Mark Berger was walking his standard poodle, Niko, in the Berkeley Hills on Monday night when a high-pitched animal call took them by surprise.
Berger, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years, was walking Niko near Rose Street and Le Roy Avenue at about 9 p.m. when the encounter happened. Berger — who has won four Academy Awards for sound mixing for feature films Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, Amadeus and The English Patient — had never heard that sound before. He looked around and saw a wild animal across the street.
“It seemed to be screeching at us, not approaching or attacking,” Berger said. Niko, a 60-pound poodle, “didn’t seem to be too alarmed by it. I didn’t know what it was.”
Berger, the husband of Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, pulled out his cellphone and recorded a video of the animal barking at them. It was dark and the video was hard to make out, but he shared the audio (above) with Berkeleyside. At one point, Niko can be heard making a small growl: “That was the extent of his involvement,” said Berger.
The fox quickly scampered off. The next day, a neighbor told Berger she thought she had heard two of the animals on the block that morning.
Berger initially wondered if he might have seen a bobcat, but dismissed that notion after further research. Though there wasn’t much light in the street that night, the animal Berger saw had a large fluffy tail, which bobcats do not have.
Berkeleyside emailed several experts and asked for their help to identify the animal in Berger’s photos and audio.
“It has a bushy tail, so I think this is much more likely a grey fox than a bobcat,” wrote Chris Conroy, staff curator and researcher at The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“From the photos it’s definitely a fox. Grey indeed,” wrote wildlife biologist Kristin Tremain, past president of the Bay Area chapter of The Wildlife Society. “Bobcats are twice as big and are bulkier. Bobcats don’t have long tails like this guy either.”
Jen Jelincic, the chapter’s current president, said the animal’s body shape and color pattern, including its black dorsal line and black-tipped tail, support its identification as a fox. The recording is also consistent with gray fox vocalizations, she said.
Though gray fox sightings have become increasingly common in the Bay Area, it’s still not a regular occurrence.
“It’s great to see that they are making a comeback,” Jelincic told Berkeleyside by email. “There have been at least one or two canine distemper outbreaks in the Bay Area that decimated the local population, especially in the East Bay (most likely from people not vaccinating their pets). In the past couple years, there was a reduction in population in the Palo Alto Baylands as well.”
In addition to gray foxes, community members may also see red foxes in the Bay Area, she added. And, though they are not always red, they will always have a white-topped tail, she said.
Berkeleyside took an in-depth look at gray foxes in November after a series of sightings came in from community members around town.
Smaller than coyotes, larger than cats, gray 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.