21st-Century Foxes

insider feature - Vixen and kits
UW–Madison’s Urban Canid Project follows the thoroughly modern foxes — and coyotes — that make campus their home.

It was the curious case of the fox that didn’t run in the night.

In the spring of 2016, David Drake and his graduate assistant, Marcus Mueller MS’17, had a wildlife camera stationed on the Lakeshore Path watching a den of red foxes: a fox, a vixen, and their litter of kits. The fox was an acquaintance of theirs, a research subject: the fourth fox they had tagged in their Urban Canid Project. They called him Red Fox 4.

Shortly after midnight, early on the morning of April 25, 2016, Drake and Mueller captured an odd image. A couple of coyotes — one of whom was also an acquaintance, an animal they knew as Coyote 7 — came by Red Fox 4’s home to do a little research of their own. Red Fox 4 stood outside the den and barked his displeasure, but the coyotes were unmoved. They peered into the den, wandered around the site, and then eventually moved on down the lakeshore. The coyotes foraged around the fox den for about an hour before wandering on. On other nights, the coyotes came back, again and again, at least once a week for more than a month.vixen

But if Coyote 7 was emotionally unmoved, Red Fox 4 and his family were literally unmoved. And that was curious.

“What’s so interesting …” Drake says, and then pauses and drops a D-bomb. “Dad-gum, this isn’t typical. In rural areas, if you have coyotes, you won’t find red foxes. The coyotes will displace them — kill them or chase them out. But these coyotes showed no aggression. And these foxes didn’t leave. I wouldn’t say they were happy about coyotes being outside their den, but they didn’t leave.”

The anecdote was noteworthy enough to tell the world about. In January 2018, Mueller and Drake published “Coexistence of Coyotes (Canis latrans) and Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in an Urban Landscape” in PLOS One, an online, open-source scientific journal. The news caused a minor stir on campus, but mainly because so few Badgers were aware that coyotes and foxes live so close to Bascom Hill. The deeper point, that fox and coyote behavior had changed, was lost on most people.

But Drake isn’t most people. He’s been studying predatory Madison for several years, and his work is creating one of the first major datasets on urban red foxes in North America.

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