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Unsuspecting Animals Caught On Camera By Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute

By Ted Cox | January 13, 2017 6:49am | Updated on January 27, 2017 10:46am
 Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute studies wild animals in the city.
Urban Wildlife Institute
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LINCOLN PARK — Chicago coyotes, foxes, raccoons, deer and other wildlife, get ready for your close-up.

Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute is just now cranking up one of its four annual seasons of setting up motion-sensing cameras to monitor the activity of those animals that would rather not be seen by the human eye.

Begun in 2010, the so-called camera monitoring project is the largest study of urban wildlife, according to Liza Lehrer, an ecologist with the institute.

"We've been doing this for almost seven years now," Lehrer said. "We've probably amassed over a million photos at this point."

The researchers have more than 100 sites over a 30-mile radius, and most remain consistent from season to season and year to year, as they're still basically compiling baseline data on where wild animals are and aren't in the city and nearby suburbs.

"There's a lot more wildlife in the city than a lot of people realize," Lehrer said, and the animals intend to keep it that way, thus the use of motion-sensing cameras, equipped with flashes and infrared detectors.

Wild animals, she added, are remarkably adaptable and, "opposite of what people assume to be true," will turn up in the unlikeliest city places, such as the mountain lion that made its way to North Center several years ago, or the odd coyote who will turn up running down Lake Shore Drive or out on the ice on Lake Michigan.

And that's not even dealing with the influx of skunks that might be herding them all at this point.

Lehrer said researchers have captured shots of muskrats, beavers, flying squirrels and even mink, "and we're seeing more of them," although primarily in the suburbs for those more exotic animals.

But where coyotes are making inroads, with Lehrer estimating the city's population at about 2,000, they're natural predatory competitors with red foxes, meaning the foxes are sometimes being forced to more residential areas as a result. Look more for them in the days, months and years to come.

Lehrer leads one of two Urban Wildlife Institute crews setting the cameras up and monitoring them regularly, with the cameras going up four weeks at a time over eight-week "seasons" beginning in January, April, July and October.

The crews put them in places like parks and woods, rivers and beaches, including the fenced-off Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, behind the totem pole at Addison Street and Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park, where there's a "family" of about 10 coyotes in residence, according to a volunteer.

 Urban wildlife ecologist Liza Lehrer sets a motion-sensing camera to capture animal activity.
Urban wildlife ecologist Liza Lehrer sets a motion-sensing camera to capture animal activity.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Large animals like deer rarely make it deep into the city, beyond say Lane Tech, where a deer suddenly turned up and sat down on the lawn like a student between classes a few years ago, so there are no real animal "trails" to serve as a setting for a camera. Instead, Lehrer said, crews look for "a random point," just some place an animal might amble by, although fences and other boundaries can serve as pinch points to channel animal traffic past a spot.

"We try to get in the mindset of what an animal would be doing while walking through this park," she said. The cameras, about the size of a Brownie, for those who recall those devices, are encased in a metal shell and strapped to a tree.

They're sometimes baited in the front several feet away with ready-made wafers bearing the scent of what Lehrer described as "sweaty feet, at least that's what is smells like to me."

The crews will select relatively remote areas of the lakefront, such as what's called the "magic hedge" near Montrose Beach, a haven for migrating birds. There, they'll sometimes capture a "fantastic sunrise" as well, Lehrer added.

Golf courses are good, especially in the off season, as they combine green space with a lack of human activity, and that is why cemeteries are especially attractive draws as well for urban wildlife.

"They're really these beautiful spaces, but they're also a quiet refuge," Lehrer said. "You can see why animals would be attracted to them." No people around — none capable of bothering the animals, anyway.

Lehrer is in her second tour at Lincoln Park Zoo. During the first, as a "normal" zoo worker during the 2000s, she was entranced by increasing reports of coyotes and foxes in the city. So she went back to earn her master's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specializing in urban wildlife (concentrating at the time on urban woodchucks).

Now she's found her calling dealing with urban wildlife at an urban zoo. And she's found a way to take her work home with her, in a a pleasant way, sometimes monitoring bat activity from her Edgewater porch through recording devices that capture the bats' ultrasonic cheeps and chirps much the same way the motion-sensitive cameras capture the images of animals — but that's a tangential topic for another story in warmer months.

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 Urban wildlife ecologist Liza Lehrer puts scent bait in the line of a motion-detecting camera at a North Side cemetery. She said the bait smells like
Urban wildlife ecologist Liza Lehrer puts scent bait in the line of a motion-detecting camera at a North Side cemetery. She said the bait smells like "sweaty feet."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox