The first thing I did after picking out my most recent campsite was scatter some sunflower seeds on the ground by the fire ring. I have been doing this at various sites on my current trip for two reasons. First, as a kind of ritual offering, to acknowledge to the space itself that I am a visitor who arrives with respect; similar to how a person might light a candle in a church. Second, I am imitating Edmund C. Jaeger, a 20th Century naturalist and author, known as “Dean of the California Deserts,” who did the same thing in this very desert in order to attract local wildlife so he could observe them; this is more similar to giving a bottle of wine to your host when you’re a guest.
For the first three days, the seeds laid there untouched. I spent one night someplace else and when I returned, the seeds were gone. I was excited! I tossed another handful on the ground and went about my day. I was hoping to befriend some White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrels (Ammospermophilis leucurus) like I’d met in this part of the country last year, but I was thrilled when another creature showed up instead.
A few minutes after the sun had gone down, but the stars weren’t out yet, I was finishing up my dinner preparations when I heard little scrabbling noises by the fire ring. I looked over and spotted an animal I had never seen in person before but immediately recognized from photos. The over-sized back legs, long tufted tail, and head nearly the size of the rest of its body were unmistakable traits: it was a Kangaroo Rat!
Specifically, it was “Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat,” known scientifically as “Dipodomys merriami.” Jaeger nick-named them, “Dipos,” and so will we in this essay.
I set aside my dinner and sat on the tailgate of my truck, staring with fascination. I was thrilled! But dusk was deepening quickly and soon I could barely see the Dipo. I remembered that my camera has better night vision than me so I pulled it out, turned it on, and trained the lens toward the noise. There it was! I tried snapping a few pictures but it was constantly moving and all I could capture in the low light was a blur with a tail. So I just kept watching the Dipo on the camera’s LCD screen until it had taken care of all the seeds and left for the night.
The next evening, I put out more seeds as the sun was going down and waited. Sure enough, just as it was starting to get dark, the Dipo showed up again! I really wanted some good photos so I got out my headlamp. When I first aimed the light at the Dipo, it froze, but after a few seconds it went about its business, unperturbed. Now I was not only able to get some good photos, but watch its habits more clearly.
After stuffing its cheeks with seeds, it would scamper away, bounding on its over-sized back legs just like a kangaroo. And it was fast — so quick I could barely follow it with my eyes, let alone the camera. Within a minute or two, it would return, from a different direction, fill up again, and then take off in yet another direction. Its movements among the seeds was quite unusual, and Jaeger deserves to be quoted here for his description of it in his 1961 book, “Desert Wildlife” (originally published in 1950 as “Our Desert Neighbors,” a title I prefer): “His usual quiet manner of locomotion when feeding was a kind of scooting foward with body close to the earth and with foot movements so nearly invisible that he appeared for all the world like some mechanical toy moving forward on hidden wheels.” That’s exactly what it looked like!
According to Jaeger, Dipos store seeds in their underground dens, which for the larger species of the genus, can be 3-4 feet deep and extend over an area of 25-30 square yards. Other rodents, such as the White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel, will also bury them shallowly in little caches all over the place like city squirrels do with acorns or walnuts (as many gardeners know!) and I believe I saw the Dipo doing the same thing. (To those concerned with “invasive species,” let me assure you that Helianthus annuus is not going to take over the Mojave now; it is not at all suited to the desert environment and won’t survive to set seed even if it manages to sprout, which is unlikely. Too hot and dry. If it was viable here, it would already be common.)
Dipo dens, says Jaeger, are generally dug under shrubs or small trees. Winding the tunnels in amongst the roots makes it harder for predators to dig them out. This particular campsite was in an area thick with Creosote bushes (also known as “Gobernadora,” which I think is a better name), and many of them had little holes dug under them, home no doubt not only to the Dipos but also various species of mice. Staying underground during the day is how desert rodents survive the heat.
As you can probably guess, leaving out seeds became a daily habit for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visits from the Dipo. But it got better. When you see one rodent, you know others are around, and within a few nights, the original Dipo had been joined by two more. This is when the fun really started!
Like the White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel, Dipos are competitive for food. They could not forage together in the same area for more than 30 seconds without squabbling. This took the form of growling, followed by chasing in tight circles, and — most humorously of all — vertical jumps where they would meet in mid-air, kicking and clawing at each other. Sometimes they would chase each other into the base of a Gobernadora bush, where they would rise up on their hind legs and “box” each other through the branches with their tiny fore-legs. All this had me laughing out loud which I really enjoyed because, being by myself out in the desert, I hadn’t even been cracking a smile very often.
