Once upon a time during the last few years, a red-haired girl new to the University of Wisconsin–Madison crested Bascom Hill and cast her eyes upon the cozy arrangement of buildings and lawns, the tree-lined city by the fair lake. Her nature and upbringing led her to think: Yes, this is good. I should meet the right boy here. I hope the food is good.
The UW–Madison campus is a well-worn locale for such scouting. Last year 31,676 prospective students scoped out dorms and classrooms. Hundreds of elite athletes measured the environment against their precise needs. Thousands more informal visits were made, all driven by the same question: Can I thrive here?
But our young visitor is in a new class altogether—wild members of the canid clan. As it happens, their food is quite good, and she—technically a vixen, or female fox—did find the right dog. After spending a winter holed up under Van Hise Hall, she gave birth to a litter of eight, and in early March of 2014 began to let the young kits gambol about.
They were a campus sensation—stopping lectures, cars and buses, inspiring a popular Tumblr blog, drawing hundreds of rapt spectators. Their appearance provided a fortuitous teachable moment for David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a UW–Extension wildlife specialist, who was just beginning to delve deeper into studying the foxes and coyotes of Madison.
Coyotes have been intermittent, if secretive, Madisonians for more than a decade. In the last few years reports of coyotes by visitors to Picnic Point have been rising, and people from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve asked Drake if he could investigate. But the rise of the urban fox population is a relatively new canine twist.
“It’s very timely,” says Dan Hirchert, urban wildlife specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While no comprehensive data have been collected, from where he sits foxes and coyotes are gaining throughout the state. And while the coyotes have been present for a couple of decades, the fortunes of the fox seem to be following the rise in urban chicken rearing.
Because most wildlife research happens in rural areas, we may not know as much as we think about our new neighbors. “Does what we’ve learned about these animals in the wild apply in urbanized settings?” asks Drake. Most major cities employ a forester, but very few cities have a wildlife biologist on staff. Much more common is the pest management paradigm: animal control.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Drake says. “If 85 percent of Americans live in cities, why aren’t we doing more? That’s where people are interacting with wildlife.”
These questions prompted Drake to found the UW Urban Canid Project, a hyperlocal study with far-reaching implications.
“The number of urban canid sightings on campus, primarily red fox and coyote, have been on the rise and have been met with mixed emotions from all different members of society,” notes Drake. “This research aims to understand more about the complex interactions between coyotes, foxes and humans in this urban area—as well as provide information and resources for residents to reduce the potential for conflict with these amazing creatures.”
As morning light seeped into a cold January dawn, David Drake and his grad student Marcus Mueller prepared to lead a small convoy from Russell Labs, winding toward the wild corners of campus to check 18 restraint traps that had been set the evening before.
“Are you feeling lucky today?” Drake asks, climbing into the truck.
“Always,” says Mueller.
“I had a hard time getting to sleep last night,” says Drake. “This is like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Every day you go out to see if you caught something.”
First stop is the old Barley and Malt Laboratory, between the retaining wall of University Avenue and the physical plant. It hardly seemed like habitat, but Mueller traced a clear track laid down by the repeated passage of many small feet. The animals were using the buildings for cover, in transit to someplace else.
Drake is hopeful—he’d already received a call from someone who’d seen a fox at 5:20 a.m. on the football practice field. “They were running through Breese Terrace all last year,” he says. At least one fox was digging in an area under the west side bleachers of Camp Randall for a possible den, notes Drake, but no kits were ever seen there. “It is funny to find these spaces on campus that the animals are using,” says Drake. “I ride my bike by here every day and never really thought about it.”
And in one of the three traps an annoyed raccoon waits impatiently. Donning protective gloves, Drake and Mueller release the coon, who scuttles away, anxious for cover.
Next stop is a small cattail marsh next to Willow Beach, behind the new Dejope Residence Hall. The day before, Drake and Mueller had baited the marsh with parts of a deer carcass. On the short trail we flush an eagle from its perch, perhaps planning its own morning snack of carrion.
