One of the delights of Nora’s life in Ottawa was the ever-mounting squirrel population. She would warn us of a squirrel crossing the street from her vantage point on the 4th floor balcony or the presence of one of the furry little
bast creatures on a lawn 300 feet away as we took one of our four or five daily walks. And the warning wasn’t just for us – anyone in a six block radius had the advantage of being able to hear her hunting howl and take appropriate action.
She has found no such sport in our new home! Though we have three types of squirrels here on the Island (red squirrels, Northern flying squirrels and the Eastern chipmunk) they tend to prefer country to city living. Having said that back in 2009 a red squirrel that had decided to nest in the suburban hydro substation at West Royalty gnawed through wires and set a fire that left 55,000 homes in the Charlottetown area without power for almost 24 hours. Notice this was long before Nora’s arrival and had she been living here at the time no doubt there would have been a warning sounded!
But I digress. That is not to say that we have not encountered wildlife (and I don’t mean the tourists partying down at Peake’s Quay) on our daily or nightly walks over the past few months. Though we have never caught sight of a single Tamiasciurus hudsonicus nor one of his even more elusive airborne cousin Glaucomys sabrinus, two or three Tamias striatus have chattered their displeasure at Nora nosing a little too close for comfort. That’s been it for the squirrel population. We have had the warning scent of the odd skunk that has led to another path being chosen. And the crows – well let’s not go into the crow situation here except to say “stone the f…..rs!” However the creature most often encountered has been a very beautiful and not at all shy silver fox. We’ve seen her down by Confederation Landing, in our friend Cathleen’s backyard and near the Basilica on Great George Street. When I mentioned it to some friends they didn’t seem the least surprised. It turns out that urban foxes are as much part of life here in Charlottetown as those pesky squirrels were in Ottawa.
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is indigenous to the Island and even though our friend is black (with silver highlights and white tipped hence the name) she is still identified as a “red” fox. That silvery black colouration is the result of the natural development of melanin, the dark coloured pigment in the skin. At one time silver fox were a vital part of the Island economy and fortunes were made, and lost, as fashion trends, world wars and economic depressions came and went.
The first fox farm was a secret operation set up by Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton on an island in Alberton Harbour in 1884. Through careful breeding of silver fox with silver fox (melanism is a recessive trait) they produced a pelt that became much prized in the fur industry. When one of their pelts sold at auction in London for $1,807.00 (approx $82,000 today) the breeding secret became if not known then known to exist. In 1900 Dalton sold a breeding pair to a neighbour and his partner, and another pair to two brothers who had been experimenting on their own farm. The “Big Six Combine” dominated the fox fur trade which was still centred in western Prince County. They made a verbal contract to keep their breeding practices secret, to never sell a live fox, and not to produce too many pelts. In this way they expected to keep prices high.
However in 1910 a nephew of one of the combine members broke the pact and sold a breeding pair to a syndicated set up by the heir to Holman’s Department Store. In a very short time fox breeding became a mania – people bought shares in foxes, options were bought and sold and companies formed. By 1929 there were over 700 fox farms on the Island and when the Depression hit the number miraculously rose to almost 1,200. It seems that fox farmers were willing to sell their pelts at reduced prices which still fetched more than what they got for other stock in those lean times.
In 1939 over 76,000 pelts were sold but fashion was changing and the glut on the market saw the bubble finally burst. There were many factors that led to the decline of what had been a multi-million dollar industry on the Island: a world war, taxation, competition from foreign markets, a flood of inferior pelts from greedy breeders, war time shortages of feed, and a change in fashion. Fox pelts became so devalued – one year only 20% were sold at auction – that many farmers simply gave up and released their stock into the wild. Many of the foxes on the Island are descended from that release – perhaps even our local resident.
So why, other than spotting our vixen once or twice, this sudden interest in foxes? Well you know I made this
promise pronouncement that there would be no more ornaments purchased for the Christmas tree. However (and you just knew there was going to be a however didn’t you?) when I was attending the Antonine Maillet lecture at the Confederation Centre last week I wandered into the gift shop and low and behold there was an entire selection of Foxy things including – wait for it – a red fox Christmas tree ornament! Well I mean how could I not? It’s an Island thing after all! I was simply doing my patriotic duty!
Foxy Facts – from our friends at the CBC.
- Foxes have an expansive territorial range – between 40 to 160 square hectares
- The average litter is between 4 to 6 kits – though occasionally it can go up to 9.
- The male (dog, tod or reynard) stays with the female (vixen) to raise the young.
- Litters are normally born in March after the January mating season.
- Kits stay with their family until they are between 9 and 12 weeks old and then head out on their own.
- On PEI their main predators are coyotes, with vehicles second and hunters third.
- Adults foxes are extremely adept at crossing the road, they even look both ways, and some have been observed waiting for lights to change at intersections, – pups often fall victim to traffic
- They have keen senses of smell, hearing and vibration.
- It is not necessary to leave out food for urban foxes; they eat everything from twigs and leaves to worms and seeds, hunt for frogs, mice and birds, and take advantage of carrion.
They are playful – a few have been observed playing on backyard trampolines – true story!!!
- They are not – I repeat – NOT a prime carrier of rabies here on the Island.
And you now know more than you ever really wanted to about foxes – or at least foxes as Nora and I observe them here on the Island.
On this day in 1933: Thailand has its first election.