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Typically rivals, coyotes and foxes seem to have found a way to coexist in urban areas, UW-Madison researchers say

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David Drake

Coyotes and foxes living in Madison's urban setting are less likely to come into conflict than their cousins in the country, says UW-Extension wildlife specialist David Drake. Above, Drake makes his way toward coyote traps in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve at UW-Madison. 

An unusual peace has settled among two predatory rivals who’ve taken up residence in Madison.

UW-Madison researchers discovered the truce while electronically tracking the movements of red foxes and coyotes, two species that don’t always get along so well when they live in the countryside.

Now the scientists are ready to test his hypothesis that the truce came about because our community has kept both species fat and happy with a buffet of rodents and other small creatures.

“What we’re trying to ask is if the reason these two predators can coexist in an urban landscape is because there’s such an abundance of resources that they can share it, they don’t have to compete for it,” said David Drake, director of the UW Urban Canid Project.

Canids like foxes and coyotes feast on squirrels, rabbits, mice, moles, small birds and other creatures that are found in great abundance where humans plant gardens and grass and fill bird feeders and trash bins.

If cities create more prey than is found in rural or forested areas, it would be only natural that the two predator species would gravitate to the urban geography.


A coyote fitted with a radio collar forages along Arboretum Drive in Madison.

“All the landscaping in our yards, and all those plants that are eaten by rabbits and the bird feeders for the squirrels, voles eat your grass and shrubs, “ Drake said. “All of that grows the prey base. Why spend energy hunting where there’s less abundance?”

Understanding how they behave helps shed light on how to respond when there is conflict, so that people don’t become unnecessarily annoyed or alarmed, and the canids aren’t eliminated in the way the gray wolf has been hunted nearly to extinction, Drake said.

Another question Drake would like to address is the “predator paradox.” Some studies have found predators decrease the numbers of their prey, while other research found prey numbers actually increase. The answer could be important to wildlife managers considering introducing predators to reduce numbers of animal pests.

Scientific knowledge about coyotes helped East Side neighbors handle coyote attacks on pet dogs a few years ago. And Drake’s most recent research may help explain why people frequently spot foxes near their homes.

In a paper published in the journal PLOS One, UW-Madison researchers found that coyotes roamed in parks and less developed parts of the city, while foxes traveled in places where there were more people.

Red fox

A young adult fox about to be released from a cable trap on campus near the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.

“Foxes will make a living in people’s backyards, hunting,” Drake said. “A lot of people will report they just have them basking in their yard in the summer in the sun, hanging out, so they don’t seem to mind hanging out with people.”

People are often delighted by fox sightings, contributing tips to the canid project’s web pages, and volunteering their yards as trap sites.

While the two species have distinct home ranges in Madison, the territories are sometimes near to each other. In one case there has been overlap.

By taking a close look at data from the radio collars, the researchers gauged the speed and direction of individual animals as they approached the rival species’ range. There was no sign that the foxes were moving faster or avoiding coyote territories, and no sign of coyotes moving aggressively toward fox ranges, Drake said.

In the countryside, the larger animal would tend to kill the smaller one to reduce competition for food, Drake said.

Coyote trap

Cable traps are used by the the Urban Canid Project to capture coyotes and foxes so they can be fitted with radio collars. 

Packs and families

There are three coyote packs in Drake’s study area, which includes the university campus and the Beltline on the south and the west. They are based in the UW-Madison Arboretum, Owen Conservation Park, and Lakeshore Nature Preserve.

Fox and coyote map

They travel along other wooded corridors, even crossing Lake Mendota when it’s frozen. One coyote was killed in traffic on the lake’s north side, Drake said. He said he knows of two other packs that are not far away. A typical pack might include five animals.

Foxes are organized as families. Their numbers aren’t easy to peg.

“The coyote population seems pretty settled in our area, but the fox numbers seem to vary year to year, both the numbers and the locations,” Drake said. “The fox population may not be as well established as the coyotes. They are more elusive. We go for times without seeing them.”

Madison residents have had conflicts with coyotes over the last decade. One of the animals was trapped on the West Side by neighbors, according to local public health officials.

On the other side of town in 2015, neighbors reported a series of coyote attacks on small pet dogs. Some neighbors blamed residents who had been drawing the animals into their back yards with offerings of food. A coyote who learns there may be food near homes, may seek it out and begin finding small dogs as well.

There were some calls for hunting the pack down, but Drake and others were able to spread the word that there were more effective solutions, such as hazing, or making a lot of noise to scare the animals away. For a while neighbors also kept pets under close watch at night and made sure trash was securely covered. The coyote problem soon disappeared.

Lakeshore trap

David Drake, who directs the UW Urban Canid Project, examines the snow near a coyote trap in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.

Trapping troubles

When the project started five years ago, researchers were able to collar several coyotes in the first weeks of trapping.

Researchers place roadkill deer or other bait in places where tracks in snow or other signs of fox or coyote have been spotted. The animals are trapped, sedated and fitted with collars in an operation that takes about an hour. The traps are loops of cable designed like a dog’s choke chain to loosen when the animal stops pulling.

About a dozen animals are usually collared at a time. More trapping is done each year to replace those killed by cars or disease. Drake said foxes have been susceptible to mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites.

Trapping was difficult this year, possibly because initially there wasn’t enough snow to show animal trails, Drake said.

Baited trap

UW-Extension wildlife specialist David Drake describes the procedure used to trap coyotes. A deer carcass is used as bait near a coyote trap in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.

By February, three new coyotes had been collared. Drake wanted badly to find another, but the traps had been empty for weeks.

One recent bone-chilling dawn, as the sun gilded treetop stems, Drake circled through shin-deep snow to a spot uphill from two traps set in a wooded area near where Picnic Point juts into Lake Mendota.

“I’m guessing most people walk by here and they’ve got no idea there’s a deer sitting here,” Drake said.

The traps were empty again, but Drake was heartened. A short distance from the traps he could see for the first time chunks of fur missing from a deer carcass he had been placing there or near traps in a West Side park for three months.

“That’s awesome that they got on it, but it’s been three months,” Drake said.

Later he was accompanied by another scientist as he checked a small West Side park. From a distance Drake peered into underbrush where fox trails had been reported. For a moment, a sour tang laced the air, and Drake stood tall.

“Was that a skunk? Did anyone smell skunk?” he asked. The presence of skunks would be a good sign. Foxes like to eat them.

Red fox

Red foxes are more likely to travel in developed parts of Madison, while coyotes stick more to wooded areas, researchers say.

One ‘beep’ and

researchers move on

On the way to check a fox trap in a wooded edge of the Odana Hills Golf Course, Drake talks about the public perceptions of predators. Wolves stir up strong emotions among those who see them as a threat and those who defend them. Foxes are portrayed in children’s literature as attractive and smart. And then there’s the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote — greedy, ill-kempt and unintelligent.

Drake said he sees great beauty in coyotes.

“They are super cool, especially with the full coat,” he said.

But, except for trapping, he and his fellow researchers seldom lay eyes on the animals. Tracking involves driving around with a radio receiver until it detects a signal from a collar. Then they drive to another spot to capture another signal.

“It’s kind of funny,” Drake said. ”We almost never see a fox or coyote. It’s just ‘beep,’ and we move on.”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.