Eye of the Raven: Smart as a fox

Eye of the Raven Chris D'Alessandro Dunster Valemount McBride column
Photo courtesy Chris D’Alessandro

By: Chris D’Alessandro

One of the more interesting abilities of the incredibly intelligent order of Canines is their intuitive understanding of the benefits of symbiosis. This term symbiotic means two or more species of animals having a mutual relationship which causes them to interact in an organized and understood way, whereby each species gives a service and receives a benefit.

I always suspected that the dog family had a very advanced relationship with certain bird species and that they used each other to be successful as hunters and predators. Being in the bush most of my life as a hunter/trapper/observer has given me many opportunities to see this. I have seen wolves hunting with ravens, coyotes with magpies and foxes with crows. I was always fascinated by this and it seemed fairly obvious to me that they were in a partnership with the same goal – to make meat. All of my doubts that this was indeed a fact got erased forever on a bright March day in 1981 on the flats along the Sikinni Chief River in Northern BC, on the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies.

I worked in a large log sort yard that was accessible only by train and airplane, located about 300 kilometers north of Fort St John. When things got slow in the sort yard, accompanied by my two man crew, I would head out into the bush to look for wildlife and check out the progression of our logging project. While driving down the haul road we passed a small opening that was alongside of the railroad grade. I noticed in the distance a small group of maybe five or six ravens flying in a circle quite a ways down the track. They continued in a loosely knit circle flapping and gliding around an invisible center but I realized that the circle was slowly moving in our direction up the grade. I pulled the vehicle over and got out my camera as we knew there were several wolf packs around and I suspected the birds might be with a group of wolves.

As the circle continued in our direction we watched with anticipation and were soon rewarded with the vision of a large grey wolf dog-trotting up the track, followed by a black wolf, a white wolf and another grey. The wolves all stopped in the brilliant sunshine that bathed the clearing and then laid down and like big lazy dogs on a hot day, reclining in the sun and panting enjoyably with their tongues hanging out. To my total amazement the entire complement of ravens glided in for a landing and settled in for a breather amongst the wolves, some as close as four or five feet away. They all sat together in the glory of an early north country sunny day and enjoyed the warmth and the break from the hunt.

I had noticed as the birds approached that there was a cacophony of noises coming from the ravens that was very unlike any noises I had heard before. The sounds seemed deliberate and organized. As some invisible time clock brought the break to an end after half an hour, the wolves arose and continued down the track while the ravens flew back up in formation and continued to move ahead of them in the same circular pattern. The symphony of strange and unusual noises began again and continued as I followed the moving circle for a long time and a long way down the tracks. As the entire region we were in was filled with moose, caribou and deep snow, it became fairly obvious to me that the wolves were using the railroad grade for their access road through the ungulate habitat and as the raven’s circle was actually 100 meters or so ahead of the pack, I became convinced the birds were acting as roving eyes for the pack and spotting game for them. The unusual noises the birds made was a language and the dogs understood it!

I believe if the ravens found game that they were easily able to communicate that to the predators. The take-down of a large game animal would certainly include a large portion for the ravens. This was a crew of organized and symbiotic hunters in action and it left no doubt in my mind that they were a very intelligent, focused predator team that had developed a lethal routine to survive the harsh sub-arctic environment that is their year round home.

And now about a fox – I always liked Aesop’s Fable about the fox and the crow. The crow had somehow acquired a
large chunk of cheese and settled in a low tree to enjoy his meal. A fox seeking a meal approached the tree, sat below and began to talk with the crow, complementing him on his beauty, his great looks and his incredible prowess and intelligence as a food gatherer. As he laid it on thick in a low and flattering monologue the crow having never received this type of adulation and swelling with vanity opened his mouth to accept the compliments, only to lose his piece of cheese to the wily young fox. And as we all know, the moral of the story is “Beware anyone who blows smoke up your…”

I always thought the fox was unhappy with the crow in their symbiotic hunting ventures and found this as a great way to repay his partner’s insufficiencies.

I have had many encounters with foxes. There was a fox we named Skippy who would calmly sit at my skidder awaiting my return every night at 6pm for night shift. This went on for over three winter months. Skippy would readily eat from my hand and was a beautiful crossfox color phase. The red fox comes in three color phases – red, cross (red with a black cross over the shoulders and spine) and silver (which is actually black and silver); whatever they are born with is with them for life. And the old wives tale about don’t feed wildlife, it will harm them? Garbage! They neither forget how to hunt nor lose any instincts. It is the same as if a human won a lottery – you ride along on it as long as it lasts and then go on being poor again! The proof is always in the pudding and as I spent the entire following winter feeding Skippy again, I threw that theory out the window.

I also had a nice relationship with an arctic fox on Baffin Island. He was so small! Not a lot larger than a small poodle. They are rather shy and nervous but curious about people. They always travel and hunt along ridges and many times I remember seeing these active hunters retracing their footsteps over the same ridge as the previous day/night, seeking voles, mice and ptarmigan eggs in the midnight twilight where the sun never sets.

But I have to say that my most interesting symbiosis with a fox happened on the Stikine plateau in 1989. I had killed a large bull caribou and was backpacking the horns and the cape back to my camp. I had been following this band of caribou all day; they continually moved further and further away from my camp. I knew when I pulled the trigger that I would be spending most of the return trek to camp in the dark. It was twilight and I was exhausted and walking fast to get through a high pass before dark. My blue healer hunting companion named Mickey always walked on my right side and a step or so behind me. I got so used to seeing him there peripherally that it was part of my optical landscape. It was dark and I was burned out and totally focused on the pass in the distance and not really paying a lot of attention to anything else.

Somehow I noticed subconsciously that Mickey was a little closer than usual. In the fog of exhaustion this aberration seemed to have become part of my accepted landscape as I pushed ahead. Slowly the awareness of some small, out-of-place detail began to invade my consciousness long enough that I finally stopped to gaze down and I was shocked to see that it was not Mickey at all but a real pretty little red fox! He had been trotting alongside me for how long I will never know. He had proudly joined our hunting party, found his position and was briskly and proudly heading through the pass with his new family to enjoy a meal. The funny thing was that Mickey had taken up a position about five feet behind the fox and had been contently following along as if this was all normal and nothing out of the ordinary.

The instant that the right side of my brain or my intellect clicked in as I stopped, two things happened. The fox immediately ran off and Mickey tried to act like he hadn’t noticed it and went to chase him off, almost like he was caught sleeping on guard duty. I never did figure out what that was all about but it really happened. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and I hope someone will carve those words into my gravestone as it accurately describes my journey through this planet. Hopefully, when the journey is done and I have passed the pearly white gates into the garden of paradise, I can find my old friend raven and see if he has an explanation to this mystery, as I know he was flying high above me that day so long ago on the top of the world.

About this column: The Eye of the Raven is a forum of interesting and unusual animal tales exploring the viewpoint of the four-legged and feathered members of our community. As a raven lives as long as a human and has incredible eyesight, the forum is based on observations that perhaps only a raven would see in the course of his life, encounters that we as humans are allowed to see only as the veil that hides the mysteries of nature is briefly parted. The forum is open to the accounts of anyone who can articulate an unusual or remarkable encounter with a wild animal under 500 words, subject to editor’s approval.

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