The snow is slowly leaving us here in New England. Before it turned to slush and ice I got out to do some tracking in beautiful conditions. In this video I go into detail on how to distinguish Red Fox from other species without using measurements. I also include a good explanation of a few ways to tell canine from feline and, we see a bit of hunting behavior by our friend the fox.
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I came across a fantastic tracking scene while at work mentoring kids in Nature connection last week. I would like to lay this whole thing out for you, really “geek out” on it and share what the kids observed. I was lucky enough to be able to share this mystery with two groups, the one I found it with on Thursday and my advanced teen skills group on Friday. The pictures and more in depth analysis took place Friday morning which is what I will share with you here.
Below is an area we walk through often, an access road on the edge of a small field with Red Cedars and Goldenrod overgrown with Mile a Minute Vine. It’s in Newtown, CT. We walk this every friday on the way to our camp. If you look closely you may be able to see some feathers in the trail. There was nothing the Friday prior.
In the middle of the road we found these flight and body feathers of a Wild Turkey (below). I did not let on what kind of bird it was. Many in the younger Thursday group said the feathers were from a hawk, probably because of their size. Some of the teenagers were very familiar with turkeys and ID’ed them immediately. I challenged the teen-aged group to work together and then tell me individually the answer to the questions “who, what, where, when, why and how”. Some of these kids have been mentored in Nature connection for many years. All of them, including the newer students, are sharp inquisitive people and I knew I was in for a fun time.
I will share our observations and conclusions and add some research I did later. Put you nerd hats on ’cause we are going deep.
In the end we found three distinct scenes of sign, mostly feathers. The first was on the road on the North end of the field, the next about 15 feet to the Southeast into the field and the third, 15 feet or so Northeast from the second, just on the North edge of the road. This first scene included the above grouping of feathers in a radius of about 5 feet or so (being with the kids I was not able to get the best pictures or documentation). This group contained a number of flight feathers (wing) and body feathers (above). I have not yet determined which part of the body the smaller feathers are from. The two pictures below show details of some of the sign. This was obviously the site of predation, especially clear after finding that most of the feathers were “sheared.” Many of the larger ones in two or more pieces. The differing anatomy of predatory species lead to a difference in how they remove feathers to get at the meat.
The second scene (below) still had some snow in it. However the only tracks were melted out deer.
In this grouping where more sheared primaries and secondaries (wing feathers) and some plucked tail feathers (top of above photo). Below you can see some damage from the plucking or an attempt to shear a nearby group of feathers.
Again there were many wing feathers and larger body feathers in this area of about 5 or 6 ft dia. It also included tail feathers which the first scene only had one or two of. Below we found the turkey’s beard. Occasionally females will have a beard, as far as I know adult males always do.
There were no tracks on the snow, there was however this scat about half an inch in diameter full of fur.
The third and final scene seemed to be the dinner table. The remaining wing feathers, just a few body feathers, and the larger bones picked clean.
Above is what is left of the upper leg bones attached to the pelvic girdle. The femurs where both broken in the middle. Other broken bones were scattered nearby.
Little was left of the feet. Above is one of several talons we found at the third scene. (Above)
(Below) Some scaly skin from a “shin” or lower leg. I placed it on the stick for the photo.
The carcass was Wild Turkey. Several of us are very familiar with their feathers and anatomy and I double checked with a feather ID guide. Who was the culprit? We suspect it was a Red Fox. This ID is much more complicated. I will break it down.
Could it have been an arial predator? The sheared feathers indicate a mammalian predator, birds do not have the carnassial teeth required to cut and therefor must pluck. Which mammal? Bobcats have less developed carnassails than canine and would not have left such nicely cut quills. Elbroch reports Red Fox and house cats often both shear and pluck, Red Fox often pluck the tail rather than cut them which is what we observed here.
The scat we found is consistent with Red, Grey Fox and Eastern Coyote. It is close to the small end for Coyote and we do know there is a resident Red Fox. Grey are rare in the area. It is of course possible that the scat was placed later merely to mark the carcass as foxes will do. However it was the only scat in the area besides a green, hairy, mushy one I did not get a picture of, that was even smaller in diameter than the one pictured. If a Coyote had killed and eaten the turkey I would have expected it to poop. After all, everybody poops.
Where did the turkey come from? Where was it when it was attacked? Where was the fox before the attack? Where did the fox go after?
Not being an arial predator that attacked, the turkey could not have been flying at the time. Could it have been in a tree roosting? Some of the younger kids thought a bobcat could have climbed a tree to get it. The older kids and I felt any turkey smart enough to make it to adulthood would wake up and fly off if something climbed up a tree it was in. So the turkey must have been on the ground. The fox may have been hidden nearby, possibly lying in wait as Wild Turkeys are notoriously hard to sneak up close to.
We found no tracks so could not determine much of the before and after.
When did the attack occur? I asked the kids when turkeys and fox are active. Turkey roost at night, fox tend to lay low during the day. They had noticed that there were no tracks in the snow yet the animal must have stepped there to leave the scat. The snow had been soft enough for a portion of each day over the last week to allow for footprints. So we postulate that the attack took place early in the day when the snow was still hard, less likely later when the snow might be softer from the day’s sun. It couldn’t have been at night ’cause the bird would have been in a tree.
When did the scat arrive? At some point a fox poops at the second scene. It felt to me this would have happened after the food was gone. Red Fox often leave a message to themselves not to bother with an empty food source. Why no scat on the bones at the third scene?
Why was the turkey killed? Easy, someone was hungry. Why this turkey? It was a male and may have been alone making an easier target. A male is more likely to be alone and it would be extremely difficult for a ground predator to get the jump on a flock (or rafter as it turns out a group of turkeys is called). Maybe the fox knew the routine or where it had roosted the night before and was waiting. There was nothing indicating that the turkey was compromised by injury or disease though there was little left to examine. If it was sick or injured, it would have been an easier target.
What and How?
We had many hypotheses. One way we think it could have gone down is like this: The fox gets lucky and jumps the turkey at scene one. Fox pins turkey and starts chomping feathers. Some pressure forces fox to move East to second scene and again to the third. Either the turkey is not dead and runs or an outside disturbance is involved. The fox eats the turkey down to the bones at the third scene leaving not a scrap.
What outside force? We surmised that possibly the fox’s mate showed up. This time of year fox are paired up either mating or preparing for kits to be born. This may have caused the original fox to move around while dealing with the feathers, not wanting to share in its kill right away. Also, it seems like a lot of meat to be consumed on the spot (it must have been since the bones were left at the third scene), which would also indicate the possible presence of a second animal because foxes will cache what they cannot eat and would have moved any leftovers to a more hidden location. If it were a mated pair, they may have eventually shared in the feast.
Way too much fun! Theories, guesses, conjecture, critical questioning. One of the students found the second group of feathers and said “wait, why are there more over here?” He was incredulous. Good for him. It was good for all of us.