Foxes venture into urban Berkeley

Grey fox. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Coyote sightings in the flatlands of Berkeley and neighboring cities are increasingly common. As are reports of carcasses or sudden disappearances of one type of this carnivore’s prey, cats. This changing urban wildlife landscape is a scary reality to many feline fanciers.

But in recent weeks, reports of another wild predator in the flatlands have jumped: the grey fox. A slew of social media postings are reporting flatland fox sightings around the Ohlone Greenway, near downtown. Foxes have also been spotted in the Claremont district. Pictures and video support the reports.

Based on comments to the fox posts, people are, mostly, enchanted. Here are a few from NextDoor:

“Those are totally foxes! How awesome!”

“I had no idea. Cool!”

“Love this!”

“Impressive.”

“Stunning.”

“Foxes trotting around in your backyard? Amazing!!!

“We do have foxes in Berkeley… just didn’t know they were in the flats.”

Someone reported seeing a fox at 10 p.m. in late October on California near Cedar. “The fox was in this pretty garden w/ succulents, it saw me and ran into a driveway nearby.”

Someone else posted a video of a fox pair near Delaware Avenue and McGee Avenue (video courtesy Karin Moore):

Smaller than coyotes, larger than cats, grey foxes are native to California, including the Bay Area. Over the years, fox sightings in suburban Bay Area neighborhoods have increased, wildlife experts say. Though they’re not sure if this means there are actually more foxes in these areas, or if people are reporting them more, especially given the explosion of social media.

Foxes in suburban-urban areas aren’t really surprising, said Steve Bobzien, ecological services coordinator for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRP).

“It’s not unusual to see a grey fox in the suburbs,” Bobzien said. “It’s also not unusual to see them where the suburbs blend into urban areas, like Berkeley.”

Foxes follow water, he said. Not only to drink, but for the rich ecosystem of food as well as brush to hide in. And in dry times such as at the end of summer, they’ll be more adventurous in this pursuit. “Grey fox are closely associated with riparian areas. They’re really closely associated with the stream corridors. They follow where the water is.”

Even when creek beds look dry, they can contain enough moisture to attract animals, Bobzien said, especially on the west side of the East Bay Hills, closer to the bay and in the fog belt.

Open sections of Codornices Strawberry creeks cross the flatlands, fox-roaming distance from the Ohlone Greenway.

Foxes travel up and down creek beds, venturing out for food. The preferred grey fox meal is rodents – rats, mice and squirrels. They’ll also go after rabbits and some kinds of birds. And they like hens. Most people don’t realize that grey fox are arboreal, and can climb trees.

Foxes normally don’t go after cats, dogs, or humans, experts said. “I’m personally not aware of grey fox going after any dogs or cats,” Bobzien said. “They’re not aggressive at all.”

Aireo Shipman, wildlife rehabilitation manager at the Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in Walnut Creek concurs.

“They very much tend to stay away from cats, dogs and humans,” Shipman said. “They’re a lot more shy than coyotes, but they’re fairly urbanized. Especially at this time of the year.”

Spring tends to be pupping season for grey fox, and now is when the adolescents head out into the world, he said. “This is when the youngsters are venturing out on their own. It’s not uncommon to see them venturing out where you normally don’t see them. They’re looking for their own space, they’re exploring.”

As with all wild creatures, it’s best to enjoy foxes from a distance, without interfering, Shipman said. This means not feeding or attempting to pet them. They’ll also go after garbage, and food left outside.

“They’re fairly shy. Get out your binoculars and enjoy nature from afar.”

Berkeley Animal Services staff said they haven’t seen an uptick in reports of foxes.

Animal service departments from around the Bay Area take injured wildlife to the Lindsay for medical treatment and rehabilitation. Over the past decade, the number of grey foxes brought to the center has doubled from an average of 8 to 18 a year, Shipman said. Five foxes have come in from Berkeley during this time, he said. The last one was in 2015.

The majority of foxes treated at the center are from the Contra Costa County suburbs, cities like Walnut Creek, Lafayette and Orinda, he said.

Most fox patients at the Lindsay have been hit by cars. Their natural predators include coyotes and mountain lions. Owls will go after fox pups.

The recent Ohlone area fox may or may not stick around, Shipman and Bobzien said. Dry weather will probably keep them on the move. “Most wild animals are looking for three things: food, water, shelter,” Shipman said. “If they have all three things they’ll take up residence.”