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Red Fox Confronts Sandhill Crane

Red foxes might lack reading skills and internet access, but you’d think they’d know not to mess with sandhill cranes – a spear-beaked, toenail-clawing bird that attacks cars, trees bears, and chases golf-course alligators.


Cranes don’t play nice. Google it if you don’t believe me.


And yet a red fox stared down an adult sandhill crane during a 10-minute standoff that Eric Christensen, Stoughton, photographed while driving home in mid-March. Christensen, 47, is an amateur photographer (@salmobyfly on Instagram) who seldom leaves home without his Nikon and Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens. As he slowed his truck that day to admire some sandhill cranes in a field, he spotted a fox slinking around the edge of a nearby pond.


The fox drew within 10 yards of two cranes and a Canada goose when Christensen started photographing from his truck 50 yards away. One crane, presumably the male, stationed itself between its mate and the fox, and then stood tall and flared its wings to their full 6.5-foot span when the fox neared. Each time the fox advanced, the crane aggressively matched its move and drove it back.


If a bookie had driven up just then, Christensen knows how he would’ve bet. “I wouldn’t have thrown down with the fox,” he said. “That’s for sure. That fox looked tiny compared to the crane.”


Granted, foxes aren’t pansies, but the average adult red fox weighs about 10 pounds and stands about 16 inches at the shoulder. Adult sandhill cranes weigh about the same, but stand nearly 5 feet tall and basically taunt all foes to draw first.


And don’t get distracted by the crane’s long, pointed beak. Yes, it could poke out one or both eyes, but you’d best concentrate on its feet. Cranes fight by leaping high, and then raking and slicing with their sharp toenails as they drop.


“They’re like a velociraptor,” said Anne Lacy, research coordinator at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. “They bring their feet up and swipe down hard.”


Christensen said people who view his photos of the rare encounter usually ask if the fox was just toying with the crane, or seeking a way to kill it.


“They wonder if the fox and crane were they just playing, or was the fox looking for a meal?” he said. “It didn’t strike me as a young, naïve fox testing the water. It almost seemed like it was assessing whether it would be worth the fight.


“But the truth is, I don’t know what either of them was thinking,” Christensen continued. “The crane advanced on the fox three or four times, and they’d just lock stares and stand their ground. The fox could have fled, but didn't; and the crane could have flown off, but didn’t. The fox eventually jumped out of striking distance and plopped down in the grass, and the cranes wandered off.”


Christensen isn’t the only one refusing to read much into the encounter. Lacy declined guessing, too. She doubts, however, that the cranes were protecting a nest. She said the foundation didn’t receive its first egg reports until around April 1, nearly two weeks after the fox/crane face-off.


“We had a long, cold winter, so the cranes definitely weren’t laying eggs early,” Lacy said. “The fox might have just been trying to get from Point A to Point B, and the cranes got in its way. I once watched a coyote crossing a field, heading straight for a crane. When the coyote saw the crane, it was like the crane had a force field around it. The coyote circled wide around it, and returned to its straight line.”


Scott Craven, a retired UW-Madison wildlife professor, said he’s never before seen or heard of a fox/crane face-off, but assumes unusual confrontations happen regularly in nature. “It’s possible they were just in the same place at the same time,” Craven said. “Was the fox thinking the crane might make a meal? That would be a bold move, but foxes have been known to do odd things. It’s possible it was a young fox, but it’s pretty early in the season for fox pups to be out wandering.”


Christensen, too, wasn’t there on purpose. He had spent the previous few hours sitting in a wet marsh, his camera’s tripod pushed into the muck, hoping to photograph mergansers or possibly a bald eagle. When daylight started fading, he returned to his truck and drove homeward while watching fields, marshes and woodlots for wildlife.


“I scan landscapes nonstop,” he said. “You look at the world differently when you keep a camera on your lap. You pay attention to horizontal lines in vertical forests. I also appreciate our public lands more than ever. I didn’t realize how many little 10-, 20- and 40-acre public parcels were around Dane County until I loaded the onXmaps app into my phone. The more public lands I explore near home, the more I appreciate all public lands.”


When Christensen reached home that day, he realized he had been fortunate.


“It was almost a life-changing event,” he said. “I’ve been at this long enough to know it’s unusual to get that close to a red fox or sandhill crane. A fox typically wouldn’t have any part of it, and cranes typically just walk off pecking their way across the field when people show up. In this case, they were both more concerned about each other. They weren’t too worried about a truck parked on the shoulder.”


Eric Christensen photos, from upper left: A red fox and sandhill crane stare each other down after their paths cross in mid-March near Stoughton, Wisconsin. The fox repeatedly dodged the crane’s aggressive advances, slinked around it, and tried advanced on it before finally retreating to rest after about a 10-minute encounter.

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