The abundance of rainfall and flooding we’ve received in the Chicago metro area this spring has prompted a question among Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI) staff members: what on earth were we thinking when we decided to do fieldwork year-round?
Most wildlife research is conducted in the summer. This makes sense, because in the summer the weather is pretty predictable, wildlife tend to be active and professors and their students don’t have classes to attend. Summer is certainly the easiest time to study wildlife. Unfortunately, if we only work in the summer, we only understand 25 percent of what animals are up to.
That’s why UWI researchers collect data on local species in all seasons. As a result, we learn what wildlife across the Chicago metro area are doing all year long. Usually this approach works very well, but the freezing rain and flooding last month made things tricky—to say the least.
Many of our research sites, for one thing, were underwater. In the photo above, research coordinator Liza Lehrer wears waders to retrieve a submerged camera in the field. Although our motion-triggered wildlife cameras are water-resistant, we have learned to our chagrin that water-resistant is quite different from waterproof.
There’s a bright side to our struggles, though. The cameras that kept operating in wet conditions gave us glimpses of species—like the wood ducks in the photo above—we wouldn’t normally expect. Wildlife find a way to adapt to heavy rains, and conducting our research even in tough weather gives us insight into these adaptations.
Spring is an important time for wildlife in the Chicagoland area. Species are trying to put on weight after the long winter, find mates, locate suitable habitat and avoid being eaten. It’s hard work, to be sure. The white-tailed deer in the photo above seemed to be approaching us for a handout as we visited a local forest preserve. While we empathize with her hunger, it’s never a good idea to feed wildlife. They can become dependent on the handouts and may cause conflicts with humans in the future.
Of course, some species slept (or hibernated or brumated) their way through that winter cold and only recently woke up. We spotted the garter snake in the above photo poking its head out from some leaves as we walked along a path. Snakes have been emerging to take advantage of this beautiful weather.
Naturally, our research team is just as ready.
Seth Magle, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo Urban Wildlife Institute.