Vulpes the red fox, p.1
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       Vulpes, the Red Fox, p.1

           Jean Craighead George
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Vulpes, the Red Fox


  the Red Fox

  Jean Craighead George and John George

  Illustrated by Jean Craighead George



  for the encouragement and inspiration she gave us


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  A Biography of Jean Craighead George


  VULPES, THE RED FOX, was born in a den in Maryland. It was April. The snow had gone. The woods were cold and wet. A chill rain splashed through the barren woodlands and filled the earth till it could hold no more. In the uplands the rising streams raced along their twisting beds. The river bottomlands of the Potomac swirled with muddy flood waters. Winter lingered in the cold.

  In the warmth of the den spring had come. Seven foxes were born. They lay huddled against their mother’s breast deep in the dark den. Their eyes were sealed. Their first want was the milk of their mother. When their hunger was satisfied the foxes dropped off to sleep. This was their life for nine days.

  Vulpes knew his brothers and sisters only as whimpering cries and warm bodies that tumbled and shoved and kicked against him. He felt the cold wet nose of his mother nuzzling him, and the moist tingle of her tongue caressing him.

  Then one day in the middle of April, Vulpes became aware of something new. There were dim blurred figures that accompanied the kicks and squirms. His mother’s cold wet nose was black. Beyond the soft white fur of her breast there was a dim glow from the outside world. Vulpes could see.

  He looked at all his brothers and sisters. They were gray and round. It seemed to Vulpes there were a lot of them. He looked up. His mother was looking down at him through her yellow slanting eyes. Except for the dim light at the end of the tunnel Vulpes thought this must be the whole world.

  With this settled, he tumbled back to his mother’s breast.

  Outside the den, the red maples had burst into bloom. The brooks were lined with the yellow-green flowers of the spice bush.

  The days went on and Vulpes became more and more curious about the light at the end of his world. He sat and watched it for hours at a time. It was bright and wonderful. Presently he discovered that the light changed. Sometimes it was gone for a long time. This was night. Sometimes it was gray. This was rain. Sometimes it was blacked out for a short time. At these times Vulpes caught a new smell in the musky den. He sensed another presence. This was his father bringing food to his mother.

  Vulpes wondered where his father went in the light. It puzzled him. He felt he must know.

  Then one day his mother darkened the tunnel and disappeared as his father had done. The little fox felt alone. The rounded den seemed large and empty. He huddled close to his brothers and sisters. They all whimpered complainingly.

  When his loneliness became too great, he left his noisy kin to find his mother. He waddled down the tunnel. The light became brighter and brighter. Suddenly there was a second light. He turned his head and peered down another long tunnel. This confused the little fox. He turned to run for the safety of the darkness behind him. Before he had reached it, he felt himself being picked up by his mother. She carried him down the tunnel into the blinding light of the outside world. It was the end of April.

  Vulpes found himself in what he believed was a den, a den that was huge and shining. The light was all around. One part of it was so bright he couldn’t look at it. This was the sun. It was warm and pleasant. This den was so large that Vulpes could not see the end of it. This was the world.

  The young pup scrambled unsteadily to a near-by stone. He wanted to see more of this colorful world. The spring woods abounded with color. The red keys of the maples dangled above him. A loose swirl of Virginia bluebells surrounded him, and the yellows and greens of the dog-tooth violets swept the hill below him. At the foot of the hill the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was fringed with the fresh greens of the willows. The willows stretched beyond the canal to the brown flood waters of the Potomac. The lacy rush of the river hung over all.

  As he watched the colors of spring, Vulpes caught the movement of his shadow beneath him on the rock. As he moved, it moved with him. He looked at it. Slowly Vulpes reached out for it. Slowly the shadow reached back. As he took his paw away, the shadow did the same. Whatever he did, the shadow followed. The fuzzy outline fascinated the little fox. He ran with it. He pounced on it, and finally he lost it behind a tree. He stuck his nose out to see if it was on the other side of the tree. And there, below him, was the shadow, sticking its nose out.

