Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The second luminous thing...

…was ancient, in a manner of speaking.

Tessa and I were having our usual morning on the sofa: tea for me, a snooze for her, both of us keeping a lazy eye on the doings in the front yard. We live on a cul de sac and, at 7am, the doings pretty much add up to a lot of not-so-much.

Suddenly we heard a racket of crows—American crows—coming up the street. This was strange—and certainly a doings. We have a resident population of fish crows, whose calls resemble an odd and subversive chuckling, but we rarely hear the cacophony of American crows.

I rushed to the front window and Tessa stood on the arm of the sofa. The clatter came closer and all at once a gray fox flashed by, loping down the street, not quite running but moving fast. He was all reds and dark grays and gorgeous against the grass. The crows were following. The fox was headed into the cul de sac but, for some reason, he turned in our neighbor’s high grass and headed back the other way, this time running, cutting across our front yard and ducking through the grove of cedars into the unfenced yard on the other side. Perhaps he lost the crows under the trees or in the ivy—at any rate they gave up and flew away.

Gray Fox in winter, Dave Schaffer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain image)
Tessa and I watched all this back and forth, running back and forth ourselves between windows. We were excited—a fox! In our front yard!—we’d heard them at night, in the distance, but to see one up close and in the daylight! Tessa wanted to rush right outside but I advised a calmer, more interior course of action and we returned to our sofa.

Later I found out I’d not seen a red fox, but a gray one. I’d wondered about his dark back and lack of white—did he have mange? Was something else wrong with him? But he was just a different sort of fox. And gray foxes are different—an entirely different genus from the red fox, an ancient genus, 3.6 million years old and most closely related, now, only to the east Asian raccoon dog and the African bat-eared fox. The gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, is one of the most primitive of the living canids, its fossils first discovered in Arizona along with its contemporaries of the time: the giant sloth, the large-headed llama, and the small, early horses. The gray fox can climb trees (an ability shared today by only one other canid, the aforementioned raccoon dog), and is omnivorous but seems to really enjoy eating cottontails and birds. And, I read, it likes fruits and vegetables more than does the red fox.

I planted nine native fruit trees in our backyard to attract birds, never realizing they might also attract this splinter of the pliocene. I'll tend them more carefully now, imagining the fruit-loving Urocyon cinereoargenteus climbing our fence at night or sneaking through where those slats have rotted away. We already have birds and bunnies in profusion, an abandoned yard going wild next door and—usually—a decided lack of American crows. But I'm not sure he needs the help. This morning, I worried about that gray fox, running and harassed. Now, I think those millions of years of survival and instinct must count for something—well, for much more than something—having come together in this one moment of magnificence, in this beautiful animal, in our neighborhood fox.  

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