©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

31. Foxtrot, Foxhole, Foxfire

In late December I received an email from Sean Kenady of the Native Grasslands Association informing me that on February 17 & 18 and March 3 & 4, there would be Alkali Sacaton (bunchgrass) restoration at the Lone Tree Unit of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. The goal was to restore critical habitat for the San Joaquin Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), an endangered species numbering fewer than 7,000 in a 1975 survey and surviving in a precarious 7% of its original habitat. The San Joaquin Kit fox is one of two subspecies that still exist in California; the long-eared kit fox (Vulpes macrotis macrotis) became extinct around 1910.

The invitation reminded me of an afternoon spent searching for an Indian site near Orestimba Creek. We had given up and were heading back to the car at dusk when a fox blurted out of a hollow sycamore and ran diagonally across the field in front of us toward a rock outcropping. As the fox ran, it looked over its shoulder at us, and the following day, we went to the outcropping which turned out to be the site we had been seeking.

The experience yielded a poem, “Vision at Orestimba,” and people always ask me what the fox stands for, testimony that the image of the fox is somehow disquieting. Like the wolf, the fox carries the burden of old-world symbolism — diabolical craftiness, deception, trickery, or, in the case of the female fox or vixen, eroticism, sensuality, seduction (that fox fur). New world associations seem to hold fewer tensions, perhaps because of less exclusive land use patterns and the lack of domesticated animals before European colonization, and thus can conceive of the fox as strategic intelligence, divine emanation and even a helper in creation. These cultural perceptions would be purely academic considerations if they did not affect behavior.

In Paul Shepard’s words, foxes are animals of “the edges,” not just moving from wild to urban, from fields to roads to orchards and gardens, but also straddling the feline and canine (“as though cat and dog were magically blended”) and challenging “the taxonomic boundary” between canids and felids. Even though the kit fox is the smallest North American member of the dog family, for example, it has many cat-like adaptations. Only foxes possess feline features such as catlike teeth, semi retractile claws, vertical slit pupils and the same layer of glittering tissue behind the retina to enhance vision in the dark. They crouch, stalk, slink-run, and pounce, just like you-know-who.

According to the Sacramento Fish & Wildlife Office website, “…the range of the San Joaquin kit fox [before 1930] is believed to have extended from southern Kern County north to Contra Costa county on the west side and near La Grange, Stanislaus County, on the east side.” Elusive and difficult to study because of its (mostly) subterranean habits in daytime, this small fox (weighing about five pounds and measuring twenty inches) is declining in numbers due to habitat conversion and loss, traffic, predation electrocution, hunting, trapping and poisoning. Federal, state, and private agencies are working hard to reverse habit loss on public lands.

In response to their arid habitat, San Joaquin kit foxes have large ears to dissipate heat and hairy soles for better traction in sandy soil. Their ears can pick up low sound frequencies for unerring detection of insect/rodent rustling/gnawing under dense undergrowth. Even though kit foxes like to forage near freshwater marshes and alkali sinks subject to seasonal flooding, they can survive on a very “stingy water budget” by extracting the water they need from their prey—kangaroo rats, gophers, voles, ground squirrels, cottontails, reptiles, mice, antelope squirrels, ground nesting birds, carrion and insects. True omnivores, they have also been known to eat berries, rose hips, nut shells, fruits and fruit rinds, grasses and other vegetation.

When kit foxes shared their native habitat with wolves and coyotes, each canid occupied its own niche, and foxes became the most efficient predators of small prey. With the introduction of the Eastern Red Fox for fur farming and the elimination of the coyote’s rival, the wolf, the kit fox began to lose ground to the larger (but also supremely adaptable) canids. Coyotes now kill the small fox not to eat it but to eliminate competition for the same food source. Domestic dogs, bobcats, and large raptors, such as the golden eagle, also prey on the endangered fox.

Crucial to kit fox survival and reproduction are dens—dug, reused, or enlarged from ground squirrel or badger burrows. Natal or pupping dens are groomed by the females (vixens) to look abandoned. If she registers danger to her young, she will move them. Before the birth of her litter, she preheats the den, and then becomes a “thermal blanket” to keep the kits warm. As in the great prairies of the Mid-West, the extensive network of dens and burrows also provides shelter for burrowing owls, antelope squirrels, lizards and various other invertebrates incapable of digging. Ever resourceful, kit foxes have even occupied pipes if they are small enough to exclude coyotes.

The vixen relies on the male for food (and for a little relief from the young) after the kits are born, and he is usually so reliable that one researcher wrote he could set his watch by the father’s return to the den. Researchers have observed adoption of orphaned kits by other parents and a high degree of survival in these cases. Seasoned observers are charmed by the alertness and rough play of the kits as they emerge from the natal den and begin establishing social hierarchy. One watched two dominant kits fighting for food while a third (smarter?) kit ran off with the prize.