  He was about to spring on it when a movement at the mouth of the den caught his eye. A venturesome brother had followed him into the sunlight. Vulpes ran over and nipped him on the foot. The two foxes rolled in a mock skirmish. They found their voices in melodious “wurps” as they tumbled over and over in a cluster of pale spring beauties.

  Suddenly a bolt of blue came screaming through the blossoming redbud trees overhead. Vulpes and his brother looked up to see a pair of meddlesome blue jays. They glanced toward their mother. She was calm and undisturbed. Her poise reassured them and they went back to their play.

  The young foxes played on until evening. With the lengthening of the shadows came the last carol of the birds. The whistling note of the cardinal rose clear and sweet above the crystal melodies of the wood thrushes. Near the den a flurry of leaves marked the spot where a red-eyed towhee was still scratching vigorously in the wood bottoms. His sharp “Chewink” rang out through the woods. There was the plaintive wavering melody of the white-throated sparrows as they sang, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” And the “Whicherty, whicherty, whicherty,” of the Maryland yellow-throats along the wet brush lands bordering the canal echoed through the bottoms.

  The long hours of play had tired the little foxes and they were glad to go to bed with the birds.

  As the days went by the seven pups spent more and more time playing around the den. The den was hidden in a rocky slope on the north side of the canal bank where it got the warm southern sunlight. Built long ago and now abandoned, the canal made an ideal homeland for the fox. The den was first used by an old woodchuck. Several years ago Vulpes’ parents had found it and enlarged it for their own use. Back from the small rocky entrances they dug long tunnels. At the end of them they scooped out two hollows. One was where Vulpes was born, in the other his parents sometimes stored food.

  Uphill from the den the hills rolled back to the distant farmlands. Sometimes Vulpes and his brothers and sisters romped in the woods behind the den. They would chase one another around the tree trunks and explore the animal trails in the spring woods.

  Vulpes loved to smell the new odors he found: the chipmunks, the squirrels and the white-footed mice. Every time he caught a new scent he would bounce over to his mother and ask her who smelt like that. She would tell him who it was.

  Then one afternoon Vulpes smelt an animal that was like nothing else in the woods. He looked to his mother and was alarmed to find her chasing the cubs into the den. She flashed to Vulpes’ side, picked him up by the scruff of the neck and carried him off, as the voices of two boys sounded through the woods.

  His father darted past him to a hiding place over the canal. Here in the tall grasses he could watch the boys without being seen. The old dog fox saw them go up the tow-path on the other side of the canal. They were carrying fishing rods on their shoulders, and would laugh and shout as they skipped stones over the water

  Presently his father came back to the den and stood before his wobbly son. This was Vulpes’ first experience with man. His father warned him that this was his most dangerous enemy. With this the old fox turned around and trotted swiftly away.

  Vulpes sat back on his haunches and thought of what his father had warned. Who were these animals that this great hunter feared? He decided to see for himself. He stuck his nose out of the den and sniffed the air. Then, with one eye showing around the edge of the rock, he peered down the old tow-path. Vulpes was startled to see that they walked on two feet like the birds. Surely, anything as dangerous as that would have four legs like his father, not just two like the gentle warblers and the perky towhees. He had seen his father stalk and spring upon birds; surely, he could do the very same with men.

  Vulpes was thinking very hard about these new animals when a yellow butterfly came gliding past his nose. He forgot the boys, who were now out of sight. Happily the little fox ran out into the sunlight after the butterfly. Without making a sound he leapt at the flitting insect. He chased it down the rocky bank to the water and was disappointed when the pretty little insect flitted over the canal and down the hill toward the river. Vulpes looked at the water’s edge to see if he could cross and continue his chase. He put his left foot down and found it was wet and very unsafe. The ripples he made pleased him. He barked at them as they rolled away and knocked against the old dried stems of the cattails. He soon forgot the butterfly and was busy splashing his foot in the water.

