I’d seen it (and others of its kind) in the neighborhood. “It” is a Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, most likely a female (vixen) native to Texas and common in Austin. A few days ago, she visited my back garden for about 20 minutes, clearly relaxed and in her element.
She knew we watched her, but didn’t flee, nor seemed nervous. Also, it was clear that she’d been here before; she knew her way along the garden’s paths. I suspect that it was a fox that predated our Eastern Screech Owl nest box back in February. If so, I imagine she had kits to feed. Gray Foxes are omnivores and eat what they find: eggs, seeds, insects, reptiles, bird fledglings, rodents; their diet is varied. They also climb like cats and can jump up to 6 feet. They’re well-suited as predators in an urban environment.
She looks healthy to me, her coat lush, her eyes bright. She spent a few minutes nibbling on the remains of safflower seeds, dropped from a feeder situated above her.
After a while, she jumped up on the fence, traipsing along the top, until she sat. Then she lay down on top of a trellis adjacent to one part of the fence, comfortably dangling one front leg off the trellis edge. After a bit of rest, she climbed over the fence, and with a swoosh of her bushy tail, she was gone into another’s fenced space.
I’d called my SIL over to see our foxy visitor. Through the screen of the enclosed patio, the Hub caught this photo of us as fox paparazzi.
Recently, I walked along to path to my beehive, Bo-Peep, to check on the consumption of sugar water after a cold spell. As I was walking back along the same path, realized that I’d stepped in dog poop.
Wait,I don’t have a dog! What I’d stepped in was not the poop of a dog but scat from a fox! I know there are foxes in our neighborhood because I saw a pair not long ago, early in the morning. I’m also fairly sure I know where they live and it’s not far. These neighborhood foxes are most likely Gray Foxes, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. I love the fact that there are foxes in our midst, shy and elusive, but very much a part of the wildlife tapestry and great hunters of rodents. That being said, foxes are omnivores and along with rodents, will eat bird eggs and baby birds, as well as many other things. But in an urban environment, they have a place and are adaptable and comfortable even if we rarely encounter them.
Last year, a pair of mated Eastern Screech Owls, Megascops asio, wooed one another and settled into our nest box, the female laying four eggs. At that time, our owl nest box camera was functional (it has since given up the ghost), but I loved watching mama in the box, shifting and snuggling over the eggs, and dad bringing her treats of rats in the evening. One morning in early March, I logged on, got the inside view and there was nothing in the box–no eggs, no mama owl. I found broken egg shells at the base of the tree and realized that the nest had been raided, I assumed by a raccoon, as they’re very common in our neighborhood. Like foxes, they’re omnivores consume a wide variety food.
During that nesting time last year, dad would rest in the hole of my back neighbor’s dead Arizona Ash tree. The hole has a clear view of the nest box and isn’t far away. In the last two weeks, I’ve spied an owl (the same male?) in that hole almost every day. The Blue Jays know he’s there–that’s how I found him–following their warning calls as they harass him from time-to-time. Without the help of the caterwauling jays, I would have never known he was there, he’s so well camouflaged.
I know when he’s sleeping inside the hole or perhaps not there at all, when I can see the deep, dark of the hole. These two photos of the same hole were taken on different days.
This morning, at about 7am, I was hanging up the bird feeders and setting out unshelled peanuts along my back fence, when I saw an owl perched in a different, smaller tree–a Crape Myrtle–belonging to the same back neighbor. It was light, just barely, and it’s not typical to see owls out in the open after daybreak. The owl was still and facing my sister-in-law’s back garden. Just then, I heard the call of a Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, and observed two in her large backyard tree One of the hawks was enjoying an early breakfast.
The smaller male perched nearby while the female ate. They were closer together when I initially saw them and the dining hawk definitely bigger, which indicates that she’s the female.
I was surprised at the early morning catch by the hawks, I usually see them hunting later. I now suspect that the little owl in the myrtle was caught in the open and was remaining still, as the hawks are a clear threat to her.
The Blue Jays arrived for their morning peanuts, discovered the owl in the myrtle and in a flash (that I missed, as I was glancing at the hawks) the owl flew to the nest box, trailing yelling jays after her. Just after that bit of bird drama, I glanced at the tree hole, saw an owl face there and snapped the photo shown the beginning of this post. I now know that there is a pair of nesting Eastern Screech owls in my back garden: dad is in the tree hole, mom is in the box. This pair is quiet and shy–just like last year’s owls. Are the the same pair? Probably, but only they know for sure. And really, isn’t that all that matters?
So why did I start this story with the fox scat? Last March, when the screech owl nest was destroyed, I assumed it was a raccoon that did the deed. For some time now I’ve wondered if, instead of a raccoon being the predator, that it was a fox that snatched the eggs. Foxes climb well, I know they’re around and that they’ve been in the back garden. I didn’t see any raccoons in or around my garden in this past year (though I’m sure there were visits from some) and I’ve spied the foxes several times. Additionally, in the past, but mostly during summer, I’ve seen snakes in the garden and it’s possible it was a snake which raided the box. The truth is that I’ll never know for sure who ended the owl couple’s chance at a family that time and whatever the predator, it has to eat too and likely had offspring to feed. After all, owls are predators and eat plenty of smaller birds.
Now that I’m aware that there are two owls, probably a mated pair and likely the same couple as last year, I hope to be proactive in helping them protect their nest box. There are guards that can make it difficult for predators to reach the nest and I’ll figure out something along that line. If past experience holds true, the owls will have eggs by the end of this month, definitely by March.
As for the Cooper’s Hawks, I will keep an eye out for their nesting digs. They’re big birds and a nest is likely placed in a large, evergreen oak tree.