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November 24
2003 - Ruth Newhall, longtime co-owner/editor of The Signal, dies in Berkeley [story]


| Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Aug 24, 2017

As I was preparing to write this article, I decided to do a little informal survey of my family and friends, to gauge their reaction.

I started by asking my grandchildren what color they would use to draw a fox. I handed them a box of crayons. The situation became impossible when both started fighting over the red crayon.

So I asked a young woman: “What comes to your mind when I say the word ‘fox?’” She started to hum the song, “What Does the Fox Say?” I was not familiar with that one, but I ran away when her male companion started bellowing, “Hey, foxy lady!” This is not what I had in mind.

When I approached the older generation, they mentioned Aesop and La Fontaine fables where foxes were perceived as cunning creatures or tricksters that achieve their results by deceiving another animal or person, as in “The Fox and the Crow.” The fox flatters the crow about its beautiful voice, and the crow starts to sing, causing it to drop the cheese. The fox, of course, runs away with the cheese after advising the crow to be aware of the pitfalls of flattery.

In the fable, “The Fox and the Grapes,” the fox tries to steal some grapes. He jumps a few times but cannot reach them. He drapes himself in his dignity and pretends he was not really interested in those “sour grapes.”

Other friends said when they thought about foxes, they thought about dark forests and bedtime stories involving young children. The memories were vague because they heard those stories long ago, but when I did some research, I indeed found two Grimm fairy tales dealing with the fox and the cat and how the fox fakes his own death.

Grimm fairy tales are not pastel-colored bedtime stories, and they are not for the faint of heart. If I were a young child, I would stay in my bed like a rigid statue for hours before I could relax and get to sleep.

What impressed me in this little survey were the variations of reactions I encountered with the word, “fox.” Also, none of those people had seen a real fox face-to-face in the wild.

That was a little sad. There is one place in the Santa Barbara Zoo where you can see two island foxes that seem to have a great time in the exhibit they are in. They have a view of the zoo, and along the water is a great treat with a nice breeze.

Those island foxes come from the Channel Islands, just across the bay. I mention them first because they are fairly easy to see on the island. Take a boat (Island Packers in Ventura Harbor can take you there). Go first to Santa Cruz and take a leisurely hike. They are not too shy, and you are usually able to observe a few. The island foxes are supposed to be descendants of the grey foxes found in California. Their small size would have been an adaptation to the harsher life they had to adjust to on the Channel Islands.

When I was doing my little survey, I realized most people were thinking about the red fox when they answered. This is not the fox most common to California. Red foxes can be seen here and there, and one was spotted recently in Towsley Canyon, but the California fox is drabber, a bit smaller, and is called a grey fox.

The first traces of this grey fox were found in Arizona at the time of the giant sloth and the early small horses. It is a different genus from the red fox.

A fox is a canid, which means it is from the dog family. Let’s be clear: It is certainly not a cat. However, like a cat, it can climb trees. Only cats have claws that are retractable, so foxes cannot retract their claws, but they can climb trees with their strong claws that are hooked to make the task easier. They can climb a vertical tree trunk without the help of any branches, up to 60 feet. To go down, they can hop from branch to branch, or they descend the same way the cat does, going down backward, holding the trunk in their paws. That is highly unusual and gives them an advantage to escape from the coyote, for example, and from the rest of the dog family that cannot climb trees.

Another interesting fact: The diet of the grey fox changes according to its habitat. Adaptation is always the key to survival, but not all animals can do that so well. In California, the grey fox eats mostly rodents and rabbits, but in Utah (the study was done in Zion National Park), where the climate is a bit harsher, the grey fox eats insects and plants. Fruits and berries are always part of their diet if they are available, so maybe the story where the fox tries to steal the grapes was not so far-fetched, after all.

If you see an animal from far away and cannot decide if it is a fox, maybe you can get a glance at its tail. Be aware the grey fox tail has a distinctive black stripe along the top, and a black tip.

A group of foxes is called a skulk or leash.

Their home is called a den, and they can use a hollow tree, a boulder pile, a cave or an abandoned burrow.

If the fox has too much food, it will cache the food it wants to keep for later. How will it remember where it is hidden? It will pee on the spot where it is buried or will use its anal scent glands.

What else? Oh, yes, they love to swim.

I think I’ve come to the end of my fun little facts.

Are they endangered? No, they are doing fine. Finding the food they need to survive is not a problem, and they are keeping the rodent population under control. Sometimes they can be seen close to your home, and these two photos taken by a friend of mine in her backyard are an interesting testimony.

Now can be the time to remind you that a wild animal should remain wild for your sake, and for their survival. Do not feed them, do not leave cat food outside, make sure they cannot access your garbage. Something else we tend to forget: Clean up your barbecue grill.

Some young bears have been seen around Stevenson Ranch. Make sure they go higher up in the mountains by not giving them a reason to stay around your home.

I will come down off my soap box and let you enjoy nature at its best. We are so lucky in our valley to have endless possibilities to do that.

 

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

 

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