The sun sets on a muggy July day in northern West Virginia. As darkness envelops the land, the stidulations of crickets and other buzzing insects replace the last of the birdsong. The last rays of the sun cast shadows on an old hayfield, leaving a hazy glow among the grass just now growing back green from the first cutting.
White-tailed deer wander into the hayfield with caution. Months before, the bullets flew through the air at them, and though those days are long way off, the deer do not forget the lesson of November. In the open, man and his bullets can drop the deer at many yards. In the forest, there is security, but sweet clover grows in the rowen. And for that repast, they will risk exposure.
But they will not enter with out their noses and ears and eyes trained into the distance. Every once in a while, a deer jerks its head up and rotates its ears at some sound. It might only be the scurrying of a mouse or vole, but it might be a spotlighting deer poacher pushing the safety forward on his rifle.
It takes only one mistake, so each sound is taken seriously.
But as the darkness draws, the deer begin to relax a bit. The clover is good and fresh and cool.
As the deer graze the clover, a gray form materializes on the opposite side of they hayfield. It is cat-like in its movements, but it sniffs the ground with purpose, like a beagle tracking a cottontail through the edge of a brier patch.
It is the form of a little gray fox, a creature that lies somewhere between the foxes we all know so well and the primitive raccoon-like dogs from which all dogs descend. The gray fox’s kind first appeared during the Pliocene and evolved to live in humid forests much like the one that surrounds the hayfield on all sides.
During the day, the fox seeks the same shelter in the forest that the deer seek. For generations, the hunters have shot the foxes for their fur and to protect their stupid chickens, which foolishly roost in trees where a fox can easily climb up and catch them.
This fox is not a chicken poacher. She never even seen one. Her whole life’s work is the pursuit of the vole and the mouse and the dashing run at the cottontail. In the spring, she robbed a few turkey nests and climbed into the trees to rob the nests of robins and thrushes and warblers.
Tonight she has come to check out some vole trails that ravel along an old access road and end in a hedgerow of autumn olive where she came across a rabbit nest a few weeks earlier.
A fox in her second year should have a growing litter of kits to feed, but this fox’s litter all died when her mate was killed running across a road where he was certain there would be no traffic. With no mate to bring her fresh meat during the nesting season, her milk dried up and hunger forced her to abandon the den.
She has been a lone fox all these months and only now is she coming back into her fine form. Her summer pelt is thick and platinum silver trimmed in an elegant tawny red behind her ears and on her legs and under belly. Down her tail runs a strip of black hair, which she an raise as a hackle whenever she is enraged or nervous.
But there is none of that now. Her nose is quivering at the scent of meadow voles. One has just run down this little trial. The fox lifts her nose to see if she can catch its scent in the air.
A tiny bit of vole scent wafts into her right nostril. She turns to the right, cautiously stepping into stalk. The vole becomes nervous and scurries a bit. The fox’s ears catch the sound, and she stops. She cocks her head to catch the sound a little more clearly. The vole scurries again, and, in its confusion moves, into a copse of grass just two yards from the fox.
The fox inches closer to the copse. The vole remains still. The fox cocks her head again. Her black nose quivers to catch the vole scent again. She knows that in that copse of orchard grass there is a nice fat vole, and now she must prepare to make her leap.
She digs into the ground, and one can almost hear her counting off before she bounds forward into the vole’s poorly-chosen refuge. Her jaws hit the grass with just precision that vole almost explodes into them as she draws down upon her quarry.
She raises her head from the grass as a squeaking vole screams out in its death throes in her mouth.
One vole down. One more bit of protein to hold over starvation.
The deer raise their heads and stamp and blow warning bark-wheezes at the sound. They know the sound of successful predation. In the spring, the coyotes and bears had lifted some their fawns in much the same manner, and the bawling fawns were unable to be saved as the forest monsters carried them off to their deaths.
A squeaking mouse unnerves them in much the same way.
The fox becomes unnerved by the agitated deer, but she soon dispatches the vole and chokes him down. All that noise might be attracting a deer, but they could just as a easily drawn in a coyote or another fox.
And she is more than content to have this hayfield to herself. Last week, she’d run out a young dog red fox who thought he could chase rabbits here all night long. She set the record straight with a few well-timed bites on the backside.
But this little gray fox is not the empress of the hayfield. At any moment, a coyote could show up and run her off. An enterprising predator hunter could take a few shots at her. Dogs could come running after her for nothing more than a good chase. A great horned owl could come sailing silently from the sky and carry her off.
Her life is harrowing yet perfect. Fields of voles and mice and rabbits will feed her well. Feral apples and pears will give her a little desert.
And though her kind must face danger in order to survive, there has been no time in the gray fox’s evolutionary history when times were so good. The death of the agrarian economy in West Virginia has meant more old fields and more reforestation. The gray fox is a creature of the forest, and when this land was heavily forested before, it was forced to share it with any number of larger predators, including cougars and wolves.
And with fur prices not being worth the trouble for all but the most devout predator hunter and trappers, there really aren’t that many people out to get her.
She may not be the empress, but in this moment is she is certainly regal. She is a predator that has just successfully caught her prey. The ancient call of predators to seek their prey has driven evolution in truly profound ways, yet its successful sequence is both brutal and spectacular. It’s not quite the same as watching a pride of lions take down a Cape buffalo.
But it is essence, it is the same thing.
With the vole now thoroughly swallowed, the fox stops to drink from the muddy ditch that runs alongside the access road. A northern green frog leaps out as the fox approaches. She offers to give chase but gives up as soon as the frog buries itself in the mud at the bottom of the ditch.
The fox drinks the water and then caster her nose into the wind. She quivers her nose to catch the scent of any quarry or predators or competitors that might be nearby. Her nose registers nothing.
She trots down the access road then dives down into the treeline. She crosses an unnoticeable trail that goes through a patch of multiflora roase and then turns to take it deep into the woods where dogs and man never go.
And thus the meadow fox leaves the hayfield and whatever drama she brought to it.
The deer continue their clover supper, and the crickets carry on with their night song.