  The little fox yapped at a last ripple. Then he looked up at the evening sky. He was watching the colors of the fading sunset when a steady “Urp, urp, urp, urp” in the cattails frightened him. He instinctively fell into a crouch, his head turned to one side, his ears pointed forward. From a patch of arrowhead in the swampy bottom of the canal a second voice answered the first. Then a third rose from a patch of pond lilies. Vulpes looked from the cattails to the arrowheads to the pond lilies. He saw nothing. Other “urps” added to the growing din. He stared at the singing water. As he watched, he heard another voice. It whistled meekly, “Pe-ep, pe-ep, pe-ep, peep.” The noise grew louder. It drowned out the roar of the river in the distance.

  Spotted here and there through the swampy bottom a series of “erderps” rang out. More and more voices joined the chorus until the canal bed resounded with ear-splitting songs. Never had Vulpes heard so much noise. It hurt his ears to listen.

  While he stood silently watching, a little ripple caught his attention. Floating on the water was a swamp cricket frog. As its throat swelled up and it began to sing, Vulpes saw where the “erderps” came from. He marveled that so tiny a creature could make so much noise. It was about as big as the petal on the bloodroot.

  On a floting twig beneath him he found Hyla, the spring peeper. He thought Hyla would burst, his throat swelled so as he uttered his shrill “Pe-ep.”

  Suddenly Vulpes realized that Pipiens, the leopard frog, had been sitting not two feet away from him all this time, but because of his black-spotted green back, the little fox thought he was an old stick in the swamp. Pipiens blended well with the dark waters blotched with green leaves.

  All at once the frogs stopped. In the sudden silence that followed Vulpes heard the boys returning from the river, laughing and talking as they ran along the canal.

  “Hey, look, a young fox!” one of them shouted to the other. “Let’s catch him.”

  “We can cross to his side on those rocks,” the other called back.

  As the boys hurried down across the rocks, the frightened Vulpes, remembering what his father had said, scampered to a deep crevasse along the bank. He crawled as far back as he could go. Trembling, he waited.

  He heard the boys calling excitedly beneath him.

  “Where did he go?”

  “Must have gone up in those rocks somewhere,” the other answered.

  Vulpes was surprised that they could not find him. He learned his most dangerous enemy could not smell.

  It wasn’t long before Vulpes heard the chorus of the frogs start up again. The boys had given up their search and tramped away.

  He slipped cautiously from his hiding place as his mother came gliding over the rocks toward him. She had come to bring her frightened pup home. He scampered up the hill before her and tumbled into the den.


  VULPES LOVED THE EVENINGS around his den. Early spring nights on the Potomac River were full of sound and activity. He liked to listen to the sweet liquid tones of the woodlands, and feel the cool winds that came in from the water. The call of the whip-poor-wills floated through the lonely hills. He heard the courting woodcock on the grassy knoll above the den. He listened to its twittering flight song as the bird spiraled high into the air. Along the bottoms he heard the nasal squawk of the black-crowned night heron above the chorus of the frogs.

  On one of these nights young Vulpes heard the deep resonant voice of Bubo, the great horned owl. Bubo boomed out, “Whoo, whoo, whoo-oo, whoo, whoo.” Bubo was the tiger of the woodland birds and his voice sent a shudder through all who heard it.

  These nights Vulpes began to appreciate the tragedy that hung over the woodland creatures at all times. They must be constantly alert. Down in the dark waters of the canal many hunters preyed upon the frogs. Beneath the surface lurked the bass, who came up to take the frogs with an angry swirl.

  Nycticorax, the black-crowned night heron, waded in the shallows of the canal. After several deliberate steps on his long thin legs, Nycticorax would freeze motionless. He looked very much like a stick jutting out of the black waters. Then there would be a sudden thrust of his long spear-like beak. Another frog was gone.

