Friday, February 29, 2008

The Foxes of Madison

It snowed yesterday night. An inch or two of heavy wet snow, perfect for snowballs, and for preserving the signs of a shy nocturnal visitor. When I went outside to shovel, our street was criss-crossed with animal tracks. There were squirrel tracks and rabbit tracks, but as usual the most numerous and obvious were those of a red fox. Although we very rarely see it, every night a fox patrols our neighborhood in the southwest side of Madison looking for mice and rabbits, and occasionally raiding a trash bag or stealing pet food that's been left outside.

Watching for tracks is the easiest way to know if red foxes live in your neighborhood. Fox tracks are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Although a fox's footprint is similar to a small dog's, foxes have a distinctive gait. A fox usually places its rear feet directly in the track made by its front feet, so fox tracks are an almost straight series of footprints. The pictures below show a fox track and a close up of a couple of individual footprints. They're a little under two inches, about the length of a typical door key.

(Click on pictures for larger versions)

Red foxes have adapted quite well to suburban and urban areas, and are far more common in Madison than most people realize. They live in much of the city, although they're usually nocturnal and very cautious. Although the red fox is native to northern North America, the ones here are likely descendants of English foxes that were brought to the American colonies three hundred years ago for fox hunting.

Although their lanky build and bushy tails tend to make them look larger, red foxes are actually quite small, roughly the weight of a house cat. They prefer small prey, such as insects, earthworms, and mice, and rarely kill anything larger than a rabbit. They also eat fruit and will scavenge carrion, garbage, and almost anything else edible. They aren't aggressive towards humans, and unlike coyotes, which also live in parts of Madison, foxes don't prey on pet cats and dogs, although if you keep chickens you have to be careful.

My love for foxes goes way back. I did quite a bit of wildlife rehabilitation in my youth, and one of the animals I worked with was a hand-raised red fox names Rufus. Rufus was exceptionally tame and trusting for a fox, and would actually come out of his den when called and take food from your hand. He loved grapes and mice! Sadly, Rufus' trust of humans was his downfall. One night someone climbed the eight foot fence into his pen, and when Rufus came out to see who it was he was beaten to death.

It's sad that so many people fear and dislike red foxes. They're beautiful and generally beneficial, and one of the few truly wild things left in this wonderful city.


The picture at the top of this post is from the Pennsylvania Game Commission. They have lots of great wildlife pics, well worth a look.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Can You See the Problem?

Take a look at the chart below (click on it for a bigger version) and see if you can spot the problem with the American prison system. This is from a new report called "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" from the Pew Center on the States.

If I find the time I'll make some charts to show how the Wisconsin prison system compares to other states. We rank roughly in the middle in terms of inmates per capita, but some of the other numbers are rather interesting.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Conservative Academicians: An Oxymoron?

You gotta love this! For years conservatives have been whining about liberal bias in higher education. They've created organizations like David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom, which is anything but, in order to root out and destroy faculty members they deem too leftist or insufficiently loyal to the neo-con agenda. So the American Enterprise Institute decided to commission a study, lead by a conservative professor, to prove that there really is a problem and figure out how to fix it.

Except the study didn't exactly support the standard right-wing worldview. It shows that, while the majority of American professors are indeed left-leaning, the main reason there aren't more conservatives in academia is that ... conservatives are greedy! Getting a PhD takes years, academic pay generally sucks, and it's hard to balance family life against academic work demands. Most conservatives simply aren't willing to make the material and lifestyle sacrifices necessary to succeed in academia.

How does the report propose to fix the problem? Socialism, affirmative action, and political correctness for conservatives! Subsidized housing and more health benefits. Special concessions to PhD students and professors with families. And last, but not least, making academic institutions and professors be extra nice to conservative students who feel they're discriminated against, even though all the data shows they aren't.

Not that any of these are necessarily bad things, but it sure is funny to see conservatives advocating for such "liberal" ideas.

Of course I've simplified (my conservative friends might say oversimplified) the findings of the AEI report, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. If you're not up for pushing through the paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education just did an interesting and entertaining article covering both the paper and the professors who wrote it.

Finally, you have to give the folks at AEI credit for publishing the study even though the results probably weren't at all to their liking. AEI may be an organization of ideological nutcases, but they see themselves as scholars and in this instance actually acted the part.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cuba's Future

"Observers say Castro will either be replaced by his brother Raul, or by his idiot son, Fidel W. Castro." - Letterman