Hovanec, a senior majoring in forest and wildlife ecology, is conducting a capstone research project looking at the home range, activity patterns, and general health of fox and coyotes on the UW-Madison campus. That includes the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, which includes the woods along the Lakeshore Path, the shorelines and marshes of University Bay, Picnic Point and areas adjacent to Eagle Heights.
Hovanec, who will be entering veterinary school in the fall, has been working closely with David Drake, associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology and Extension wildlife specialist.
“The idea,” Drake says, “is to learn more about this population in order to learn about the potential for a healthy coexistence with humans.”
Drake got involved in canid research in the preserve after being contacted by Cathie Bruner, the Lakeshore Preserve’s field manager. Bruner was looking for someone to study coyotes in the Preserve, after receiving more frequent reports of the animals from visitors.
In spring 2013, Drake worked with another wildlife ecology student, junior Lucas Rapisarda to study the habitat preferences and activity patterns of coyotes in the Preserve (read more). Using walking transects and camera traps, they determined that coyotes were most abundant in the Bill’s Woods area of the Preserve.
The next logical step, Hovanec says, was to radio-collar and monitor the coyotes to further evaluate their movements and activity. She and Drake decided to include fox as well, since there had been frequent sightings of a pair on campus. In fact, there’s a lot of speculation that the foxes are moving to the more peopled parts of campus to avoid the coyotes. Coyotes kill foxes.
The project was a great fit for Hovanec. “I was looking for something that would take a lot of initiative,” she says. “I wanted something that was outside and hands-on. I wanted there to be a veterinary component.
The veterinary component was accomplished with the help of UW veterinarian Mike Maroney. He was on hand each time a fox or coyote was captured and collared, showing Hovanec how to give the animal a physical exam and take blood and fecal samples to evaluate its health. Tests on three animals, notes Hovanec, revealed they carry common intestinal parasites; were exposed to parvovirus in the past (but aren’t necessarily active carriers of the virus); and are free of tick-borne diseases. All in all, they don’t appear to pose a risk to local pets or other wild animals.
Hovanec conducts daily searches of the collared animals. The coyotes seem to be most active at night and in the early morning. On bitterly cold and windy days she discovered that the coyotes tended to retreat deep into the cattails of the University Bay and Class of 1918 marshes. On nicer mornings, she has found them in Eagle Heights Woods and the Village of Shorewood Hills.
One morning Hovanec couldn’t locate one of the coyotes. Later that day Drake received a call from a Middleton resident who had spotted a coyote crossing the frozen lake with something around its neck. The coyote came back to campus the following day. But sadly, another trip across the lake didn’t have a happy ending. Two weeks ago one of the collared coyotes was hit and killed by a car north of Lake Mendota on Highway M.
“It’s too bad,” says Drake, “but it’s a piece of information we need to know. We’ll keeping adding those pieces of information together to get a better picture (of what’s happening with these animals). It happens, and it’s important to find that stuff out.”
The disappointment of losing a research animal was part of the learning process for Hovanec. Another lesson was about technical failures and the need to overcome them. Radio signals from the fox have been difficult to pick up consistently—she and Drake suspect the collar isn’t working—so she has been relying on reports of sightings to monitor him.
Fortunately, there are lots of eyes out there. The fox has a much wider home range than the coyotes and seems to be active at all times of the day. He was first spotted near the Madison Gas & Electric power plant on E. Main Street; then at the Hasler Laboratory of Limnology at the east end of the Lakeshore Preserve. In March, a pair of foxes were spotted frolicking in Camp Randall Stadium. There’s also a report of a fox trotting up State St. in the middle of the day, and another of a fox with a chicken in its mouth on S. Mills St.
Hovanec hopes her research will yield information benefiting the safety and health of Preserve users, their pets, and the wild canids. It is possible that the information she gathers could be used to draft plans of management or conflict avoidance, should an issue arise in the future.
This is an expanded version of an article in the spring 2014 issue of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve Newsletter written by Preserve outreach specialist Bryn Scriver and Holly Hovanec.