The Fox and the Groundhog

We live in the country north of Philadelphia on 19 acres of marsh, meadow, and woods. The property is home to all sorts of wildlife, including geese, ducks, raccoons, groundhogs, rabbits, owls, deer (lots and lots of deer), and two great blue herons, who each morning fish on bony legs in the stream. We also have, I now know, at least one family of red fox.

Being a gardener and living in close proximity with wildlife has its challenges. With the exception of boxwoods and holly, the deer basically eat anything green, and I’ve learned that if I value a plant it needs to live like a prisoner behind a high fence. Our resident groundhogs are not so easily locked out. My hostas and daylilies are their salad bar, and when cabbages and broccoli plants mysteriously began going missing in the fenced vegetable garden I soon found my culprit — a chubby groundhog who had burrowed his way in. I caught the varmint redhanded one morning last week chomping down my celery plants. I grabbed the shovel and raised it above my head. But I don’t have what it takes to kill a cornered animal. He looked up at me with those beady, not-very-cute eyes and flashed his yellow teeth that had so efficiently decimated my crops. “Go on, get out of here,” I yelled and shooed him through the gate, watching as he waddled as fast as he could toward the woods.

The next morning, Woodson the Lab did what I was unable. Unlike his late great companion, Gracie the  unstoppable hunting dog, Woodson is not exactly a feared presence around here. Not even our chickens give a squawk when he ambles over. He has all the predatory instincts of a poet. But the other day, he made a mad dash behind the car, and sure enough got the ground hog. With one canine chomp it was gone, a wad of my daylily leaves still clenched in its jaws. I buried it in the meadow and congratulated Woodson on earning his keep.

That was the victory over nature. Then came the fox and with him (her?) utter defeat.

Besides dogs and cats, we have for many years had backyard chickens. Besides giving us eggs, they offer up large doses of comic amusement. Until recently we had eight hens that gave us about a half dozen multi-colored eggs each morning. With the spring weather, I began releasing them from their fenced yard during daylight hours so they could free-range around the property, filling up on grubs, bugs, and plant shoots. Then about six weeks ago, one disappeared. A month later, another disappeared. In both cases all I could find were telltale piles of feathers. A couple days after the second disappearance, I was drinking coffee in the kitchen when I spotted a red-brown flash in the meadow. From the high grass emerged a red fox. I had my culprit.

For the next several days, I kept the birds confined. But just yesterday decided it was time to give them some free-range time. My idea was to only let them out when I knew I’d be working around the property. Fox are famously shy; our resident wouldn’t be so bold as to attempt a theft right in front of me, would he? About 3 p.m., I was pulling weeds behind the little cottage that serves as my writing studio (where I’m writing this). I heard loud desperate squawks of the type reserved for sheer terror. Rake in hand, I raced around the building just in time to see the fox trotting across the lawn — just feet from the barn — with one of my birds in its jaws. I gave chase, but he quickly disappeared into the high meadow grass. There were feathers scattered all over the lawn. When chickens are terrorized, they lose them in clumps. What was especially worrisome, though, was the feathers were different colors. My fear was the fox had multiple victims.

I found one traumatized hen with her head in a hole, feathered butt high in the air  – the proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. I held her tight to my chest until she calmed down. Later I located two others hiding in the forsythia hedge, feathers ruffled but otherwise unharmed. That left two unaccounted for. As the saying goes, chickens “always come home to roost” each night. My two missing birds did not. I walked the property with a flashlight, hoping to find them holed up somewhere. No luck, nor none this morning. They are gone. In the battle between wild nature and domesticated husbandry, the score stands at a lopsided 5-to-1. As so many countless others before me learned the hard way, nature in the end always wins.

This morning, my three survivors are back to their old selves, pecking at grass and scratching for grubs — safely inside their fenced yard. And inside the coop, the seven baby peeps are just feathering out, the next generation of egg layers. A new groundhog has begun patrolling the garden perimeter. A half dozen deer have bedded down out by the edge of the marsh. And somewhere out there, a fox family is contentedly sleeping off a big meal.

For those that remain, life carries on.

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