Watching Wildlife in the City

April 30, 2024

On a foggy, overcast, and relatively mild—but extremely muddy—day in January, the Urban Wildlife Institute’s Liza Lehrer and Joe Garner are visiting a number of sites throughout Chicago’s Jackson Park area to maintain some of the motion-activated cameras that make up UWI’s biodiversity monitoring project.

Driving to each site in a car clearly labeled as a Lincoln Park Zoo vehicle, the two traipse along on slippery ice and through equally slick muck as they travel to some of the sites that house 100+ cameras along three transects that radiate outward from Chicago to the suburbs. Their goal today is to make sure the cameras are working properly with brand-new batteries, reposition them if needed, and collect the data held within these units on digital storage cards.

graveyard camera trap

The cameras are held inside a metal box that protects it from the elements, then attached to trees and locked at a height and angle that allows them to capture large and mid-sized animals. Generally, they are along fence lines or other barriers—places animals might be walking, tucked slightly back so they aren’t noticed by humans.

Capturing Wildlife—Through A Lens

“We use motion sensor cameras for a lot of our research. They’re basically just small trail cameras that you can put out and tie to a tree. They’re pretty inconspicuous, so most people don’t really notice them in the green spaces that we’re sampling,” Lehrer says. She explains that these cameras are relatively inexpensive, with high photo quality, and says, “We’re able to see what species are out there, what types of habitat they’re using, when they’re using those habitats. And we can really learn a lot about animals that historically we were never able to do just by observation alone.”

Lehrer and Garner carry with them extra batteries and SD cards and are dressed for field work. The route includes the construction site that will, in 2025, open as part of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, along with a cemetery rendered quite atmospheric with the presence of fog, and parkland on the South Side of Chicago.

Barack Obama presidential library center
Barack Obama Presidential Library site in January 2024.

“The types of sites we’re sampling for our long-term research are cemeteries, golf courses, forest preserves, and city parks,” Lehrer says. “The reason that we’re focusing on those habitats is that’s really what makes up the bulk of the publicly available wildlife habitat here in Chicago.”

Considering these cameras are at sites used by people (not necessarily in the middle of January, though), it was once thought by naysayers that placing them outside all year would result in vandalism and destruction. But Lehrer says, “Only about 2% get stolen. They are vandalized more frequently, since you need a tool to steal them. But more often, they simply stop functioning.”

Of course, some human interference is expected. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Human activity can play a large role in how animals use a site—most of them, even urban animals, prefer to avoid people and may be less active when human activity is high.

The Biodiversity Monitoring Project

The biodiversity monitoring project is one of UWI’s first initiatives, implemented in 2010 not long after UWI was created. It has become one of the longest-running projects in existence studying urban wildlife and continues to yield information useful to researchers as they work to determine how best humans can coexist with the animals that have made cities their homes.

It starts with the camera traps, which activate whenever an animal steps into view and records the information the SD cards, collected seasonally. After an outing like the one Lehrer and Garner just embarked on, the information will be uploaded and analyzed by UWI scientists. They’ll use it to find patterns and learn about what wildlife are actually doing in the Chicago area.

In fact, UWI holds the largest known dataset about urban wildlife, and has expanded upon this with similar types of work being done across North America and even internationally by partners now part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network. UWI continues to gather exciting information, previously unrecorded, about how animals can adapt to changing conditions in urban areas.

For example, animals that are classified as nocturnal (active during the night) or diurnal (active during the day) may not be sticking to type when it comes to their activities in the city—if there are advantages to it. “We might have a nocturnal coyote that’s out in the middle of the daytime,” Lehrer explains. “Usually, that happens during the winter when they want to take advantage of the warmest parts of the day, and when humans are also less active. When it’s really cold, we might see an opossum out during the daytime too.”

Season In, Season Out

As this long-term project continues, UWI researchers will discover more about the animals among us and how to conserve them. “We’re learning so much about how animals can thrive in cities and what types of habitat they need to support them,” Lehrer says. “We can then use that information to help advise on developments on wildlife-friendly building design, as well as habitat creation efforts.”

Anyone can help, too. UWI, in cooperation with Adler Planetarium, developed, a website where volunteers can help identify animals in the images taken by motion-activated cameras. More than 12,000 volunteers have assisted in this task since 2016; you can go to the website to see if there are any new IDs needed.

Liza Lehrer and Joe Garner maintain a camera trap in January 2024
Liza Lehrer and Joe Garner maintain a camera trap in January 2024.

UWI researchers will continue the process of maintaining the cameras during several more field excursions this year (they go out every season in January, April, July, and October) which means more information will come in during those months as long as the biodiversity project continues. Basically, their work is never done—but the result is knowledge everyone can use to connect with nature as this world becomes ever more urbanized.

Empty Playlist