This little ecological pocket typifies the habitat opportunities that fox and coyote are exploiting. It’s not big enough to call home, or even to get a regular meal. But link it together with dozens of other nooks and crannies and dumpsters around campus, and the sum total is a complex and productive niche.
Fox and coyote are urban adapters: flexible enough to range across a variety of landscapes, from rural to urban. For animals to survive in a city, they typically need to be this kind of habitat generalist, able to exploit a range of hunting and scavenging environments.
The other part of the equation is habituation—how animals get accustomed to human activities. As a species moves into the city, those who survive realize over time that bad things don’t necessarily happen when they encounter humans. Instead of running at the first sign of people, they sit and watch. This knowledge gets passed down from mother to pup, eventually leading to the Van Hise foxes romping in full view of adoring crowds.
The restraints behind Dejope are set for fox, and this morning there is nothing. Drake looks around and connects the dots in the surrounding environment. West across the ice is University Bay Marsh, where four more restraints await. A few ticks to the north is Picnic Point, and the lake beyond.
The last traps of the day are located in the Biocore Prairie, where the research began when a few trail cams confirmed that a group of coyotes were ranging through the preserve, and probably enjoying the fruits of the Eagle Heights gardens as well.
Drake hopes to learn how urban agriculture is influencing canid behavior. Backyard vegetable gardening is flourishing, and each year more city dwellers add chicken coops to their homesteads.
The chickens are an obvious attraction—chickens have probably been preferred canid targets since even before their domestication. Gardens also attract the small mammals that canids prefer. They will even snack on berries and vegetables.
Last year Drake secured four radio collars—two for each species—and, with the assistance of Lodi trapper Mike Schmelling, researchers were able to collar a pair of coyotes and one fox. Among the first discoveries was that the animals are running the frozen lake. The researchers learned this when one collared coyote disappeared. At first they suspected a malfunction, but a citizen report led them to Maple Bluff, where they reestablished radio contact. The coyote had apparently run all the way across the lake, possibly snacking on ice-fishing gut piles along the way. Another ran north and was killed by a car on County M, near Governor Nelson Park.
This year the research hits full speed, with 30 fox collars and 30 coyote collars available. The ambitious work plan includes collaring an entire fox family, kits and all.
And in the snow-covered landscape of the Biocore Prairie, the first glimpse of the third restraint trap offers a rush of hope. The area around the restraint is beaten up, with dark leaves interrupting the white. An animal was clearly held at some point, but all that’s left is a bit of hair and a kinked and ruined cable.
Back in the truck, Drake teases Mueller. “Marcus, I don’t have a good feeling about your luck.”
“Not yet, anyway.”
“You’re not an unlucky person, are you?”
“I hope not.”
“Because I have fired more than one graduate student for being unlucky . . .”
It’s just as dark and even colder the next morning, yet the party adds an undergraduate wildlife ecology student, Cody Lane, and Laura Wyatt MS’87, a program manager with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. John Olson, a furbearer biologist for the DNR, is in town, and has come to check out the project before putting in a day of lab work.
Behind the Barley and Malt Laboratory, Olson kneels down to evaluate the tradecraft of the empty restraint—a simple loop of airline cable noose suspended from a dark length of stiff wire. “They don’t even see these as traps. They see them as sticks,” Olson explains.
These unique cable restraint traps were named and developed with DNR assistance as part of a national humane trap research program in the early 2000s. “The important thing with these kinds of sets is non-entanglement,” he says. The radius of the multistrand wire must be clear of any potential snags. The size of the loop is determined by the animal you’re selecting, while a stopper keeps it from getting too tight. It works much like a choker collar.
During testing they trapped just over 200 coyotes, and only two died. One had a bad case of mange and died of exposure. The other was shot by someone who didn’t realize the animal was restrained. “It’s a very safe tool,” Olson says. “Cable restraints never damaged any coyotes in the three years that we studied them.”
The convoy moved on to Willow Beach—and, finally, success. A young male fox waits suspiciously, huddled in the reeds. The wind probes at his deep winter coat while the party retreats and summons Michael Maroney BS’85, a veterinarian with the UW–Madison Research Animal Resources Center.
