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West End News: March 9

Not to go full Minnesotan on you, but I need to take a minute to talk about the weather. Here in the woods of the West End, we’ve been treated to the full range of weather patterns over the last week. One day, we were skiing on the lake in sunshine and warmth. The next, we fell asleep to the sound of rain pounding the roof interrupted only by the occasional flash of lightening. When we woke up, it was once again a winter wonderland with big soft flakes floating down. As I write this, the wind is howling and chickadees are actually being blown right off the railing on our deck.

The rain and melted snow has refrozen into a very hard and thick layer of ice covering the ground virtually everywhere. Now, I’m no Chel Anderson, but it seems the local red foxes are having trouble catching mice. Typically, the foxes will listen for the mice under the snow, then pounce into the drifts in dramatic fashion. I suspect that the hard crunchy snow and thick ice is preventing them from a lot of this hunting activity. I come to this hypothesis after a couple of recent encounters with the cat-like red foxes.

Just yesterday, moments after I had walked in the front door of our crew housing to visit with Jessica Hemmer, a red fox appeared hot on my trail. Rather than come inside, he (or she) stopped just under the bird feeder and spent several minutes scratching spilled seeds out of the crunchy snow. Filling bird feeders is an inexact science in this household, so often we have a pretty decent pile of spilled seed on the ground but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a fox partake in the buffet. Jessica and I watched the fox until it causally trotted off towards my house. I later noticed its tracks up on our deck as well.

Jessica then told me about another close fox encounter this past week. I suppose an alternate hypothesis to the difficult mouse hunting conditions could be that Jessica is simply a fox whisperer. Maybe they just like her company, she is pretty cool. Anyway, Jess was hiking Briton Peak in Tofte a few days ago when she noticed a red fox skirting around the parking lot in the woods. A few minutes into her hike, and there was the fox again, heading straight towards her on the trail. It walked right up to her, gave her a look as if to say “um, excuse me, you’re hogging the path” before sauntering around her and continuing on towards the trailhead. Lest no one believe her, Jess managed to get the whole thing on video. We both wondered if well meaning folks were feeding this fox near the trail head, contributing to his blasé attitude.

While it's tempting to feed these beautiful animals, especially when it seems you could almost feed them out of your hand, doing so is not in their best interest. Rough winters come and go, and with them the corresponding fluctuations in populations. Living so entwined with the natural world, as we do here in Cook County, it’s important that we do not alter the natural patterns and behaviors of our animal neighbors by providing easy meals.

In other canine news, the frequent dustings of new snow on the hard packed ice has been great for spotting wolf tracks. There appear to be three or four wolves that frequent some of our favorite ski trails. Unlike their foxey friends though, we have yet to see anything more than some footprints and scat. Maybe this is the cabin fever speaking, but I think we’ll try stepping out on our back deck tonight for a good howl and see if we can’t start up a conversation.

For WTIP, I’m Clare Shirley with the West End News.

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