Cute as they are as kits, foxes do not seem to inspire the same passionate advocacy that other animals, such as bears or cranes, do and I have wondered if this indifference has something to do with their ambiguity in our imaginations. Cranes became angels and bears the primordial travelers, but foxes? If, as Shepard writes, “the lively world of our emotions, fears, and responses is like a great forest with its fauna,” what aspect of our “abyssal self” does the vanishing kit fox represent? Loss of the edge and its fluid, crepuscular forms? The answer is important because we are edge animals par excellence, who have constructed our identities by observing, nouning, and verbing other animals. How else would we know how to foxtrot, take cover in foxholes, and write poems (free of categorical thinking) illumined by foxfire?

Sources: Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism; J. David Henry, Living on the Edge: Foxes; Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human; Peter Steinhart, California’s Wild Heritage: Threatened and Endangered Animals in the Golden State.

ACTION: Keep the Edge Alive! Restore kit fox habitat on February 17, 18 & March 3, 4 at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Meet at 9:00 a.m. at the observation tower. Bring rubber boots, warm clothes, and rain gear (if needed).

Additional Volunteer Restoration Workdays are February 3 (San Joaquin NWR), 10 (San Luis NWR), 24 (Merced NWR) and March 10 & 17 (West Bear Creek). For more information call Senior Biologist Dennis Woolington, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Office, Los Banos (209) 826-3508, dennis_woolington@fws.gov

What you didn’t know about bottled water


My grandfather and I frequently engage in lively debates about the world, current events and history. The other day we were discussing bottled water and he was shaking his head. “It’s amazing to me that a company can take something people already pay for monthly, repackage it and sell it at a higher price!”

Not to mention making huge profits while doing so. There are a lot of myths about bottled water. Here are just a few.

Myth #1: Bottled water is better for you than water from the tap. Actually, bottled water is essentially tap water that has been packaged in fancy containers. It does go through a filtration process, but one solely for making the water more pleasant tasting. You can do the same thing (and save money) by installing a water filter on your tap at home.

Myth #2 Bottled water is safer to drink than tap water The scary truth is the FDA does not require bottled water suppliers to test for the presence of numerous pathogens such as E. coli, cryptosporidium, giardia, asbestos, or certain organic compounds such as benzenes. These organisms are stringently tested for by municipal water supplies, which are required to do so.

Myth #3: Drinking bottled water doesn’t make an impact on the environment. It takes approximately 2.6 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water product. And this definitely leaves an imprint on the environment. Not to mention the millions of plastic bottles unnecessarily made out of plastic, a non-renewable resource made from oil.

Facetious Comment #1: Jesus wouldn’t drink bottled water. Okay, well at least The United Church of Christ in Canada thinks so. They have asked their members (500,000 strong) to stop buying bottled water. The church community believes it unethical to allow companies to make money using a commodity that belongs to the public. They fear this may lead to the eventual sale and ownership of something that should always be free.

Another sad piece of news is that bottling companies such as Coca Cola have moved many of their facilities to places where it is cheaper to make their products as well as bottled water. Many of these plants in countries like India use up the water of communities nearby, forcing them to walk further for fresh water. They also make an environmental mess they don’t clean up. To find out more about what is happening in India, go to www.IndiaResource.org

Unfortunately, our public drinking water in the United States is in danger, as public utilities strive to provide enough money to meet federal clean water standards and maintain and modernize pipes and water systems.

Every year, more and more sewage spills into our water supply, creating serious public health hazards. In 2005, there were over 20,000 beach closings and swim advisories! These were due to sewage overflows and malfunctioning sewage plants.

Our government spends over $30,000 billion a year for the highway trust fund, yet there is no trust fund to safeguard our nation’s water. Under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, our government is obligated to protect and upgrade our water systems.

Ask the government to keep our water supply healthy. Read more about food and water watch, find out what you can do, and sign the online petition at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/. In the meantime, think about filling your water bottle with fresh tap water and avoid buying something that should always be free.

Much of the information for this article was taken from “Aqua Bits,” a quarterly newsletter by the food and water watch industry.

Idling gets you nowhere

Would you drive a car that gets zero miles to the gallon? Of course not. Yet that is your mileage whenever your engine idles. Idling wastes money and fuel, contributes to air pollution, and generates carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Some states even have laws limiting the amount of time cars can idle.

Unfortunately, many people believe that idling is necessary or even beneficial—a false perception that has carried over from the 1970s and 1980s, when engines needed time to warm up (especially in colder temperatures). Fuel-injection vehicles, which have been the norm since the mid-1980s, can be restarted frequently without engine damage and need no more than 30 seconds to warm up even on winter days.

In fact, idling longer than that could actually damage your engine in the long term. Because an idling engine is not operating at its peak temperature, the fuel does not completely combust, leaving residues in the engine that can contaminate engine oil and make spark plugs dirty. Excessive idling also allows water to condense in the vehicle’s exhaust, contributing to corrosion of the exhaust system.

No matter what time of year, minimize your idling with the following tips:

• When first starting your car, idle for no more than 30 seconds.

• Except when sitting in traffic, turn your engine off if you must wait in your car for more than 30 seconds. You can still operate the radio and windows without the engine running.

• When the time comes to buy a new car, consider a hybrid. Hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles switch off the engine and use battery power for accessories when the car is not moving, effectively eliminating idling. Visit the UCS Hybrid Center website (see the related links) for more information on these fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles.

From: The Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/greentips/