Together Mueller and Maroney estimate the fox’s weight at 12 pounds, and draw a mix of ketamine and xylazine. Mueller secures the animal with a catch pole while Maroney injects the cocktail into the rear leg muscle, provoking an accusing glare from the fox. The clock starts. Within six minutes Maroney looks at Mueller and announces: “He’s clearly gorked.”
Everybody laughs at the non-technical yet thoroughly accurate terminology, and the work begins. They figure they have about 40 minutes. Laying the animal out on a white towel atop a blue tarp, Mueller secures a cordura muzzle, then pulls out electric clippers and shaves one dark foreleg to make it easier to find a vein. Maroney watches his technique while the undergraduate Lane records data.
The fox breathes steadily, and the three talk quietly, as if he were only asleep. Without the wind ruffling his coat, the fox seems smaller, more vulnerable. After the blood draw, nasal and fecal swabs are taken, and the mouth examined. Finally, they weigh the animal—a sturdy 13.5 pounds—and affix the radio collar.
Removing the muzzle, they carry him away from an opening in the marsh ice—a gorked animal doesn’t always behave rationally—and lay him out again on the tarp, out of the wind. A few minutes later and a dark ear twitches, as if to displace a fly. A few more minutes, and the ear twitches pick up. Suddenly the fox stands up shakily, and surveys the audience of onlookers. He quickly takes cover in the marsh, where he gathers his wits for a few more minutes, then slips from view.
Mueller and Drake are giddy, ebullient. “We are off and running,” says Drake. “That was pretty cool.” Last year it took forever to catch a fox; this year they begin with one. “Great start,” says Mueller, and then recounts the steps to himself in a low voice, as if to help remember: the sedation, the blood draws, the recovery.
Mary Rice first saw the coyote in her backyard sometime in the summer of 2012. It was getting dark, and first she wondered, “Whose dog is that?”, followed quickly by: “Oh, my god, a coyote.”
“We were a little alarmed,” she says.
Rice canvassed the neighbors, warning them there was “a coyote lurking” about. Some didn’t know, others did, and some even thought they’d seen wolves. She was wondering how to deal with it, who to call, when she saw another one, smaller. “Remove one, there will be another,” she realized.
A graduate coordinator in the Department of Food Science, Rice remained somewhat unsettled for a few months, worrying about her cats and unsure about her own safety. Then one day at work she learned about Drake’s UW Urban Canid Project and decided to give them a call.
“Can you try to track it and figure out what it’s doing here?” she asked. “We can hopefully live with it. If we’re not going to be able to remove it, maybe we can learn from it and learn how to live among them.”
Before long, with the cooperation of another neighbor, a restraint trap was set. This was Mueller’s first solo set: he decided where to put it, and configured and camouflaged it. Within a week, in early March they had a 36-pound male coyote who had been cutting behind a brush pile. On her way to work, Rice stopped to see the animal and help the team record its vitals. She couldn’t wait to tell her coworkers why she was late.
Rice’s coyote experience is a perfect example of how the project can work, says Drake, with outreach engaging members of the public and connecting them with scientists in the field. On most trap-checking mornings Drake’s team has company—each day a new handful of visitors. Sometimes they’re wildlife students or other friends of the program, but often they’re just curious early risers who follow the group’s progress on social media.
And with hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter, public fascination is strong. Because of our strong cultural connection to dogs, our affinity may even be a little hardwired. From Wile E. Coyote and fox or coyote tricksters in folklore to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, these are animals we all know on some level, however mythic.
Still, fox and coyote don’t get quite the same reception. The fox is easy to anthropomorphize. It’s small, cute and generally non-threatening. Coyotes aren’t typically seen as often, and your first thought can be, like that of Mary Rice: Whoa, that’s a pretty big animal.
