Behind the Spy: Chicago Wildlife Watch

By Kat Holmes

There are some exciting citizen science camera trap projects taking place all over the world. We were lucky enough to speak to Dr. Seth Magle, Director, Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo. He is one of the brains behind Chicago Wildlife Watch, a collaborative project between the Urban Wildlife Institute and the Adler Planetarium’s Zooniverse team. They have placed camera traps at more than 100 sites all over Chicago and now the public are helping identify species and inform urban conservation.


Coyote (Courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

Coyote (Courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

[KH] Thank you Dr. Magle for taking the time to speak to us. We are really keen to hear more about Chicago Wildlife Watch. We are always interested to hear what it’s like working on  such a great project, has it opened your eyes to what wildlife is living in Chicago?

[SM] Absolutely this project has opened my eyes (and, I hope, the eyes of many other people) to the wildlife living in Chicago.  I find that most people are surprised when they really start to look at how many wildlife species make cities their home.  Animals have an amazing ability to adapt and make sure of novel habitat.

This beautiful deer capture is one of Dr Magle's favourite captures so far (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

This beautiful deer capture is one of Dr Magle’s favourite captures so far (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

[KH] It seems a very unique project as not everyone thinks of cities as being the best spot for camera trapping, what inspired the idea?

[SM] We are a group of urban wildlife ecologists who have worked our entire adult lives to understand how species survive and thrive in cities.  This particular project was inspired by our realisation that, while many people were studying urban wildlife, no one was studying urban areas as ecosystems, including the web of interacting wildlife species found within them.  Cameras were a natural first step to begin to understand how mammalian species move through, find habitat within, and persist in urban landscapes.

[KH] I hear you have over 100 camera trapping sites including cemeteries, golf course and city parks! We have never placed camera traps in such unusual places, are you finding that they are all quite different?

[SM] Yes, absolutely we find that different types of green space in cities seem to attract different sorts of species.  Coyotes and raccoons, for example, are much more likely to be found in city parks, while in cemeteries and golf courses you are more likely to see opossum or foxes.

Foxes are frequently found in cemeteries and on golf courses in Chicago (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

Foxes are frequently found in cemeteries and on golf courses in Chicago (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

[KH] It sounds like they are proving to be surprisingly fruitful! Have you had any wildlife pop up in unexpected sites or have you had any surprise visitors you weren’t expecting?

[SM] We did not necessarily expect to find coyotes in the heart of downtown Chicago but they have been detected even at our most urban field sites.  In more suburban areas, we were surprised to detect species such as flying squirrels and mink.

[KH] What do you think makes urban wildlife camera trapping so special?

[SM] I think one of the unique things about urban areas is they let us study not just animals, but how humans and animals interact.  Cameras let us explore, for example, how the presence of dogs, cats, and humans may impact the distribution of wildlife.  Also, it gives us a unique opportunity to connect people to the natural world in the same places that they live, work, and play.

Flying squirrels were just one species the project discovered occur in suburban areas of Chicago (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

Flying squirrels were just one species the project discovered occur in suburban areas of Chicago (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)


[KH] So have you recruited lots of Chicago citizen scientists who want to invest in their local wildlife or are the participants from all over the world?

[SM] Chicago Wildlife Watch attracts citizen scientists from all over the world!  That said, our local users from Chicago are particularly dedicated, perhaps because they know they are contributing to research happening right in their backyards.

[KH] How do their individual contributions fit into the bigger picture of wildlife conservation in the area and what value are they adding?

[SM] We literally could not do our science without help from the community at Chicago Wildlife Watch.  By helping identify the animals in our photos, our users get our data ready for analysis, which means we can start to answer questions like: what attracts a given species to a certain area?  How can we predict where wildlife conflicts will occur?  And eventually, even how should we build our cities and our parks to create habitat for rare wildlife species?

[KH] Wow, so they are very important. So do you think you could pick your favourite three captures so far?

[SM] Yes, we captured an image of a female deer withs its young and still spotted fawn which I particularly like. I was also pleased to see we captured mink. Finally, we also captured some great birdlife, like these red bellied wood peckers.

Red bellied woodpeckers, one of Dr Magle's favourite captures so far. (Courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

Red bellied woodpeckers, one of Dr Magle’s favourite captures so far. (Courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

[KH] Great choice! So I imagine there are a lot of quite different challenges with putting camera traps out in busy urban settings, what has been your biggest challenge?

[SM] Everyone told us it would be vandalism and theft. In fact, people said we’d never be able to do the project because all our cameras would disappear. But although we have lost some equipment, the overall rate of loss has been much, much lower than we expected.  Actually, I’d say the toughest part has been keeping the research going in all seasons of the year.  Chicago winters are cold and it’s a tremendous effort to keep our equipment functioning in the rain and the snow.  But it’s worth it, because to understand how wildlife survive in the city, we need data from all four seasons.

Mink captured in Chicago's harsh winter (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

Mink captured in Chicago’s harsh winter (courtesy of Chicago Wildlife Watch)

[KH] So you have certainly learnt some important lessons. What would be your top tip for budding citizen scientists?

[SM] Keep your eyes open and always pay careful attention to detail—science only advances if data are all collected in a consistent, rigorous way.  With that in mind, have fun, and never stop learning about the world around you.

[KH] Thanks that’s great advice. One last question… what’s Chicago Wildlife Watch’s number one camera trapping goal for the year?

[SM] We’d love to get caught up on our backlog of data from the past few years.  That’s a big job, but I know our users are up to it!

[KH] I am sure they are, will you keep us up to date on how they get on and any more wonderful captures you get?

[SM] Of course!  Thank you for your interest in our work.

[KH] Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me and we look forward to seeing more from Chicago Wildlife Watch.

For more information: Chicago Wildlife Watch website Alder Planetarium website Lincoln Park Zoon website

Zooniverse website

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