Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Researchers say coyotes and foxes thrive in the city by defying their natural instincts to stay away from one another.
Under a dimly lit streetlight in Madison, Wisconsin, a woman witnessed a standoff between a fox and a coyote—two predators that have made the city their home. In an email to wildlife researcher David Drake at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she described the brief (and quite frankly, anti-climatic) interaction: For about 15 seconds, they stood face-to-face, about 10 feet part. They then turned around—and sauntered off in the opposite direction.
Since asking the public to help track Madison’s wildlife in 2014, Drake and his team at the Urban Canid Project have received similar anecdotes, with coyotes and foxes coming near each other, but without any incident. Perhaps nothing remarkable to the average observer, but as Drake will tell you, “There’s something unusual going on here in the city.”
In the wild and in the countryside, coyotes are not only bigger than red foxes, but they’re also higher up the food chain. They tend to push weaker competitors out of their territories and will even kill to protect access to limited food sources. So while red foxes exist in the same general area and may even establish homes at the periphery of where coyotes live, they rarely venture into the other predators’ domain.
In cities, though, it looks like they’re learning how to get along. That’s according to Drake’s latest study published in the journal PLoS. Over the years, foxes and coyotes, like so many other wild species, have settled in the city, and they’re inevitably here to stay. It’s not uncommon to see them scampering across their neighborhoods. Some animal species have adapted to thrive amid the human-dominated landscape of high rises, fragmented green space, and heavy traffic. Now, at least in the case of these two wildlife predators, they may be changing their behavioral instincts to coexist with each other—thanks in part to the abundance of food.
To study what’s going on here, Drake and his students tracked a dozen red foxes and 11 coyotes, following their movements for about two years in the area surrounding the university campus. They found that coyotes are still driving red foxes out of their territories, but there’s more overlap in where the two species live and forage for food. At times, members of each species were found to be in unusually close proximity, with data indicating that neither displayed aggression or vulnerability.
At least once a week, each animal’s locations were recorded every hour over a five-hour period. Taken together, the data painted a rough image of the size, shape, and location of each pack’s home range. From there, the researchers studied where territories overlapped and if members of either species crossed into another’s space. By measuring its step length—how far each animal moved from one location to the next in that five-hour period—they could calculate its speed and direction, which in turn, helps them gauge the animal’s natural flight response.
“As a red fox moved toward a coyote’s territory, especially that core area where the coyotes are spending most of their time, does [the step length] get longer, which would indicate the fox is trying to move across the landscape as fast as they can to avoid danger, and does its direction change?” said Drake.
What they found went against what experts generally know about foxes’ natural instincts. As the fox moved closer to the heartland of coyote territory, their speed didn’t increase, nor did they change directions. “That suggested to us that they’re comfortable being around coyotes, and over a period of the time, it has gotten used to [them],” said Drake. “They know that, ‘When I encounter a coyote nothing bad happens to me, so it’s OK for me to continue.’” Similarly, their study also found a lack of aggression in the coyotes’ movements.
In fact, their study has found instances where the two species forage for food at roughly 300 feet from one another without incident. And in a rarely seen moment captured in Madison by PBS for their documentary, “Fox Tales,” a vixen remains alert as a pair of coyotes scavenges alarmingly close to a den with her pups inside. Drake said the interaction happened weekly for over a month, and yet there was no attempt for the mother to move her den.
Drake attributes the behavioral change to the abundance of food in an urban setting. “It’s just this big conveyor belt of food that feeds all the things that coyotes and foxes are eating, so you have a pretty healthy prey base,” he said. “What we think is going on is that there is such an abundance of food that they (the predators) don’t have to compete for a limited resource like they do out in the country.” Coyotes, he added, are calculating about energy use, and if there is more than enough food to keep their bellies full, they likely won’t waste the energy to chase out their competitors.
Given the small sample size of the study, it’s a hypothesis that needs more research. Still, it brings Drake and his team closer to the big questions their lab is trying to answer. Essentially, what are foxes doing in North American cities and how are they thriving among humans and other urban wildlife?
Drake is one of the early researchers on red foxes in the U.S.—there are lots of studies on urban coyotes, but few on the other pervasive canid. Yet, with the vast expansion of cities over the last few centuries, foxes have quietly moved in with us, leaves wildlife management agencies scrambling to figure out how to best minimize contact between humans and animals.
Drake thinks his research on coyote and fox behavior can help shed some light on how humans and their wildlife neighbors can get along. For example, unlike coyotes, which tend to seek out natural undeveloped land, foxes have adapted to take advantage of human-altered environments. His lab is trying to figure out whether that’s in part a direct result of their territorial relationship, which could mean coyotes are pushing foxes further into the developed landscape.
“If we can understand how they live and behave, when they’re active and things like that,” he said, “then wildlife managers can proactively get ahead of conflicts.”
For the rest of us, it’s an educational opportunity. “When you see a coyote or a fox, know that it’s not there to create problems. It’s just living in the same area that you are,” he added. “Enjoy seeing that animal, and count yourself lucky because it’s a pretty neat experience.”
Enjoy, of course, from a safe distance.