Something long and tawny-colored was tearing around a wet meadow northeast of Huntsville one morning last week. What on earth...? It sure didn't look like the stately sandhill cranes I expected to find there. And the big black lump dissecting the racer's path -- was that a manmade object or something else?
Binoculars revealed that the tawny runner was a red fox, paler than most, but still accented with black legs and long, fluffy tail, albeit somewhat bedraggled by the morning's melting frost. Sunrise was slowly transforming the night's rime into soggy fur as the fox brushed past grass hillocks and teasel in its manic rush around the object.
The black lump's identity didn't come quite so easily. Had Uncle Remus' wily Br'er Rabbit turned the tables on Br'er Fox by placing a tar baby in the meadow, instead of the other way around?
It sure looked that way until the tar baby moved and morphed into a young bald eagle.
Bald eagles gradually assume the iconic plumage of their parents by the time they're five years old, which sometimes makes distinguishing them from golden eagles a challenge. The tar baby looked to be about 2. The bird's head was nearly all brownish-black with a large black tip to its otherwise yellow bill. The body was also brownish-black with some white mottling, especially on the breast.
One similarity to adults that was apparent was the bird's size. Young bald eagles are nearly the same size as their parents by the time they fledge from the nest at two to three months. At 2 years old, the tar baby would have a 6 1/2-foot wingspan and weigh between 9 and 14 pounds. It was easily possible that the eagle outweighed the fox, or at least matched the fox in weight.
I couldn't tell if the opportunistic fox was taking advantage of an injured or sick bird. It seemed odd that the eagle stood in the field, exposed to the fox's antics. I later learned that the eagle was perfectly healthy, just sure of its superiority and unwilling to give up its spot to the terrestrial upstart.
The fox had accepted that it was out of the eagle's league, and opted to tease the bird instead. In addition to the apparent game of high speed ring-around-the-rosy, the fox trotted directly toward the eagle to a distance of 6 feet or so and feinted. That was close enough for the eagle to extend its head and neck forward, vulture-like, and half-raise its wings in a responding threat.
The fox jumped backward, turned tail to the eagle, and nonchalantly settled into the wet grass, knowing perfectly well how close the big bird stood. This sequence continued a few times: Fox head fake, eagle lunge, temporary truce, and so forth.
Perhaps the fox really was sly and knew not to become entangled with the tar baby as Br'er Rabbit had done. After all, eagles' talons are such powerful weaponry that other like-sized predators have died from their puncture wounds.
The fox rose again, playfully trotted a circle or two around the eagle, and then began to amuse himself by pouncing into small hillocks as if hunting voles 15 feet from the eagle was paramount at that moment.
Eventually, the fox tired of the game and wandered farther afield. With no further need to defend territory, the eagle also decided to move. The bird took a few running steps and a few powerful flaps of that immense wingspan and launched low over the field, flight posture revealing an indefinite white V of speckling down its back, another feature of youthful eagle plumage. The bird took a new vantage on a nearby fencepost.
I thought the confrontation was over; however, Br'er Fox had other ideas. Seventy-five feet of field separated the two when the fox looked toward the eagle's perch and began loping in that direction. The animal couldn't resist a final tease.
The eagle, of course, had been watching, and resumed its you-threaten-me-I'll-threaten-you posture just as the fox arrived and made a half-hearted jump at the bird. That was the grand finale -- a whimper, really. The fox abandoned its teasing and began exploring the grassy tangles at the base of the fencepost.
The whole encounter looked like wasted effort on the fox's part, but that animal sure knows how to have fun.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.