An urban coyote along the Chicago River near Lincoln Park. Photo by Mark Gibboney.
City Slickers: Coexistence strategies of coyotes and red foxes in the urban jungle
Imagine a coyote strolling through Millennium Park or a red fox darting between urban yards. It might sound like a scene from a wildlife documentary, but it’s the reality of urban wildlife in Chicago. Urban environments have always been home to wildlife closely associated with people, such as rats and squirrels, but are increasingly becoming hotspots for a diverse array of wildlife. This includes becoming home to larger and wilder species, including mesocarnivores such as coyotes and red foxes. A mesocarnivore is a small to medium sized animal (<35 pounds) whose diet consists of meat with the balance consisting of non-vertebrate foods which may include insects, fungi, fruits, other plant material and any food that is available to them.
In a recent article published in the journal Urban Ecosystems, Alyson Cervantes, and a team of researchers that included the author set out to understand how these canines survive in the city. The study peeks into the secret lives of coyotes and foxes, revealing a fascinating story of how they’ve carved out niches in the busy cityscape of Chicago. This is important because as Cervantes said “Coyotes have become a top predator in Illinois and the lack of human activity in rural areas can affect red foxes. We do see this negative relationship between coyotes and foxes, where foxes avoid areas that coyotes are in.”
Understanding how these species coexist in urban environments is crucial for managing human-wildlife interactions and promoting biodiversity. Cervantes and her team used camera traps deployed across Chicago by staff of Lincoln Park Zoo to document the intricate dynamics of coyote and red fox interactions. The study employed multi-season occupancy models to understand distribution and structural equation modeling to understand interactions between coyotes and red foxes.
“One of the most surprising finds of the study was that red foxes and coyotes didn’t partition space as we might have expected,” Cervantes said. “Instead, foxes seemed to increase their activity in higher levels of urbanization when coyotes were less active, allowing them to avoid coyotes in shared spaces.” In fact, a key finding of the study was uncovering the urban chessboard used by coyotes and red foxes to facilitate their coexistence.
It turned out that the canines partition their activity spatially by prioritizing use of different habitats. Coyotes prefer the more natural nooks and crannies of the city, such as forest preserves. Red foxes, on the other hand, depended on a complex interplay between coyotes and human activity. In areas with high human activity, red foxes were more likely to be present when coyotes were also abundant.
The urban chessboard was not played just in space, but in time as well. Both canids were more active at night, but as urbanization intensified, red foxes shifted their activity further into the night and away from times when coyotes were active, thereby directly avoiding competition. This temporal partitioning, particularly in highly urbanized areas, allows these closely related canines to share high quality habitat and avoid direct confrontations.
This fascinating dance in space and time promotes the coexistence of these two competing species in the city. This nuanced understanding of mesocarnivore dynamics in urban environments can inform conservation efforts, helping create spaces where diverse wildlife can thrive alongside human communities. As cities continue to expand, uncovering the strategies employed by these urban mesopredators becomes increasingly vital for fostering harmonious cohabitation between humans and wildlife.
As Cervantes noted “Understanding these interactions can be beneficial for green space planning, as well as promoting human-wildlife coexistence through public awareness and education, especially as urbanization continues to expand.”
Max Allen is a carnivore ecologist with the University of Illinois. His research focuses on the ecology and behavior of the carnivore guild around the world, with a focus on understanding ecological interactions of carnivores for applied conservation and management.