A Wealth of Wildlife, Right in the Backyard
by | D’Lyn Ford
Zoologist Roland Kays travels the world to study rare species, so he calls it a “cool surprise” to find a wealth of wildlife in the suburban backyards of Raleigh and Durham, N.C.
“As scientists, we’ve traditionally thought of residential areas as non-habitat,” says Kays, a faculty member at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “But in fact we found that some backyards had more wildlife than the woods nearby.”
Kays’ latest research, published in the journal Urban Ecosystems, started as a citizen science project featured at the opening of the museum’s new Nature Research Center in 2012. Volunteers, including those with chicken coops near their homes, installed backyard camera traps to capture images of wildlife. Animals caught on film were identified by undergraduate wildlife students at NC State.
Although 5 percent of the world consists of developed urban areas, little research has focused on backyard wildlife, aside from studies of bird species, Kays says.
The North Carolina project, however, found an array of mammals in residential areas, with one important exception. “Fenced-in yards with dogs had little wildlife, though fenced yards without a dog had more,” Kays says.
Overall, though, cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels and Virginia opossums were more likely to be in backyards than in surrounding woodlots. Raccoons and gray foxes were found equally in both habitats.
Interestingly, raccoons were the predators most likely to hang around chicken coops. “It was not the fox in the henhouse in this case,” Kays says, with a chuckle. He adds that a camera trap caught one neighbor stealing eggs in her bathrobe, though human predators were not factored into the study.
Deer showed up only in woodlots, despite the fact that they’re garden pests in many cities. Only two bobcats and coyotes were spotted, in more rural areas, not an unexpected finding because larger predator species prefer less fragmented habitat than backyards. However, Kays was surprised that chipmunks were few and far between, probably because the region is on the edge of their geographic range.
Kays is now seeking volunteers for more comprehensive research on backyard wildlife funded by the National Science Foundation. His goal is to expand the citizen science project to 1,500 locations over 18 months. He’s looking to sign up Triangle families and start mammal monitoring projects in middle schools. Kays is also seeking hunters, who may already own camera traps, to sign up. These motion-sensitive cameras are triggered to take short videos whenever a warm-blooded animal walks by. The cameras are silent, with an infrared flash, so animals are typically unaware of being photographed.
For more information about taking part in the study, visit the emammal website.
We were surprised to find chipmunks in just a few of our back-yard cameras in the Raleigh area. Given that chipmunks are so common in other urban areas, why are they so spotty in their distribution here? We are at the edge of their range, so perhaps the same factors that affect their distribution within the Triangle area also keep them out of the Coastal Plain.
Lets find out – tell us where you have seen chipmunks using this form and we’ll see if we can spot a pattern.
[note, these addresses (without other personal information) are stored in our personal database and will not made public in raw-format (just as a map). Fine-scale differences might be important, so providing a street address makes your contribution more valuable (but is not required)]
Most of our cameras were in urban or suburban areas, so its not surprising that we got mostly pictures of squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. These common critters are what we will focus our statistical analysis on, trying to understand what factors determine their abundance in this environment.
However, we also detected some wildlife that is not common in the area, some of them in surprising places. None of these will be included in our statistical analysis, but looking into the details of the few sites we did find them can be informative.
This map shows the locations of camera traps that detected five of the rarer species in our study: turkey, chipmunk, rat, bobcat, and coyote.
#1. Brown Rat. This famous city rat was not common in our back yards or woodlots. Some chicken-coop owners were afraid we would find that they had infestations of rats eating their chicken food but, for the most part, this was not the case. Only two yards had rats, both in the more developed parts of Raleigh. Those two sites did seem to have high activity of rats, with 19 pictures taken between the two of them.
A rat near a chicken coop
#2. Eastern Chipmunk. Folks from other parts of the country might be surprised that chipmunks were rare in our backyard surveys, but locals know they are not common here. Raleigh is at the southeastern portion of their range, and they disappear completely further eastward into the coastal plain of North Carolina. Our cameras only picked them up in two wooded back yards in North Raleigh. Like the rats, where they were detected, they were busy, running back and forth and taking lots of pictures of themselves.
A chipmunk from North Raleigh
#3. Wild Turkey. Once rare and over-hunted in the state, turkeys have made a strong comeback with over 1/4 million animals now found over all North Carolinian counties. They don’t seem to have penetrated suburbia extensively, but we did pick up one animal in Cary and another near Jordan game lands.
A wild turkey flirting with suburbia.
#4. Bobcat. These shy cats were picked up at two of our wooded sites. Both of these were fairly remote, compared with our urban woodlots, and suggest that bobcats around here can not tolerate a high level of development. However, one of the sites was near Chapel Hill, showing that bobcats will find good habitat if it is properly connected to other wild areas, such as the Jordan Game Lands to the south.
A bobcat in the woods near Chapel Hill.
