Updated: Sep 9, 2020
In early Spring 2019, Bigs Eyes and Laimos wandered into new territory around the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto, California from Shoreline, near Mountain View. They are a young couple hoping to find more of their kind in this new area and raise a family. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think they expected to be alone. They did not know that 25 of their kind died off in 2016 due to overpopulation, disease and drought, a perfect storm for wildlife, leaving no other gray fox in the Baylands area. Now, it is up to Big Eyes and her mate, Laimos, to bring new gray fox into this area. As they do so, the “Fox Guy.” also known as Bill Leikam, is working hard to make sure the perfect storm of 2016 doesn’t happen again on his watch.
Since 2009, Bill has been going to gray fox territory in the Baylands twice a day, every day. The only time he has taken off is when he is on vacation in Montana. When he is near them, he talks to them and they listen. Many would come out to see him when he called their names. He became part of their environment which allowed him to observe their behaviors, understand they way they raised their young and their intelligence with problem solving. He spoke of a time when sitting on a log near one of the den sites writing notes and looking up to see a few fox pups sitting in the grass in front of him like students in front of a teacher- studying him as much as he was studying them.
The population of fox seemed to be thriving until in 2016 when Bill started noticing certain fox would not show themselves like they had in the past. Bill started getting calls about fox being found dead in the area and no one knew why. Eventually, with the help of a UC Davis veterinarian, he was able to get necropsy reports and found that the fox all had canine distemper, a disease common in our pet dogs. Unlike our pets, though, fox cannot be vaccinated.
It was soon realized that the fox population was too large for the Baylands area. Distemper in such a closed territory spread like wildfire among all the fox. The peak of the drought was also in 2016, water for all wildlife in the area was scarce. These conditions stressed and pushed the immune systems of the fox to the limit. Their weakened immune systems could not battle the distemper or any other virus or bacteria that they encountered.
A big problem overlying the drought and disease is the lack of wildlife habitat connectivity for fox and other animals to expand their territory and find new resources. Highways, like Highway 101, and new large scale building projects basically cut off the Baylands from other wildlife areas where the fox could travel - they are trapped in this area unless we can create corridors that connect for wildlife to safely travel. In order to do this, Bill needs to find pups in the Baylands and collar them so they can be tracked as they try to travel to new areas. Learning where the fox go will help determine areas for connectivity. He needs camera traps to observe den sites of fox as well as the behavior of other wildlife such as raccoons and opossums. Without fox around to control the population of the other species, the other species can be experiencing overpopulation, disease and inbreeding as well.
As of July 2020, Bill is pretty confident Big Eyes and Laimos do not have pups yet. He also has not given up hope that this young couple will hopefully have pups in the Spring of 2021. In the meantime, this allows Bill to continue his hard work with the Urban Wildlife Research Project to raise funding to purchase collars and game cameras to keep an eye on the resident couple and other wildlife. He is using this time to educate the community and world about importance of gray fox and why they need our help to create natural corridors for their survival. Bill gives me hope with his dedication to the gray fox and other animals as he motivates and educates the community to care. With Bill at the helm, I feel confident we will see wildlife corridors successfully connecting habitats in our area during my lifetime.
I did a Live Facebook interview with Bill on July 2, 2020 where he shared the story of Big Eyes and Laimos and the many other fox that have influenced his life. Below are links to the live show on Facebook and YouTube as well as a player for the audio only version on iTunes.
FaceBook Live Show: www.facebook.com/beprovided/live
YouTube Live Show: https://youtu.be/Z583SFCXNzw
Audio Podcast of our live show:
Here is a video of Big Eyes and Laimos affectionately greeting each other earlier this spring. The video footage was provided by Bill Leikam. Other photos were provided by the UWRP website.
Please visit their site (https://urbanwildliferesearchproject.com) and consider donating to this cause, especially if you live the Bay Area. If you do not live in the Bay Area please find a similar project you can support that is working on coexistence with wildlife in urban areas by creating and connecting sustainable wildlife corridors. Gray Fox can be found across North America, they all could use our support.
Bill Leikam is the co-founder and president of the Urban Wildlife Research Project (UWRP) that works to document the behavior and protect habitat for gray foxes in our Bay Area. The UWRP is working hard to create wildlife corridors that provide adequate room for the fox and other wildlife, to live and raise their young and to avoid another die out like in 2016. Beth Pratt, who, you know, as the P22, mountain lion expert in her book When Mountain Lions are Neighbors refers to Bill as the Jane Goodall of the gray fox.Since 2009, Bill has conducted unprecedented, groundbreaking research on the behavior of our local gray fox.
Bill and the Urban Wildlife Research Project have recently been chosen to represent the United States with nine other countries in a wildlife exposition in Zurich, Switzerland. This project involves collecting a year’s worth of camera trap photos and video of the gray fox den area and a final presentation in Zurich when all the data is collected and condensed into a presentation.
This was a surprise to me, in addition to his talent as a fox whisper and researcher, he is also a published live jazz reviewer for All About Jazz. Although he has retired from reviewing jazz, he still appreciates the occasional live show.