Foxes May Be Expanding Their East Bay Habitats
Once rarely sighted, gray foxes are being seen by more East Bay residents, and there’s nothing to be alarmed over.
Photo by Dgwildlife / iStock
Foxes napping in backyard hammocks. Foxes lounging on cushioned deck chairs. Foxes emerging from under the deck, a mom followed by playful kits.
Welcome to urban East Bay living.
Raccoons are mundane. Turkeys are getting there. Coyotes are becoming a surprisingly familiar thrill or killer menace, depending on the neighborhood cats.
Here come foxes. Bushy-tailed, slinky, with pointed ears, and small faces many people find adorable.
There isn’t any official population data on Bay Area foxes, but based on social media reports and neighborly conversation, sightings in residential areas, including the East Bay, are jumping. While most sightings are in the hills, foxes have been spotted in the flatlands, close to San Pablo Avenue, at El Cerrito Plaza, and even Berkeley’s Ohlone Greenway below Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
“I have been completely charmed each of the probably three times I have seen a fox in our neighborhood,” said Pat Jones Hise who lives in the Oakland hills. “Quite lovely, and they seem to be jaunty almost. Not skittish or predatory, just walking through their territory with no worries.”
“It’s not like we have data on fox populations,” said Doug Bell, wildlife manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. “We’re not necessarily tracking the numbers systematically. A lot of what we have is anecdotal, but having said that, we do seem to be witnessing what you might even call a comeback, if you will, of mesocarnivores — foxes and bobcats and things like that.” A mesocarnivore is an animal that primarily eats meat.
Bell, like other Bay Area wildlife experts, stressed that foxes have long lived in the Bay Area and sightings aren’t unusual. But foxes may be venturing more into residential areas, he said. One factor this year, he said, may be a response to the availability of water after years of drought.
California’s severe droughts deeply affected wildlife and plant life. On the one hand, this may have led some wildlife, including foxes, to wander out of their wildland habitat into more urban areas in search of food. Foxes travel creek watersheds, not only to drink, but also for the rich ecosystem of food that comes with water as well as the accompanying brush for hiding, said Steve Bobzien, ecological services coordinator for the East Bay Regional Park District.
“Gray fox are closely associated with riparian areas. They’re really closely associated with the stream corridors; they follow where the water is,” he said. Many Bay Area watersheds flow through suburban and urban areas on their way down from the hills to the San Francisco Bay.
Even when creek beds look dry, they can attract moisture, especially on the west side of the East Bay hills, closer to the bay and in the fog belt. Now, post-drought wet winters have left urban creek watersheds even riper with fox nutrition.
“We’re had a rebounding of prey populations. We’ve had two wet years in a row and more rabbits, jack rabbits, cotton tail, small ones,” Bell said, calling this, “a welcome response to all the water we’ve seen the last two winters.”
Smaller than coyotes and larger than cats, gray foxes are native to California, including the Bay Area. They prefer wooded areas with places to hide. There are no native red foxes in the Bay Area, but two red fox species are found in the state: the Sierra Nevada red fox, a native of the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges that’s considered endangered; and a nonnative red fox introduced decades ago for hunting and fur that lives in lowland areas. Red foxes, slightly larger than grays, are rare in the Bay Area, though sightings may be increasing.
Hise thought she saw a red fox, and Bell has regularly seen red foxes in Oakland’s Mountain View cemetery area. But most sightings are gray foxes, he said.
To an untrained eye it can be hard telling apart gray and red foxes. Red foxes are slightly larger than gray foxes, have white-tipped tails, and the back of their pointy ears is black. Gray fox have black-tipped tails, usually a black stripe down their backs, and pointy ears that are orange or brown in the back. Red foxes are usually a rusty color, with whites, browns, and reds blending in. Gray foxes are black-grey, with reddish or lighter colors on the sides and chest. Red foxes have more dog-like faces, and the faces of gray foxes are more cat-like.
The preferred fox meal is rodents — rats, mice, gopher, squirrels. They’ll also go after rabbits and some kinds of birds as well as insects. They eat fruits, seeds, and nuts. Most people don’t realize that gray foxes can climb trees. They also dig and burrow. And they’re a big fan of hens.
“They’re quite cosmopolitan in their diet,” Bell said.
Once foxes expand their habitat by finding good eating — from gutter rats to yard apples — they’ll keep coming back. Street-lined areas they once shied from are now home. “They are part of the urban environment just like the coyote is nowadays, too; just like raccoons became a while ago,” Bell said. “They are creatures that are taking advantage of all the food we have to offer in the urban environment nowadays.”
But foxes, unlike coyotes, tend not to prey on pets.
Foxes normally don’t go after cats, dogs, or humans, experts said. “I’m personally not aware of gray fox going after any dogs or cats,” Bobzien said. “They’re not aggressive at all.”
“In general they’re not dangerous,” Bell said. “They might interact with a very small dog. They might show aggression towards similar-size animals. It’s not like they’d go off and kill a dog to eat.”
But folks shouldn’t try to friend foxes by leaving snacks or trying to get close for petting. They’re still wild animals. Humans and foxes will have a more peaceful and healthy coexistence if it stays this way, wildlife experts stressed. This means securing garbage and not leaving cat or dog food outside.
“They’re fairly shy. Get out your binoculars and enjoy nature from afar,” said Aireo Shipman, wildlife rehabilitation manager at the Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in Walnut Creek.
The majority of foxes treated at the Lindsay hospital are from cities like Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Orinda, Shipman said, noting most fox patients have been hit by cars. Their natural predators include coyotes and mountain lions, though owls will go after fox pups. The hospital also gets motherless kits.
So far this year, Lindsay has treated 19 foxes compared to 24 in 2018, Shipman said. The hospital only treats native gray foxes, or on very rare occasion, native Sierra red foxes. It won’t treat nonnative red foxes. Spring tends to be pupping season for gray foxes, and by summer, adolescents are heading out into the world, Shipman said. “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.”
Quiet residential yards with patios, bushes, clusters of trees, or other protective spaces make for good fox dens. “They can live very fine in an urban habitat. They’re perfectly happy having their litter of pups under someone’s deck,” Bell said.
“For a few years now, I see foxes at night while walking the dogs. Roughly once a month,” said an Upper Rockridge resident. “One of the first times I saw one was on Maxwelton with a big rat in its mouth. Anything that takes care of the rats is a friend of mine.”
“Congratulations,” said Sue Greenwald on social media, to someone reporting a fox sighting. “Your rat problems will be over as long as the foxes are around. These sweet, lovely little foxes are the best rat control available.”