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The Social and Emotional Lives of Urban Gray Foxes

Citizen scientist Bill Leikam offers unique insights into the fox's mind.

Key points

  • Bill Leikam is president and co-founder of the Urban Wildlife Research Project.
  • He publishes monthly reports on the behavior of urban gray foxes and wrote the book “The Road to Fox Hollow.”
  • According to Leikam, documenting the depth and breadth of the gray fox’s emotional life is “almost breathtaking.”
 Bill Leikham, used with permission
A family of urban Gray Foxes.
Source: Bill Leikham, used with permission

As a field biologist specializing in the social behavior and emotional lives of carnivores, I've long been interested in and fascinated by the detailed and groundbreaking field research conducted by Bill Leikam, president and co-founder of the Urban Wildlife Research Project, on the behavior of urban gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) since 2009.1 His monthly reports can be seen here and his excellent book The Road to Fox Hollow has just been published. Among Bill's numerous eye-opening observations of life, death, growth, and loss is the story of how a fox named Mama Bold took over Baylands territory from her father, Squat, and reared multiple generations of pups with her mate Gray.

Getting to know our wild neighbors is good for our own mental health, for fostering coexistence, and for learning about how we might be influencing their lives, and this might be especially so during the ongoing pandemic. Bill's research reminded me of the prescient work of citizen scientist and naturalist extraordinaire William Long conducted more than a century ago, so I wanted to know more about Bill's long-term study from which other researchers and I, along with many local residents, have learned a lot. I'm pleased he could answer a few questions about what he's been doing almost daily for more than 12 years.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you organize the Urban Wildlife Research Project and what are your major goals?

BL: Co-founder Greg Kerekes and I had been documenting the gray foxes for nearly a year when one morning, out on the trail tending our trail cameras—I never use the term camera traps—when I asked him if he’d ever considered developing a more formal working relationship like forming an LLC. He asked, “If we did that, what would we call it?” And right off the top of my head I blurted, “How about the Urban Wildlife Research Project?” He liked it and we formed an LLC, but when the die-out of all the foxes occurred in 2016, it became obvious that something had to be done to boost the health of the region so that another die-out would be unlikely. To rectify that issue and bring in a healthy environment for the foxes we knew that it would cost money and so in March of 2017 we officially became a nonprofit; a 501 (C) 3.

 Bill Leikham, used with permission
Source: Bill Leikham, used with permission

MB: I'm extremely impressed with your ongoing "citizen science" study of the urban gray foxes. Can you please summarize some of your major findings?

BL: I’ll tell you a brief story: I stood across the old dirt trail one early morning taking photos of a family of gray foxes near Matadero Creek. The pups played through the grass and climbed into the trees. At one point, I looked up the road and right at that moment, from the brush at the trail’s edge, came an adult gray fox. I expected her to head off along the trail, away from us, because she was trespassing on Creek and Brownie’s territory. Instead, she came right on down the road toward me, went off into the brush, and met up with the fox family across from me. Obviously, they knew one another.

The pups greeted her. Later I saw that the helper female fox took two of the four pups in the litter and helped to raise them. After combing the literature, there was no indication that anyone knew for sure that gray foxes had helper females. Although their presence was not published until this book, that was the very first documented occurrence of the helper female in the community of gray foxes.

I know that while there has been a lot of work and writing that has been done on wildlife, it is only recently that we’ve tapped into and recognized their emotional lives. Documenting the depth and the breadth of the gray fox’s emotional life is almost breathtaking. From what I’ve seen, their emotional life is comparable to our own. Some foxes even have brief fights with their mate. Coming to understand the emotional breadth of these foxes has altered my life from being a big meat-eater toward becoming a vegetarian.

We also learned that pups born within a given home range don’t always disperse as they should. This is especially true of the urban foxes and one of the reasons might be that there is not enough room into which to disperse. In such cases, there are a couple of dominance scenarios that can unfold: 1) The alpha male or the father of the pup will forcibly chase the young fox away until it gets the message. 2) A recalcitrant young gray fox might fight to remove its parents from their home range and take possession of the territory itself. I have seen this occur.

In a related finding, an alpha male’s singular most important task, aside from finding food for his pups, is when there is a crowded territory that houses numerous families of foxes. Before the females come into estrous his duty is to chase off any single males and some females before the paired females become pregnant. Gray foxes are both polyandrous (a female with two or more sexual partners) and monogamous (one female and one male mate), and I have documented a gray fox “divorce."

MB: How does your project differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

BL: Most other researchers don’t have the luxury of directly observing and documenting the behavior of their chosen wild critters over a period of years. They do not take the time to get to know individual critters and they are not in the critter’s presence long enough to gain trust. As such, most researchers come to generalized conclusions about behavior that frequently do not stand up under the scrutiny of direct, educated observation, over an extended period.2

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing lives of the foxes, they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

BL: I sure hope so. That’s one of my goals in writing this book. As I developed my work over the first several years, people began urging me to write peer-reviewed scientific papers. However, as I mulled that idea over, I came to the conclusion that I needed to write a popular book for the people so that they could then see and maybe understand that the wildlife who surround us are by no means who we think they are.

References

In conversation with Bill Leikham.

1) Beginning in October 2009 to the present Bill Leikam has conducted unprecedented, groundbreaking field research on the behavior of the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Bill is a consultant with Caltrans, works closely with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, consults with Facebook and other corporations on understanding the wildlife living on their campuses, and he volunteers at the Don Edwards San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge. He has been asked to join a global team of 15 wildlife researchers who are contributing video to an immersive wildlife video installation Triggered by Motion at the Museum Fur Gestaltung (Museum of Design) Zurich Switzerland. His presentation A Year with the Urban Gray Fox has been acclaimed by such organizations as the Sierra Club, Safari West, and many others as being the best of the best. All proceeds from his book will go to support corridor restoration work by the Urban Wildlife Research Project.

2) I am in the field twice daily; once in the early morning before sun up and often before dawn to collect the SD Cards from a camera array and to observe the foxes as they go about their ordinary lives. Then, in late afternoon, I return to perform any maintenance on the cameras like swapping out batteries, defogging lenses, repositioning, etc. From my perspective, that’s the only way to fully understand them. I am in my 12th year of doing this each and every day.

Bekoff, Marc. Are Humans Driving Wily Urban Red Foxes to Self-Domesticate? (Street smart vulpines show fascinating adaptions for living in human environs.)

_____. Close Encounters Of A Lion Kind: Meeting Cougars, Foxes, Bears ... and Bear Poop. (We must coexist with animals with whom we share space.)

_____. Gulls: Our Love-Hate Relationships with Raucous Neighbors.

_____. Neighborly Animals Offer Valuable Lessons About Coexistence.

_____. How Animals Talk: A Remarkably Insightful and Prescient Book. (Published in 1919, William Long's book shows the importance of natural history.)

Hindley, Hannah. How to Be a Fox. Bay Nature magazine, January 12, 2022.

Leikham, Bill. The Road to Fox Hollow. Di Angelo Publications, 2022.

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