#5 Coyote. These animals are new to North Carolina, moving in from the west over the last few decades. In some regions coyotes use highly urbanized habitats (e.g. Chicago & Los Angeles), but our survey show that coyotes are not common in the Triangle area. We picked up just one animal at the edge of Raleigh and another at the edge of Durham. Coyotes may occasionally press further into the urbanized neighborhoods, but our data suggest this is not a common thing…for now. As coyotes further increase their density they might learn how to adapt to urban environments better, running in for the rabbits and squirrels that are so common in our yards.
A coyote sneaking through a back yard in south Raleigh.
We’ve finally wrapped up our data collection & collation. Amazing to have over 900 camera-nights run across 60 different sites. Almost half of these (27) were on back-yard chicken coops with the rest split evening between back yards without coops and nearby woodlands.
Below is a table of the wild animals most frequently detected on these cameras.
And here are a few photos, and notes about each species.
Eastern Grey Squirrel in a Back Yard
#1. Grey Squirrels were the most common species on our cameras, not surprisingly, and were found much more frequently in yard cameras than out in the woods. Continue reading
Chicken coops were a warm up for the main event, eMammal, a new citizen science camera trapping project in collaboration with the Smithsonian. We will be prototyping our website and database with a select few volunteers this year from August – November in and around Stone Mountain and South Mountains State Parks/Game lands. We will provide the camera traps if you are willing to put them into the woods at 4 different places over the next few months (moving them every 3 weeks). See below for details, or open this eMammal Volunteer Recruitment pdf file.
We still have a few slots open, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
Carolina coyote in a camera trap picture
- Deer in a camera trap picture
Citizen Science Camera Trapping in North Carolina
Welcome to eMammal – help us use camera traps to survey wildlife
We are using motion-sensitive cameras take short videos, triggering whenever a warm-blooded animal walks by, and saving these images to a memory card. The cameras are silent, and use an infrared flash, so usually the animals don’t even know they are being photographed. By volunteering for this project you will get a first-hand look at the forest animals, and help us collect important data for science and conservation. You will be part of a larger team of camera-trappers led by scientists at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, running a network of cameras across the east coast.
The data you collect will help us document not only what animals live where, but also how they are affected by consumptive (i.e. hunting, trapping etc.) and non-consumptive (i.e. hiking, biking etc.) recreation.
You will be one of the first participants in eMammal, and your feedback will help us prepare for expanded surveys in the future.
For a fun video about this project, please visit this link
We Need Your Help!
We will be relying on volunteers to run the cameras at the different field sites. Each volunteer will be loaned 3 camera-traps to use, complete with rechargeable batteries and memory cards. We will also give the volunteers a set of GPS points where they will need to set the cameras (in the NC State Park or Gameland). Most sites will involve some hiking with the potential for steep terrain. In order to navigate to those points, volunteers will need to have their own GPS unit or Smartphone with GPS App, these will not be provided by the project staff. Volunteers must also have access to a computer and internet to upload the pictures the capture to the eMammal website.
Each volunteer (or team of volunteers) will be asked to move the camera traps four times, in 3-week intervals, from August to November 2012. At each location they will put out 3 cameras one on a hiking trail, one near (50 meters) to the trail and one far (200m) from the trail. All three cameras will be set up on the same day, and left for three weeks at a time. At the end of the three weeks, the cameras will then be moved to the next location (doing this a total of four times over the 12 week period). Overall, the volunteer would need to go out five times into the forest to setup or retrieve the cameras. Weeks where cameras will need to be moved are below…
Tentative Camera Set Schedule:
1st Setup- Week of August 20th-25th
2nd Retrieve and setup- Week of September 10th- Sept. 15nd
3rd Retrieve and Setup- Week of October 1st – 6th
4th Retrieve and Setup- Week of October 22nd – 27th
Final Retrieve- Week of November 12th- Nov. 17th
Please be careful if you are working in the Gamelands, as hunting season for several species begins as early as September. There is no hunting in the State Park.
Each volunteer needs to attend a mandatory training before starting the project. During this training, volunteers will meet the project staff and learn more about the project. Volunteers will be taught how to use all equipment and computer programs required by the project. Volunteers will also receive their three cameras, latitude/longitude points and other equipment and literature at the training. Training will take 3- 4 hours. You can attend either training regardless of what area you will be volunteering in and you only need to attend ONE training.
Mandatory Training (these dates are still tentative):
- Sunday, August 19th at South Mountains State Park
- Monday, August 20th at Stone Mountain State Park
How to Sign Up:
We will be running cameras this year in four areas:
- Stone Mountain State Park
- Thurmond Chatham Gameland
- South Mountains State Park
- South Mountains Gameland
If you can commit to the schedule outlined above and have an interest in running cameras in one of these locations, please contact Arielle Parsons (email@example.com) to sign up. Please indicate in your email which of the four areas above you would like to work in (also indicate if you are flexible) and which dates you are available for training (if you are not available 8/19 or 8/20, please indicate when around those dates you may be free). We will send you a confirmation email shortly afterwards.
If you have any questions please contact Arielle Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org), 919-610-6624. Arielle can also be found in the Biodiversity Lab at the new Nature Research Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Thank you for your interest and help getting the word out on the project! We are very excited to meet you all and get started setting up camera traps and catching some good pictures!
Bear at a camera trap