  As the bass retreated to his underwater lair beneath the log when Nycticorax came, so the night heron flew up the canal on the approach of Vison, the mink.

  While the young foxes were playing in the night, their mother was ever on guard. She knew that her youngsters were not safe from Vison or Bubo, for they were inexperienced in the ways of the wild. She never let them get too far away from her sight. She was the first to catch the scent of Vison as he came to the canal to hunt, and she was the first to twitch her ears at the faint far-away bark of the dogs. She let the seven little foxes romp and tumble close to the den, but when they went exploring she followed their movements closely. She left them only to hunt for food for herself, and when she was gone, her mate was close by to protect them from the constant dangers.

  One night Vulpes and his brothers and sisters were frolicking before the den on the fresh spring carpet. It was great sport for the young foxes to pounce upon their mother’s twitching tail. They would crouch behind a stone with youthful boldness. Then they would dart on unsteady legs to sink their tiny teeth in her big, brushy tail. With an easy flick of her brush, their mother would bowl them over. The young pups would stumble to their feet and rush back with renewed fury, yapping and barking happily.

  Watching them from the earth where she was stretched languidly, their mother knew the seven little foxes would soon be able to hunt. Their sense of timing was becoming sharper and sharper. More often they caught her tail now than missed.

  Rolling back from a brisk swish of his mother’s tail, Vulpes sprawled onto the hard back of a box turtle. He stuck his nose down to find its head and was amazed to discover it had none. Vulpes felt brave before this headless creature and he barked at it energetically. Then slowly the old turtle house opened. An ugly wrinkled head turned to look at the little fox. Vulpes jumped back as the turtle hissed at him and snapped back into his box. The excited pup made so much noise over the turtle that he attracted his venturesome brother who came rolling down the slope to join the fun.

  Meanwhile, across the canal and down the steep bank by the river, a shadow sat on the stub of an old basswood tree. Long ago the basswood had been shattered by a bolt of lightning and now it stood, gray and weathered, in the wet valley by the river. Its jagged top reached almost forty feet into the air. Here in
a black hollow of this tree, Bubo, the great horned owl, had made his home. Bubo’s spring family was almost full grown and ready to leave the nest. The old owl was out hunting almost all the time to satisfy the ravenous appetites of his two owlets.

  Bubo shoved off from his post on the basswood tree in muffled silence and took his perch on an old sycamore growing along the canal. From the white bare limbs of the gigantic tree he could watch the beaten trail along the tow-path for the least movement. His sharp ears caught the rustle of a mouse gnawing seeds along the bank. He spread his wings and dropped low along the path. His swift silent flight carried him over the trail. As he neared his victim he shot his legs out before him. His long sharp talons spread out in the four directions of the compass. He struck the mouse.

  Bubo was a frightening sight with his great eyes blinking and his bill snapping viciously. His half-extended wings drooped over the grass. In an instant he was off to the basswood tree to feed his hungry young. The mouse was a small meal for such large children. Bubo knew it would do for only one. No sooner had he thrust it into the mouth of a white, fluffy daughter than he was off to the canal to hunt for more.

  He studied the canal bed a moment and then crossed to the other side. There he dropped into a slender tulip poplar tree and sat motionless. His black form looked threatening against the night sky. Two great feathered tufts stood up like ears on his round head. His yellow eyes gleamed in the night.

  Immediately he caught the barks of the young foxes. He flew closer. From a perch on the edge of a small clearing just below the den he saw Vulpes and his venturesome brother playing with the box turtle.

  Silently the owl watched the scene below him. He saw that the two young foxes were alone. Savage as Bubo was, he usually did not bother foxes. However, tonight he must have food. The pups were young. Swift and tireless as she was, their busy mother could not be with all the wandering pups at any one time. The owl well knew the strength of his own sharp talons. He leaned forward eagerly.

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