I once saw a fox in the backyard of my near-west Madison home. It sat along a stone retaining wall with its cozy tail wrapped around its feet. Light snowflakes swirled as it quietly gazed across the yard. We keep backyard chickens so we were certainly a little nervous. But more, we were awed. It was an amazing experience to see “real” wildlife up so close.
Turns out, my “urban” fox encounter was not so rare. Foxes claim several Madison neighborhoods as their own – including the densely-populated UW-Madison campus. One fox family in particular captivated students and caught the attention of UW wildlife professor David Drake in 2014. With several research questions in mind, Drake set about tracking UW’s famous fox family and others like it. And so began the Urban Canid Project.
Researching Urban Canids
In Wisconsin, canids – which are all members of the dog family – include red and gray foxes, coyotes, and wolves. Here in south central Wisconsin, we’re likely to only see red foxes and coyotes.
Professor Drake’s research addressed the following questions: given that human presence impacts the habitats canids usually inhabit (i.e. rural and natural areas), can and do these two species coexist in urban settings? And if they do, do they share the same home ranges or stay away from one another? In order to coexist, does one species stick to lawns and parks while the other prefers commercial or residential areas? Or do they work the split shift and hunt and roam at differing times of the day?
Working in the 27 square miles that includes the UW campus, Madison’s downtown, the Arboretum, my neighborhood and others beyond, Drake’s team of research students and volunteers captured and tagged 23 canids (2015 through 2016).
After tracking their movements, the researchers concluded that foxes and coyotes do coexist but with some interesting shifts from their rural relatives. For one, they each tended to keep smaller home ranges, perhaps because food sources are more abundant in urban settings, particularly for foxes who are known to raid human-made food sources.
While both species stuck to their nocturnal tendencies, they preferred slightly different landscapes. Foxes were cool with developed open spaces like parks, lawns, and turf, but coyotes stuck with more natural, green spaces.
“For example, a radio-collared coyote and red fox were observed foraging < 100m from one another for over 1 hour in an open field with no sign of aggression or negative interactions. In another example, a pair of coyotes frequently visited (1–2 visits/week for 4 weeks) an active red fox den in a residential neighborhood. While the coyotes investigated the den site and partially entered the den to retrieve an Eastern cottontail carcass, the adult foxes remained in the vicinity. This behavior continued for close to one month, with no attempts from the red fox family to relocate to any of several available nearby dens. Coyotes and red foxes may be more tolerant of each other in urban areas than we initially suspected. In either situation, if the red foxes perceived coyotes as dangerous, it would be expected that they would have altered their behavior to avoid a negative interaction.”
Have you seen a fox in your backyard? Or perhaps you’ve heard coyotes yipping at night? You can report your observations to Drake’s team. And perhaps your encounter, like mine, will keep your sense of awe and wonder alive.
More about Urban Canids
- To learn more about the Urban Canid Project, including volunteer opportunities for assisting with animal tagging, check out: uwurbancanidproject.weebly.com
- For more on urban wildlife species interactions, check out this New York Times article about Wisconsin’s own Snapshot Wisconsin – including hilarious shots of animal show-downs like skunk vs deer and bobcat vs raccoon.
- Speaking of Snapshot Wisconsin, test your canid spotting skills with these flashcards from the Department of Natural Resources.
- Need some brushing up on those skills? Our friends at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center just posted how to tell foxes from coyotes. Check it out on their Facebook page.
- Urban foxes are not just a Madison thing. PBS’s “Nature” dedicated an entire episode to urban foxes in 2017 (see the trailer below). And of course, UW’s famous fox family made the cut!
- PBS Wisconsin also wrote an article on the “Nature” episode.
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