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Arctic Foxes

December 3, 2009
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Canada has three kinds of foxes: the familiar Red Fox, the elusive Swift Fox, and the hardy Arctic Fox. I’ve had a number of Red Foxes in my yard in suburban Winnipeg, and I’ve often seen them in parks and on the golf courses around the city. Along with raccoons, they have adapted so well to the urban environment that they hardly seem wild anymore.

Swift Foxes were reintroduced into Grasslands National Park on the borders of Montana, Saskatchewan and Alberta about fifteen years ago. Recent reports indicate that they are thriving there. Because they’re such wary creatures, however, it’s difficult to see them. I caught a glimpse of one while birding ten years ago, but it was so fleeting, I hardly recognized what I saw until it was gone.

On my recent trip to Churchill, Manitoba I was lucky enough to observe a couple of Arctic Foxes at close range and for extended periods of time. What a treat!

Arctic foxes are perfectly adapted to the far north. Like ptarmigan, snowy owls and polar bears, they are pure white in the winter. With almost invisible, tiny black eyes, nose, and claws, they couldn’t have a better camouflage in the snow. In the summer, they turn grey or brown or almost blue and can scamper about through the rocks and snow patches relatively oblivious to predators. Their fur is among the thickest of all arctic animals which makes their pelts still valuable for fashionable coats, hats, and collars.

The first one I saw was hanging around a polar bear that was scratching the ice for the fish that were frozen near the surface. The fox seemed to be pretending that it wasn’t really interested in what the bear was doing, but it was obvious that it was sticking close enough to catch whatever the bear scratched loose. When two Herring Gulls swooped in, the fox ran and leaped at one. It was only then that I realized how small the fox was – maybe ten inches tall and thirty inches long, not much bigger than a housecat, or the gull. And at least a third of the fox was tail. It probably would have had a real fight had it managed to catch the gull.

We got close enough to the second Arctic Fox to see their most unique feature. The pads of their feet are covered with fur. And when they are still, their tails seem to naturally curl around their short legs and feet for extra warmth. This allows them to hunt under the harshest of wintry conditions.

What was most amusing about both of the foxes was that at times they bounded along as if they were following a fresh scent. Then all of a sudden, seemingly without rhyme or reason, they would skittle about, executing a series of loops and arabesques that couldn’t possibly indicate they were pursuing prey. Just as suddenly they resumed their original tracking. It made them seem as if they could be playful even in the midst of a desperate hunt for their next meal. What weird and unpredictable creatures!

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