“Just because you see a coyote doesn’t mean it’s a bad animal, and doesn’t mean it’s going to create problems for you or that you should be afraid of it,” says Drake. The key is to not create, or exaggerate, a conflict. And that’s almost always about food. It’s important to secure bird feeders and outside pet food, and to take care with pets out of doors. If the coyotes become too bold, make an effort to scare the animals away. “We’re really trying to help people to understand how wonderful it is to have these animals here, but also to be vigilant,” Drake says.
“Are you nocturnal yet?” I ask Mueller as I climb into a white UW van at 9 p.m. in early March. He laughs—it won’t be long now. As soon as early-morning trap checks are done, he’ll be swinging full-time on the second shift. These dogs are nocturnal, and if you want to learn where they are at night, you’ve got to get out there with the radio tracker.
The research plan calls for tracking each animal at least once a week. Some nights it’s boring, and Mueller catches naps between hourly triangulations. But the newly collared fox has been a real challenge. He was tracked one night moving from south of Fish Hatchery Road and Park Street all the way up to John Nolen Drive, where he spent time on frozen Monona Bay and eventually made it to Muir Woods on campus. That’s about four miles as the crow flies—never mind the urban labyrinth he had to navigate between those points. He did all that traveling within a five-hour period.
“It truly was a game of cat and mouse trying to keep up with him that night,” says Mueller. Is he a young transient who hasn’t yet established a home range? Is he trying to find a mate? Or can home ranges for urban foxes really be that big?
Some nights Mueller can track only one animal, but on others they are close to each other. On one recent night the fox and the coyotes were all on campus, just a short distance from each other. “I was flying all over campus,” says Mueller. “It was a crazy night of telemetry.”
It was a perfect scenario for answering a really big question. In wilder terrain foxes and coyotes are mutually exclusive, but Madison is different. “We know from the animals we’ve got on radio that the fox and the coyote are sharing the same space, and sometimes they are sharing the same space at the same time,” says Drake. “They are crossing paths.”
Are the foxes using humans and elements of our built environment to protect themselves from coyotes? Or are there simply enough resources that they don’t have to compete as strictly—more rabbits and squirrels, more compost piles and chicken coops?
The scientists are a long way from answering those questions. First they need to relocate the coyote.
Mueller parks around the corner from Mary Rice’s house in a residential pocket south of the Beltline and raises the antenna, a three-element Yagi that looks like a refugee from the old days of analog TV.
The first reading comes from the west, and from the strength of it Mueller guesses we’re a mile or more away. Crossing back over the Beltline, a little under a mile as the crow flies, and another reading: now the signal’s coming from the east. Another three-
quarters of a mile into a dead-end parking lot, and the signal is now east and south. But back over the Beltline.
In quarter-mile and half-mile increments Mueller is in and out of the van, swinging the antenna around, squawk box to his ear, taking compass readings. After a few more readings he finalizes the coyote’s location in a small wetland not far from one of the many bike paths that probe south from the city. He stayed put until 2 a.m., when Mueller called it a night.
“I can’t wait,” says Mueller, thinking ahead 12 months, when he’s got hundreds of hours of data plotted on a map and can begin to see patterns. “The underlying goal of this project is to be able to coexist with these animals more effectively, to avoid conflicts,” he says. “We don’t want to have to remove coyotes from a population because they are too habituated to people.”
As a summer job during college, Mueller used to take calls at a wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee. “A lot of times people just don’t know much about the ecology and life history of these animals, and that lack of understanding leads to fear,” he says. One call in particular stuck with him, a man worried about a turkey walking around in Milwaukee.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to take it back to nature. It’s not supposed to be here,’” Mueller remembers. But the turkey had already redefined nature—and so have coyotes and foxes and deer and raccoons and . . .
“Cities aren’t going anywhere,” says Mueller. “And the way that these animals are adapting, I think it’s only going to allow for more animals to continue this trend.”
Keep up on all the latest information from the UW Urban Canid Project on Facebook and on Twitter: @UWCanidProject. If you have any questions, or are interested in observing or volunteering, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more campus fox photos by E. Arti Wulandari, visit: http://go.wisc.edu/campusfoxes.