Kit Fox

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Driving up the east side of San Augustín Pass one morning, I spotted a small, buff-colored animal with large, pointed ears lying dead on the pavement. Richard stopped the car and I walked back to see what it was. The animal was almost delicate and about the size of a house cat, with dense, buff-colored fur and a long, bushy tail tipped with black. That generous brush of a tail; the large, pointed ears; doglike face; relatively short legs; and the diminutive size gave away the identity of the dead animal: a desert kit fox.

Kit foxes are almost exclusively nocturnal, and thus rarely seen. These smallest of North American foxes are beautifully adapted to life in the desert. Their pale coloring makes them nearly invisible against a background of light-colored desert soils. Thickly-furred paws allow them to trot silently as they go about their nightly rounds; the hair also helps them float on sandy soils. Large ears help these dusk-to-dawn hunters to pick up night sounds. Even their small size may work to their advantage, making it easier to keep cool.

A kit fox’s day begins at dark, when the little fox emerges from its burrow and sets out across the desert to hunt kangaroo rats, cottontails, and other small animals. Biologists figure that a kit fox needs to eat about six ounces of meat each night in order to survive. They obtain all the water that they need from their food.

Kit foxes live alone in their underground dens for half the year. Then in winter, male and females pair up, mate, and begin preparing the natal den - used year after year - for the coming family. They haul out last year’s debris and dig new entrances. In February or March, four or five pups are born. For the first month of their life, the mother nurses the pups; the father hunts for food. Later, both parents hunt. Kit fox families stay together until autumn, when the pups are ready to live on their own.

Along with coyotes, kit foxes play an important part in controlling desert rodent and rabbit populations. For example, biologists say, the parent kit foxes must bring the pups about one hundred pounds of meat during the two months they feed them - the equivalent of about eight hundred kangaroo rats! Yet people have harassed these little foxes almost into extinction: kit foxes are trapped, shot, poisoned, and their habitat destroyed by farming or suburban growth.

I carefully picked up the limp kit fox, carried it off the highway, and laid it gently in the shade of a nearby shrub. As I walked away, I realized sadly that I’d seen only one wild kit fox since I moved here: the dead one that I had just laid down.