Kerry Temple | April 14, 2017
In my attempts to know foxes, I came across a video showing the solitary hunter scouting for prey in the snow-covered Black Hills of South Dakota. Three feet of snow, the narrator says. Pumpkin-red fox on a pure white landscape. It is listening for field mice scurrying under the snow blanket. I’ve read that a fox can hear a watch ticking 40 yards away. The video fox ambles along, listening for the snow-muffled footsteps of unseen mice.
It lopes lightly, nimbly. Then stops, looks down, stares at the snow, head cocking this way and that, ears tuning in. Consummate focus. Seconds pass.
Then it does an astounding thing. It leaps straight up, flings its hind legs high into the air and shoots back to earth like a missile, snout first, plunging deep into the snow — only its back feet and plume tail sticking up. It then emerges, snow-faced, flailing rodent in its mouth.
These dives are haphazardly successful, the narrator explains, unless . . . unless the fox lines up its prey with the magnetic north pole, using that to plot the trajectory of its pounce. Then it is successful 75 percent of the time. The fox, some scientists believe, can see the Earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” that darkens as its line of vision aligns with true magnetic north.
That is another marvelous thing I have learned about foxes, the dog cousin found on every continent but Antarctica — the most widely ranging meat-eater on the planet. Fennec, cape, silver, swift, red and arctic foxes. Bat-eared, hoary, crab-eating and Tibetan sand foxes. To name a few.