It’s a little past 6:45 in the morning when David Drake pulls his truck up the hill into Owen Park, on Madison’s near west side. The view from the top of the hill is surprisingly wooded — a restored prairie criss-crossed with snowy trails slopes down into a forest, which Drake says is a favorite haunt of the neighborhood turkeys. The only orienting landmarks are the UW Hospital towers to the east, which glint gold in the sunrise.
Drake is a wildlife extension specialist at UW-Madison, and he has spent the last five years trapping, tagging and mapping Madison’s red fox and coyote populations in order to better understand how those animals interact with each other, with humans and with their urban landscape.
This morning, Drake is checking the two traps he’s set around the park and baited with roadkill deer carcasses he collected himself.
“The anticipation is a little bit like Christmas morning,” he laughs. “Are we going to get what we wanted? There are lots of up and down emotions.”
Owen Park, he explains, is primarily coyote territory. By tracking the animals he’s tagged, he’s found that Madison’s coyotes spend most of their time in urban greenspaces like the UW-Madison Arboretum, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and city parks. Red foxes stick to more developed landscapes, like residential communities, commercial districts and select spots on campus.
In rural environments, there is little territorial overlap between foxes and coyotes, and interactions between the two species are often violent. Coyotes, which are nearly three times larger than foxes, tend to displace or even kill them, according to Drake.
But Marcus Mueller, Drake’s former graduate student, recently published research that shows the separations between coyotes and foxes predicted by those rural models have begun to close across Madison’s urban landscape.
“It’s highly unusual compared to the rural model. The coyote is not being aggressive toward the fox and the fox does not seem vulnerable or scared of the coyote,” Drake said. “We think there’s a much higher abundance of food resources in the urban landscape than in the rural, and that’s what’s driving a lot of these animals to coexist.”
Urban canids share a similar diet to their country cousins, which is heavily made up of small rodents like mice and voles. But in urban settings, Drake said these opportunistic eaters will forage in trash bins and compost piles, or help themselves to dog and cat food left outside. On occasion, they will even prey on small house pets or raid backyard chicken coops.
“They take advantage of food resources available to them, they take advantage of space resources and they’re able to be flexible enough in their behavioral patterns that they can adapt to these changing urban landscapes,” Drake said.
Drake said that coyotes and foxes will be in Madison for perpetuity, and that humans will have to adjust their behavior on the shared landscape as well. Some of the human-canid conflict management solutions Drake suggests are not leaving trash or compost in accessible places and being vigilant with pets.
“Just because someone sees a coyote in their yard doesn't mean that that coyote's going to cause a problem. The vast majority of coyote interactions are benign. People may perceive them as scary, but rarely does anything ever happen,” he said.
Still, Drake thinks it’s important to establish a firm, proactive relationship between humans and urban canids.
“The best thing we can do to promote this positive coexistence is make sure that these animals fear human beings, so that when they see human beings, they’re going to move away from us and they’re not going to spend as much time around us,” he said. “If the animals aren't afraid of us, then they become bold and they come closer and closer to us, they spend more time around our residential communities, they’re more likely to attack your pet.”
The first trap Drake checks is empty, and the delicate snare is almost invisible in the tall grass. Drake is careful to never set his traps near trees or shrubs with thick branches, as doing so could harm the animals he catches. State law mandates that Drake check his traps every 24 hours, and since the animals he is looking for are most active at night, he and his current graduate student, Heather Sanders, make their rounds first thing in the morning.
When he does catch an animal, Drake will call veterinary students to help him make a health assessment.
“We’ve got a nice synergistic relationship. If we catch an animal, we can deal with it ourselves, but it’s much easier to have a vet student deal with it,” he said. “Plus, it gives them field experience working with large animals.”
Drake has several traps active at any given time, staggered across the city in parks, golf courses and even private backyards. In the five years he’s worked on this project, he estimates he’s set over 6,000 traps.
Drake also collects and maps reports of citizen canid sightings on his website, UW-Madison Urban Canid Project.
“We could not do this project if the public was not interested in what we are doing, and was not supportive of what we are doing and was not invested,” he said.
The second trap is empty as well, but Drake doesn’t seem that discouraged. Sanders is checking traps at a different park, and there are several more waiting at a local golf course. He and Sanders plan on installing another one in a private yard later on that afternoon as well.
Drake plans to continue his research for several more seasons and is working with Sanders to develop a new study to compare feeding habits between canid populations here in Madison and in rural Iowa County, an hour to the west.
Ultimately, Drake would like to shift his study entirely to urban red foxes, which he said is a relatively unknown research area.