The doors to Camp Randall Stadium open for seven home football games each season. When they do, fans in their red and white badgers flock by the tens of thousands.
Under a bird’s-blue sky in 2017, another Madison resident entered the stadium. Like most, given the occasion, the visitor wore his best red and white.
He wasn’t your typical fan though. They entered under the southwest bleachers, ticketless, and quickly took their places in the middle of the field on the famous Motion “W”.
They were adept at laying the siege down and may have gone unnoticed, but something betrayed them: They weren’t a badger. It was a red fox.
In addition to red and white, the fox wore a tracking collar fitted by the UW Urban Canid Project (UWUCP).
UWUCP gained new insight into red fox and coyote behavior in the Madison cityscape and shared this information with the public to change knowledge, opinions and dialogue regarding urban dogs.
“The project has broader implications than coyotes and foxes. If we have a healthy urban ecosystem that can support a high biodiversity of animals – including those more susceptible to urbanization – this will result in a healthy ecosystem for humans, ”said David Drake.
The project started “by accident” when Drake, professor of forest and wildlife ecology and wildlife specialist at UW-Extension, was called in by the Lakeshore Nature Preserve in 2014.
Reserve staff had received comments on coyote sightings around Picnic Point, a peninsula along the southern shore of Lake Mendota. The coyotes had even followed citizens walking their dogs and walking the trails.
Historically, the literature on coyote-human encounters has been negative, Drake said. Reports detailing the coyote’s assault on humans, dogs and cattle have made it one of the most persecuted animals in America.
Unlike depictions in folklore and popular culture, coyotes aren’t the cunning and malicious characters humans have made of them, Drake and his team have discovered.
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“Being afraid of something is that when you start to familiarize yourself with it you start to lose your fear,” he said, capturing the project’s goal of changing perceptions through familiarity.
To get a better idea of what was going on in Madison, Drake decided to place hunting cameras where coyotes had been spotted. Indeed, a pack had taken up residence in the Lakeshore nature reserve.
The proliferation of red fox and coyote sightings in Madison was not shocking news, Drake said. A great deal of research had already been done on urban coyotes, making any further discovery unlikely. Either way, Drake jumped at the chance to search for Madison’s canine residents.
“No one had looked at the urban red fox in North America or the relationship between red foxes and coyotes in urban settings,” he explained.
At the start of UWUCP, Drake and his team looked for disease in foxes and coyotes by drawing blood and swabbing the nasal and rectal passages of each animal they trapped.
For the most part, the animals were in very good health. They had been exposed to various diseases, including distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus, but a lack of trend data suggested an ability to combat them.
“Animals are nutritionally healthy because there is so much food available and when you are nutritionally healthy your immune system can fight off disease,” he said. “The big difference, from a disease standpoint, was that 65% of the coyotes tested had Lyme disease and 45% had heartworm. Only one fox we tested had Lyme disease and none had heartworms. “
According to Drake, Lyme disease carrying ticks and mosquitoes transmitting the heartworm inhabit the same areas as coyotes. Tall grasses in urban green spaces like the Arboretum and Lakeshore Nature Reserve provide suitable habitat for ticks and mosquitoes. Unlike coyotes, foxes spend their time in human-developed landscapes where tick and mosquito habitat is scarce.
Drake and his team captured live canids and fitted them with satellite collars to collect “more refined spatial data” on the whereabouts of the animals. The collars provide researchers with eight hourly slots per night on each animal.
“What we do know about Madison is that red foxes and coyotes seem to be able to coexist in the same space at the same time,” Drake said.
In non-urban areas, foxes and coyotes typically overlap in their eating habits and type. Coyotes are about three times the size of foxes and tend to exclude them competitively. In Madison, the abundance of food means these animals don’t have to compete for limited resources, according to Drake.
On past mornings, Drake invited small groups to help check out the trapline and handle the canines. This opportunity gave over 500 people the opportunity to have a more intimate conversation about UWUCP, learn more about living trapping, and become more involved in the natural world.
“People react really positively to wildlife. They like to see it. It enriches people’s lives to have nature around them, ”said Drake, noting the huge public interest in the project.
While COVID-19 has put volunteering for the project on the back burner, it’s not the only way to help. In 2015, UWUCP launched a Naturalist page where citizens could report canine sightings in the city of Madison. The data provided a more comprehensive view than satellite collars alone, Drake said.
The project will soon publish an article on iNaturalist data and human-coyote encounters. Each person who reported an observation was asked to rate the animal’s level of aggression from zero to five, with zero being the least aggressive and five the most aggressive.
“What we found in Madison, looking at 400 different first-person events, was that 97% were completely benign – there was no aggression from the coyotes,” Drake said.
The UWUCP team participated in over 20 municipal events where they shared their research and provided advice for coexistence with neighbor canines.
“At all times, you have to put the fear of humans in canines. It’s the best way for us to coexist. Maintaining a healthy fear of humans encourages animals to move away from human activity rather than coming to it, ”Drake explained.
For Drake, sharing information about canines and promoting the positivity of their residence in Madison is one of the most rewarding aspects of the UW Urban Canid Project.
Canids have strong intrinsic and utility value, Drake said. They are native to the state and region, having existed here for centuries. They are also very good at controlling the population of animals such as squirrels, rabbits, mice and rats, he added.
Despite hundreds of years of persecution, canines live closer to humans than ever before. The health of ecosystems depends on our ability to trade fear for familiarity and conflict for coexistence.
“At the end of the day they’re here and they’re not going anywhere and we’re not going anywhere, so we better learn to live together unless it’s a rocky road for all of us,” Drake said. .
Drake thanked the graduate students who have been “the workhorses of this project”. They collected data and published articles, which earned them much of the credit.
Donations to the UW Urban Canid project can be made through the UW Foundation.
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