Dipos live alone in their burrows, apparently because they don’t want to share their food stash. But according to Jaeger, “occasionally, dipos are forced by plunderers to give up part of their aches, for robbing of the stores is often practiced. If the prowler is caught in the pilfering act, he is quickly pounced upon and, if possible, evicted from the premises. He gets a good thumping, and, in addition, flesh-gouging scratches inflicted by the powerful, sharp-clawed hind feet.” I’ve lived in communal houses where I felt like doing that when someone hit up my groceries without asking, so I understand!
The Dipos were not very shy. As long as I avoided quick movements, I could get quite close to them while I took photos. In fact, lying flat on my belly, with the camera in front of me, and holding the headlamp aloft and pointing it down on the scene, I was able to situate myself less than two feet away from their collecting activities. If a shift of my hand or swivel of the camera scared them off, they would scamper back in no more than a minute. A few times, they even jumped onto my prone body when they scattered from their scuffles. They were so lightweight I could barely feel them. Unlike the White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrels I had known last year, however, the Dipos were not willing to eat out of my hand.
Their coats are so silky-looking, I longed to pick one up and pet it, but I did not try. I could tell that wouldn’t go over well. Jaeger once tried to keep one as a pet, and it didn’t work out:
“I once caught a baby dipo just old enough to be getting about on its own. It was in the evening just after sunset and I found him as he was nosing about under some shrubs. Curled up in my hand he was no larger than a walnut. When I first held him he bit my finger so severely that I dropped him. He drew no blood, but it was an indication of the strong development of incisor teeth even very early in life. I took the little furry ball home with me and kept him a three-by-three-foot wire cage. His favorite food was ripe Bing cherries; next came sunflower seeds and hemp. For fully two weeks he was full of pranks and played all day long; then suddenly he became wholly nocturnal. Once he had changed from a creature of the day to one of the night, like his parents, he began throwing the dry earth and sand about in has cage with such diligence and force that much of it went through the screen mesh onto the floor. All night long there were such thumpings and scrapings that I finally had to give him his liberty. No protracted sleep was possible with him around. He had grown so fast that he seemed adult both in size and behavior in a matter of a few weeks.”
Another interesting fact about Dipos is that they don’t need to drink water, ever. Jaeger explains: “For him it is enough to have some green food occasionally, but even this is not wholly necesssary, since his own body is a chemical laboratory wheren water can be synthesized from the elements of starchy food or obtained by the slow oxidation of fats. it is, in fact, in this latter role as self-sufficient chemist that he gets most of the water he needs. This lack of dependence on outward supplies of water makes it possible for him to live over wide areas denied to animals such as ungulates, carnivores, and many birds that must visit the water holes almost daily, or at least once every three or four days, or soon perish.” Fascinating!
For the record, the sunflower seeds I was feeding the Dipos are not people-food seeds; i.e., they were not roasted or salted. I purchase sunflower seeds for this purpose at a feed store, or in the pet food aisle at a grocery store, where they are sold as bird food. They contain no adulterants.
I know there’s people out there who think I shouldn’t have been feeding the Dipos. Humans, the story goes, should have no role in the lives of wild animals, other than leaving them alone. At one time, though, the story was different. In this very part of the world — the Mojave Desert — Native Americans once ate many wild foods that are also consumed by wild animals, such as acorns, pine nuts and Mesquite pods, the seeds of Palo Verde, Chia and California Buckwheat, and fruit of the Fan Palm, Mojave Yucca and Joshua Tree. Rodents and birds would surely have been attracted to camps where these harvests were being processed in their due season. Did the humans ensure that not one seed fell on the ground, later to be picked up by a mouse? I doubt it. Did ground squirrels enthusiastically clean up scraps that were discarded because of blemishes? I’m sure. Did some of the humans even purposefully toss some seeds out to the Dipos and then wager on the fights that resulted? It’s quite possible! Seasonal harvesting camps would often have been set up in the same place every year and these locations would have been magnets for rodents and birds (and the predators that eat them). When the camp moved on, you can bet every last crumb was taken care of within a day or two.
In other words, back in the day, before the European Invasion, humans did have roles in the lives of wild animals as food providers. It would have been inevitable. Somewhere in the genetic memory of the Dipos I met might still live an association between fire rings and food. After all, one of their warrens was located under a Gobernadora patch less than 20 feet away. All that being said, I understand why we are told not to feed the animals these days — because most people would be giving them Cheetos, which is obviously wrong. I promise I won’t do that!
As I prepare to leave this campsite, not knowing if I will return or not, I feel a tinge of melancholy to be leaving the Dipos. When I first found this spot, I wasn’t sure if I liked it much, or would remain long; the deciding factor was the appearance of these charming creatures and I ended up staying three weeks altogether. Will I see more Dipos again someplace else? Who knows. But life is full of forks in the road like this, with meetings and partings. I will try to appreciate the sadness, then, as much the joy.