Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Mystery mound may be foxy trap made by a man

By STACEY COLE February 24. 2018 1:48AM
 (Courtesy)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2000.

We reported the latest nature mystery in our Jan. 15 Nature Talks in a letter from Center Sandwich, that read in part: “Up in our large field of 8 acres with a northeast exposure we found a newly placed pile of straw relatively 5 feet high by 3 feet across. It was scraped into a circular shape with an indentation on the top. This resembled a nest, but only from appearances as it was impenetrable. The field had been mowed in early September by cutter bar and this mound was not there at that time.”

Turning to our readers for a solution, we received a suggested answer from one of our long-time reader friends in Exeter. He wrote, “This is in response to the inquiry offered from a reader as to the identity of a compacted mound of material that the reader had discovered. At the risk of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would venture that the mound was man-made.

“Our late neighbor John Tucker was an avid trapper and employed such a mound in his fox sets. His mound was made up of leaves, garden refuse, hay, or anything that would break down into compost and was in full view of his tethered dogs. John left a shallow depression in the top of the mound where he secreted several traps that were sprinkled with vixen urine. The dogs were part of the set-up. John’s theory was that the fox was attracted to the barking dogs and would hop up on the mound to look them over. One could debate the whys and wherefores, but it worked. I recall one season that John took six foxes from that set.

“If my memory serves correctly, Farmer Brown’s Boy used such a device in his attempt to put Reddy Fox out of business. Reddy was lucky; he triggered a trap with the tip of his tail, severely injuring it. Legend has it that before the injury, Reddy’s tail had been completely red, but in the healing process the tip hairs turned white and stayed that way forever.”

I must confess that I had not heard the legend of how the tip of the tail of the red fox became white. However, In my research through several books in my library, I found that Thornton Burgess, a writer of children’s books, quoted Peter Rabbit as saying in his “Animal Book for Children”: “There is one thing I do envy Reddy and that is that big tail of his. It is a wonderful tail. I wish I had one like it.” How everybody laughed as they tried to picture Peter Rabbit with a big tail like Reddy Fox. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t get far if you had to carry that around,” said Old Mother Nature. “Even Reddy finds it rather a burden in wet weather when it becomes heavy with water.”

Earnest Thompson Seton offered the following reason why northern foxes have such a very large tail: “Its nose and pads are the only exposed part, and these might easily be frostbitten when it sleeps during severe weather. But it is always careful in lying down to draw these together, then curl the brush around them; it acts as both a wrap and respirator ... I believe a fox or a coyote would die before spring if turned out in the autumn without a tail.”

By the way, the tail of a red fox is long and bushy. In length it measures about 14-plus inches.

Our Exeter friend continued: “When my thoughts turn to Biloxi, Miss., which is often, they include the little squirrel that gave us so much pleasure. Wrongly identified by his sponsor, he went through life never knowing what he was. As barracks pets were not permitted, I can’t even guess how that turned out. From your description of a fox squirrel, one would never have fitted in a uniform pocket. Ours was chipmunk size, with dark gray fur and possibly white on the undersides; maybe a flying squirrel. None of us had ever seen one of those either, so there goes the I.D. Someone suggested that his attraction to a pocket indicated that he might be a pocket gofer!

“Upon reaching maturity, nature dictates that some creatures will leave their human habitat and seek their own kind, perhaps our squirrel did that. As to what did not happen to the squirrel, Daughter Ann had this to offer, ‘He probably never trained for the circus. Whoever heard of a squirrel being shot out of a cannon?’

“Strange pets include the three-foot alligator we maintained outside our barracks at Boca Raton. The fellow who wrestled him from a nearby drainage ditch appeared to be the scholarly type rather than a wildlife handler. He was quite comfortable in his deep pan of water, but also spent a lot of time basking in the sun. Meat scraps from the mess hall kept him well sated. His favorite cuisine was hot dogs. He would leap a foot off the ground to grab one dangled over his head.”

I must confess, I have never hankered to have an alligator for a pet.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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