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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kit fox memories of Harold Egoscue


We camera trapped our first kit fox (Vulpes macrotis).

It happened at 3:12 in the morning, one day after the first coyote's passage down the gully.

The visit was brief though -- we got only one picture.

There were few burrows in the area, and resident kit foxes usually forage within 3 km of their burrows.

Little canids like kit foxes need to steer clear of bigger ones like coyotes, and the best way to do it is not to stray too far from your burrows.

If not, coyotes will render a rambling kit fox into dead meat.

Suzie, Harold Egoscue's pet coyote used to scare the bejeebers out of his captive kit foxes.

Egoscue's study of kit foxes at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah was the first definitive study of the species.

I was lucky to work with him at the National Zoo.

Harold Egoscue in 1984 at the age of 67.

We were hired at the same time -- he was nearing the end of his career, and I was starting mine.

The zoo's young zoologists soon realized that the soft spoken ex-Marine Basque-American mammalogist had a great deal more than a technical knowledge of mammals.

He was an all-round naturalist who had logged years of field research.

He knew a great deal of botany and was a master gardener with a special knack for espalier. He knew soils and geology, archeology, and was a student of Native American crafts. He was also a flea systematist, a gifted artist, and had remarkable penmanship.

Ask him about ringtails, and he told you about the pet one he kept for a year; then he would segue into field observations and their habitat associations in Utah.

Ask him about badgers or long-tail weasels, and he had more personal experiences.

His accounts were glimpses into the past, with curious twists, often laced with Native American lore.

It was like listening to Ernest Thompson Seton.

None of us was happy when he announced that he was going to retire.

I wasn't willing to let our relationship end there.

So a couple years later, on our annual pilgrimage to the national parks we made our way to his retirement home in Grantsville, Utah.

In two fine days I learned why Harold became a naturalist.

He grew up pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

At the age of 16 his father, Jean Peter immigrated from France, and from Ellis Island went directly to Winnemucca, Nevada where Basque friends of the family set him up with a wagon and collies tending sheep.

If you haven't seen a Basque sheepherders camp, let me just say it is a pretty basic form of living -- or at least it used to be.

As was common at the time, he requested payment in sheep rather than greenback dollars, and he grazed his own animals with the company's stock.

In due course he became his own sheepman and a landowner, and married Laura Luce, a schoolteacher in eastern Oregon.

Harold was the first of 4 children.

He and his brother Peter spent summers with their father tending sheep, exploring,  observing and sketching wildlife, and collecting arrowheads.

"I would fill a 2 pound coffee can with arrow heads during the summer, and I traded and gave them all away by the time school let out the next year. Then I'd fill another coffee can."

Harold was 9 years old when his father died, and his mother took over the management of the ranches.

Without a father he gravitated to the Sue family, descendents of Chief Winnemucca.

His peer, Owen Sue taught him how to kill Townsend ground squirrels with slingshot and bow and arrow, but Harold found that he could earn more money by drowning squirrels out of their burrows with irrigation water.

"We sold them to the Indian families for 25 cents a piece.

"The women would roll the whole squirrel in clayey mud and toss it in the fire, which was an open hearth on the middle of the house.

"In 15 minutes the squirrel was cooked.

"The hair and skin came off with the clay, and they flicked the viscera into the fire. Then it was ready to eat.

Harold was proof that you can learn a lot in the middle of nowhere.

After 4 years in the Marines, and a bachelors degree at the Utah State University he returned to the basin and range country.

His education about things natural was self driven.

I only wish he was still around.

I still have a lot of questions for him.

Harold's publications on Kit Fox 

Egoscue, H.J. 1956. Preliminary studies of the kit fox in Utah. Journal of Mammalogy, 37:351-357

Egoscue, H.J. 1962. Ecology and life history of the kit fox in Tooele County, Utah. Ecology, 43(3):481-497

Egoscue, H.J. 1966. Description of a newborn kit fox. The Southwestern Naturalist, 11(4):501-502

Egoscue, H.J. 1975. Population dynamics of the kit fox in western Utah. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, 74(3):122-127

He also wrote the Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists) account of the Swift Fox based on a review of the literature:

Egoscue, H.J. 1979. Vulpes velox. Mammalian Species, No 122:1-5.


Owlman said...

I enjoyed your account of a friend
and it is clear that you respected him and his knowledge. Congrats on the Kit Fox photo.

Gavan said...

"Harold was proof that you can learn a lot in the middle of nowhere."

I think we've forgotten this. And I would argue that it's only nowhere for the people who haven't been there yet.

Lovely post.

JoEllen said...

I love your posts!
I learn so much and so enjoy the extraordinary photos.

JoEllen Arnold

Jayla said...

I remember Harold's flea collection, and that he liked fig bars.

randomtruth said...

Terrific post Chris. Sounds like a man that we all could still be getting answers from.

unkleD said...

As an self-proclaimed naturalist I greatly admire someone who appreciates the value of learning through personal observation as well as curiousity and disciplined study.

Great post and great loss.