Call it the Case of the Attempted Rabbit Snatching.
The other day around dusk Angelyn and I were riding in the Outback when we came upon a rabbit feeding in the grassy lane. It watched as we approached, then hopped into the bushes.
At that moment, what looked like a dark brown fox sprang after the rabbit. Then it saw us, turned tail and ran.
Apparently we had interrupted the predator’s dinner plans — a remarkable case of good timing for the rabbit. Had we been a few seconds later, it would have been supper.
However, Angelyn and I were puzzled by what we had seen. Dark brown fox? Does such a thing exist?
Like most folks who live in the country and quite a few who live in town, I’m familiar with foxes, both red and gray. They’re secretive, but they do show up now and then.
They’re not all that hard to tell apart. The red is red, and the gray is gray — though the gray does have reddish legs and underside.
But dark brown? I’d never seen or heard of such.
Hmm. Time to put on my private-eye hat and do some investigating.
I checked with three former fox trappers, figuring that if anyone had seen an off-color fox, it would be them.
Every one of them — Jerry Toler of Liberty, Wayne Havard of Gloster, Walton Speed of Meadville — said they’d never seen any such color variation.
“We trapped I don’t know how many of them years ago, and the reds were red and the grays were gray,” said Toler, who trapped with his brother Randy.
“I’ve seen some red foxes with different color phases, but nothing along the lines of your description,” Havard said.
Speed said his catches were all the standard color, but added, “There’s a lot of things out there we haven’t seen.”
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Next I decided to determine what it wasn’t.
The critter looked too small and dark for a coyote.
It was definitely not a cat (bobcat or feral), mink or otter.
Arctic foxes come in a dark brown phase, but I think we can rule that out, not to mention martens and wolverines, which are also northern species.
A jaguarundi is a small Central American wildcat rumored to have spread to parts of the Deep South. It comes in various colors including dark brown and is about the size of what we saw. But this thing didn’t look or move like a cat.
Then there are mythical beasts, like the chupacabra or maybe a baby tanny frate.
Turning to the Internet, I found out that foxes do come in a variety of colors on occasion.
Gray fox mutations include beige and white. Scratch that.
Red fox can come in black, silver or “cross,” with a dark stripe down the back and across shoulders. I looked at photos of black and cross foxes; neither matched what I had seen.
I mentioned the sighting to my son Andy, and he recalled seeing a black coyote in that vicinity years ago. Then I remembered capturing a black coyote on a game camera a short distance away last year.
Internet photos of half-grown black coyotes — or “ky-yutes,” as my friends call them — look pretty much like what we saw. Though black, they’re not necessarily jet black like, say, my cat Luke Skywalker. More of a brindly, charcoalish black.
Coyote pups are born in the spring, which would make the one we saw around six months old, or half-grown.
To sum up: I know there are black coyotes in the vicinity. Black coyotes aren’t necessary jet black. This is the time of year to see half-grown pups.
I had my answer.
Case closed — for now, anyway.
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Speaking of black predators, a few days later I was walking across an overgrown food plot in the early morning when I saw something dark in the top of a dog-fennel bush.
Dog-fennel, which goes by various local names, grows everywhere around here, with a thick stalk and feathery leaves. It can top six feet in height.
As I approached, I realized the object was a black racer, wrapped around the upper branches, possibly waiting for breakfast to scurry by in the form of a rat or mouse.
I eased close enough to get a good look but not disturb the snake off its roost. We eyed each other for awhile and I walked on.
When I returned half an hour later, it was still there. A gust of wind swayed the stalk wildly, but the snake hung on with no apparent problem.
The only mystery here was how that snake had climbed six feet up a wispy dog-fennel. Considering how adeptly snakes can climb, that’s probably not much of a mystery after all.