Two exquisite gray foxes traipse through my yard each night. I seldom see them interact and they never feed in the same place at the same time, but there is no question that they are a pair.
In January they are hunting mice and voles and cleaning up the peanuts and sunflower seeds beneath my feeders. Tonight, however, as January wanes, the fox that I think is the female prances up to the one I think is the male, her glorious tail raised. She paws at him. He looks up and smiles, and off they dance into the shadows.
I often wonder that any creature can survive outdoors in the days of unremitting cold we have experienced. Somehow they do, from mice to moose. Yet survival is only one of the markers of success, from a genetic perspective. The other, and arguably more important measure, is whether or not an organism reproduces -- whether or not its genes survive to travel on through future generations. So yes, a gray fox must be able to find food and stay warm when the temperature dips below zero, but on nights in January and February another urge becomes more compelling still -- so into the shadows they slip.
Many creatures mate in the hoary heart of winter, and for a very good reason: their young will arrive in the season that natural selection has deemed most auspicious. For the foxes, kits will arrive when the snows have melted and the mice and voles and their nests of young will be most exposed. Their kits will learn to hunt and forage when the world is rich in fruit, insects, and the inexperienced young of their vertebrate prey.
To ensure that animals are sufficiently motivated to pass on their genes, even in the midst of winter, evolution has made the act fun and the desire to engage in it strong enough that animals will chance a host of dangers and indignities for the opportunity.
For most species, timing is everything, and courtship has developed to advertise interest, demonstrate fitness and enhance receptivity. Among foxes, much of courtship is olfactory, and while I have never witnessed more of gray fox courtship than is described above, I assume pawing, prancing and waving tails are part of successful wooing.
Snowshoe hare are also beginning their courtship, and their tracks in the snow reveal that it involves much leaping, chasing and showers of orange bunny urine.
A couple of times in the past week I have watched courting gray squirrels. Their wooing is an energy-intensive affair in which a female who has broadcast her availability leads the assembled males on a low speed chase through the trees that can last for hours. She finally stops for the male who has demonstrated his mettle, although I have heard of females who give the hottest pursuer the slip in favor of a tryst with a male that has been waiting in the wings.
I need hardly point out that we humans are not immune to the imperative to mate, although procreation has become optional. While timing is less critical, human courtship also involves much posturing and preening and is fraught with hazards. While humans mate year-round, for many of us a courtship display is expected on Feb. 14.
Perhaps you will have already started thinking about an appropriate offering. To assist you in your task this year, the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center is creating an unusual product -- a courtship gesture that communicates an interest in nature, wildlife and sense of place -- a sampler of edible chocolate scat. Yes, by scat I do mean animal droppings, but wait, read on! BEEC’s scat sampler will include life-like edible chocolate scats of four different species, each identified, providing the recipient with a natural history lesson as well as a sweet treat. The Valentine scat samplers are hand mixed, rolled and twisted by naturalist-trained chocolatiers.
Ingredients simulate items found in the animal’s diet: fruit, beetle wings, fish scales, etc, but tastier. Each box is attractively arranged and includes a key to the scat samples and a list of actual ingredients. Such a present would demonstrate courage, originality and awareness of the generous sense of humor of your beloved. Risky? Perhaps. But in courtship, risk is often rewarded.
The samplers will be for sale at the River Garden during the Feb. 7 Gallery Walk. Even if your prospective mate does not find the offering irresistible, you can derive pleasure from knowing that your gift will have enriched the scholarship fund for BEEC’s nature camps.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec,org.