When we backpack, we take measures to ensure that our food isn’t raided by animals like bears, mice, or chipmunks—especially bears. But on a recent trip to the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California we had to beware of a unique raider–foxes.
Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands located a dozen or more miles off shore near the cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura. These unique islands have never been part of the mainland—having been borne of plate tectonics. Because of this, different species and sub-species of plants and animals have evolved that exist only on the islands. One of these is the island fox. These crafty scavengers are about a third smaller than their ancestors, the gray fox. Full grown island foxes are about the size of a house cat. Unlike the average American house cat, they work for a living. And one of their lines of work is raiding the food stashes of campers and backpackers.
We were warned by Island Packers, the company that ferried us to and between our campsites on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, that the local foxes were persistent and crafty. They’ll help themselves to any food left out. They even work in pairs; one will distract you while the other sneaks up on your supplies. And, they’ve been known to open tent zippers.
On both islands they have food lockers known locally as “Fox Boxes” to keep food secure from these Channel Island raiders. That doesn’t stop them from trying. We stayed two nights on Santa Cruz and watched foxes frequently stroll through the campground. They would poke around unoccupied sites and jump on the tables—where they liked to leave calling cards. They have little fear of humans—except for the two toddlers at one site that liked to chase them. One afternoon I encountered a fox napping at the edge of the camp. When I approached for a photo it opened one eye, then went back to sleep.
Both islands are also home to large ravens who like to frequent the campgrounds. If you leave a piece of candy on your campsite table and step just a dozen yards away, one may swoop down, land on the table and give a mocking caw while eying you, fly off a short ways off, unwrap it, and then take off. Yes, we know from personal experience. I said it cawed, but it sounded like an evil cackle.
This particular pirate sported a bright blue plastic tag on each wing with the number 14—much like a prisoner would wear a number on their orange jumpsuit. According to the parks service, they’re used to study movements of the birds. Some of them have been seen engaging in an unsavory habit of raiding the nests of seabirds for chicks or eggs. We had spotted another raven tagged with number 13 the first day of our stay. The two are reportedly comrades in crime.
The Channel Islands are fascinating and unique. Fox raiders are only one facet of that uniqueness. We’ll be writing more about our experiences there in the coming weeks.