October 8th, 2010

The Fox vs. Skunk Conundrum

We got hit with a skunk cloud the other night, and as I cranked windows shut it struck me: We haven't smelled skunk in several weeks. That's remarkable, because when we first moved here we'd get intense skunk clouds at least once every night and often twice. (Here, a "skunk cloud" is a passing front of skunk smell, distinct from getting sprayed directly.) The cloud drifts with the breeze and half an hour later it's gone unless the night is dead calm.

We considered these a fact of life, and they were with us for the first couple of years we lived here. In the fall of 2004 a skunk gave birth to a litter of four kits in the space between our house and our neighbor's, and we have a video of the kits cavorting and wrestling with one another probably six feet from one of the lower level windows. After that skunk clouds gradually began to get scarcer, and at just about the same time, we spotted the first red fox we'd ever seen in the neighborhood. In fact, it was the first red fox I'd ever seen in the wild in the US, anywhere. (We did see one in Surrey, England, in 2000.) In 2007 a dead skunk appeared in the gully behind our house, stinking to high heaven but also heavily chewed on. I was unaware that anything but great horned owls prey on skunks, but something clearly did this one in, and by the smell of it, the last few minutes had been quite a battle.

Back in 2008, I first saw a fox running past the house with something white in its mouth. I thought it might have been something filched from a trash can overturned by a bear, and thought no more about it. However, after that we began seeing fox running around with small white objects in their mouths on a regular basis. It was not one fox, but at least two. (Their coloring is noticeably different, as you can tell once you see the same individuals two or three times.) I couldn't get close enough to see what the white objects were until a month or so ago, when I spotted a fox digging furiously in the side of the hill next to our stone stairway. Right beside the hole was something I immediately recognized as an ordinary chicken egg.

We've seen fox carrying eggs twenty times or more now, to the point where it's unusual to see a fox trot by the house without one. Somebody in the near vicinity is obviously feeding them, since there are no chicken coops in our squeakily tony neighborhood. I've been finding eggshells in the gully all summer. The fox are sleek and healthy, and not nearly as skittish as they used to be.

Feeding wild animals is never a good idea, and in most places it's against the law. I want fox to be afraid of me, and if they can't somehow find a sustainable place in the local ecosystem, feeding them doesn't fix the problem. I've even got an idea who's doing the feeding, by tracking the fox as we track meteors: I take note of which direction they're running when they have eggs in their mouths, and the lines all point to somewhere down toward the end of the Langdale cul-del-sac.

I might pursue it...but we don't need the skunks here. If the fox are driving out the skunks, overall it's a plus, and pace Woody Allen, the fox need the eggs. (I don't know how they repel skunks, and online research hasn't turned up much.) On the other hand, if the neighbors in question stop feeding the fox, we'll have starving and eventually diseased fox limping around, which is sad on the surface of it, and a possible hazard to people walking small dogs. (Guess who.)

This isn't a storybook world. Animals compete, fight, and die--far too often in my gully. There are no good answers. But at least we can leave our windows open at night.