again. The fox steered through the fields direct
for the ridge where we had passed up in the morning. We knew he would
take a turn here and then point for the mountain, and two of us, with
the hope of cutting him off by the old orchard, through which we were
again assured he would surely pass, made a precipitous rush for that
point. It was nearly half a mile distant, most of the way up a steep
side-hill, and if the fox took the circuit indicated he would probably
be there in twelve or fifteen minutes. Running up an angle of 45
degrees seems quite easy work for a four-footed beast like a dog or a
fox, but for a two-legged animal like a man it is very heavy and
awkward. Before I got halfway up there seemed to be a vacuum all about
me, so labored was my breathing, and when I reached the summit my head
swam and my knees were about giving out; but pressing on, I had barely
time to reach a point in the road abreast of the orchard, when I heard
the hounds, and, looking under the trees, saw the fox, leaping high
above the weeds and grass, coming straight toward me. He evidently had
not got over the first scare, which our haphazard fusillade had given
him, and was making unusually quick time. I was armed with a rifle, and
said to myself that now was the time to win the laurels I had coveted.
For half a day previous I had been practicing on a pumpkin which a
patient youth had rolled down a hill for me, and had improved my shot
considerably. Now a yellow pumpkin was coming which was not a pumpkin,
and for the first time during the day opportunity favored me. I
expected the fox to cross the road a few yards below me, but just then
I heard him whisk through the grass, and he bounded upon the fence a
few yards above. He seemed to cringe as he saw his old enemy, and to
depress his fur to half his former dimensions. Three bounds and he had
cleared the road, when my bullet tore up the sod beside him, but to
this hour I do not know whether I looked at the fox without seeing my
gun, or whether I did sight him across its barrel. I only know that I
did not distinguish myself in the use of the rifle on that occasion,
and went home to wreak my revenge upon another pumpkin; but without
much improvement of my skill, for, a few days after, another fox ran
under my very nose with perfect impunity. There is something so
fascinating in the sudden appearance of the fox that the eye is quite
mastered, and, unless the instinct of the sportsman is very strong and
quick, the prey will slip through his grasp.

A still hunt rarely brings you in sight of a fox, as his ears are much
sharper than yours, and his tread much lighter. But if the fox is
mousing in the fields, and you discover him before he does you, you
may, the wind favoring, call him within a few paces of you. Secrete
yourself behind the fence, or some other object, and squeak as nearly
like a mouse as possible. Reynard will hear the sound at an incredible
distance. Pricking up his ears, he gets the direction, and comes
trotting along as unsuspiciously as can be. I have never had an
opportunity to try the experiment, but I know perfectly reliable
persons who have. One man, in the pasture getting his cows, called a
fox which was too busy mousing to get the first sight, till it jumped
upon the wall just over where he sat secreted. Giving a loud whoop and
jumping up at the same time, the fox came as near being frightened out
of his skin as I suspect a fox ever was.

In trapping for a fox, you get perhaps about as much "fun" and as
little fur as in any trapping amusement you can engage in. The one
feeling that ever seems present to the mind of Reynard is suspicion. He
does not need experience to teach him, but seems to know from the jump
that there is such a thing as a trap, and that a trap has a way of
grasping a fox's paw that is more frank than friendly. Cornered in a
hole or a den, a trap can be set so that the poor creature has the
desperate alternative of being caught or starving. He is generally
caught, though not till he has braved hunger for a good many days.

But to know all his cunning and shrewdness, bait him in the field, or
set your trap by some carcass where he is wont to come. In some cases
he will uncover the trap, and leave the marks of his contempt for it in
a way you cannot mistake, or else he will not approach within a rod of
it. Occasionally, however, he finds in a trapper more than his match,
and is fairly caught. When this happens, the trap, which must be of the
finest make, is never touched with the bare hand, but, after being
thoroughly smoked and greased, is set in a bed of dry ashes or chaff in
a remote field, where the fox has been emboldened to dig for several
successive nights for morsels of toasted cheese.

A light fall of snow aids the trapper's art and conspires to Reynard's
ruin. But how lightly he is caught, when caught at all! barely the end
of his toes, or at most a spike through the middle of his foot. I once
saw a large painting of a fox struggling with a trap which held him by
the hind leg, above the gambrel-joint! A painting alongside of it
represented a peasant driving an ox-team from the offside! A fox would
be as likely to be caught above the gambrel-joint as a farmer would to
drive his team from the off-side. I knew one that was caught by the tip
of the lower jaw. He came nightly, and took the morsel of cheese from
the pan of the trap without springing it. A piece was then secured to
the pan by a thread, with the result as above stated.

I have never been able to see clearly why the mother fox generally
selects a burrow or hole in the open field in which to have her young,
except it be, as some hunters maintain, for better security. The young
foxes are wont to come out on a warm day, and play like puppies in
front of the den. The view being unobstructed on all sides by trees or
bushes, in the cover of which danger might approach, they are less
liable to surprise and capture. On the slightest sound they disappear
in the hole. Those who have watched the gambols of young foxes speak of
them as very amusing, even more arch and playful than those of kittens,
while a spirit profoundly wise and cunning seems to look out of their
young eyes. The parent fox can never be caught in the den with them,
but is hovering near the woods, which are always at hand, and by her
warning cry or bark tells them when to be on their guard. She usually
has at least three, dens, at no great distance apart, and moves
stealthily in the night with her charge from one to the other, so as to
mislead her enemies. Many a party of boys, and of men, too, discovering
the whereabouts of a litter, have gone with shovels and picks, and,
after digging away vigorously for several hours, have found only an
empty hole for their pains. The old fox, finding her secret had been
found out, had waited for darkness, in the cover of which to transfer
her household to new quarters; or else some old fox-hunter, jealous of
the preservation of his game, and getting word of the intended
destruction of the litter, had gone at dusk the night before, and made
some disturbance about the den, perhaps flashed some powder in its
mouth,--a hint which the shrewd animal knew how to interpret.

The more scientific aspects of the question may not be without interest
to some of my readers. The fox belongs to the great order of
flesh-eating animals called Carnivora, and of the family called
Canidae, or dogs. The wolf is a kind of wild dog, and the fox is a kind
of wolf. Foxes, unlike wolves, however, never go in packs or companies,
but hunt singly. The fox has a kind of bark which suggests the dog, as
have all the members of this family. The kinship is further shown by
the fact that during certain periods, for the most part in the summer,
the dog cannot be made to attack or even to pursue the female fox, but
will run from her in the most shamefaced manner, which he will not do
in the case of any other animal except a wolf. Many of the ways and
manners of the fox, when tamed, are also like the dog's. I once saw a
young red fox exposed for sale in the market in Washington. A colored
man had him, and said he had caught him out in Virginia. He led him by
a small chain, as he would a puppy, and the innocent young rascal would
lie on his side and bask and sleep in the sunshine, amid all the noise
and chaffering around him, precisely like a dog. He was about the size
of a full-grown cat, and there was a bewitching beauty about him that I
could hardly resist. On another occasion, I saw a gray fox, about two
thirds grown, playing with a dog of about the same size, and by nothing
in the manners of either could you tell which was the dog and which the

Some naturalists think there are but two permanent species of the fox
in the United States, namely, the gray fox and the red fox, though
there are five or six varieties. The gray fox, which is much smaller
and less valuable than the red, is the Southern species, and is said to
be rarely found north of Maryland, though in certain rocky localities
along the Hudson it is common.

In the Southern States this fox is often hunted in the English fashion,
namely, on horseback, the riders tearing through the country in pursuit

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