Cold, Hard Science

Chicago winters are tough on wildlife. Unfortunately, they’re also pretty tough on the field biologists who venture out into the cold to learn about wildlife.

Research Coordinator Liza Watson Lehrer in winter gear.

Many researchers restrict their work to the summer months, when temperatures are high, food is abundant and animals are moving around. At the Urban Wildlife Institute, we’re trying to gather the most thorough and complete picture of urban wildlife ever collected, and that means collecting data in all four seasons—whatever the conditions.

That’s why we’re now bundling up for our second winter season of fieldwork. Last year was challenging—after we set up our equipment, Chicago was hit with a very serious blizzard. We use motion-triggered cameras tied to trees to observe wildlife, and upon our return we found that many of the cameras were actually buried under the snow and had to be dug out.

Wind and snow trigger the camera during last winter's blizzard.

Deer during the blizzard

In some cases, the high winds and driving snow moved quickly enough to trigger the cameras, giving rise to photos like the one above illustrating the stark beauty of a winter snowstorm. Fortunately, we also captured images of animals moving around, finding food and surviving in the cold—valuable information we use to draw conclusions and make predictions about urban animals in our city.

A barred owl

We have cameras at over 90 sites around Chicago, and we capture images of animals we never expected to see. Mink, flying squirrels and even the barred owl above have all visited our camera stations, in addition to the usual suspects: raccoons, coyotes, foxes, opossums, white-tailed deer and squirrels.


Red-bellied woodpeckers

Raccoon and opossum


A Cooper's hawk

It takes us about three days to visit all the sites, and we’ve logged thousands of miles on our vehicles in the process. Soon we’ll be putting our data together to describe which species are found in which parts of the city and whether some species are found together or avoid one another. The results will be useful to managers and scientists here in Chicago, but we also hope our methods—including winter sampling—will serve as a guide to cities around the world.

Seth Magle

Seth Magle, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo Urban Wildlife Institute.


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