(NYTIMES) The notion of urban wildlife may suggest images of rodents and pigeons. But as backyard birders can attest, more desirable wildlife persists in cities, a topic studied by the Chicago-based Urban Wildlife Institute and eight new partner research bodies across the country.
These members of the Urban Wildlife Information Network use wildlife-monitoring tools like motion-triggered cameras to track animal behavior and encourage biodiversity in cities.
Seth Magle, director of the Urban Wildlife Institute, cites the nationwide expansion of coyote populations as one example of an urban wildlife success story.
“Ninety-nine percent are good at avoiding us and eating squirrels and rats, the sorts of things we’re not concerned with, and making our urban lives more magical,” Magle said.
Certainly, not all wildlife encounters are welcome. Coyotes have been known to prey on house pets, for example. The initiative, in part, aims to educate urban dwellers in avoiding conflict.
“A city is a type of ecosystem, one heavily managed by humans, but it is an ecosystem and there is diversity, and that makes it a healthier place to live,” said Travis J. Ryan, professor of biological sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, a member of the network.
Urban wildlife watching isn’t limited to spying on Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk known to nest seasonally on a high-rise opposite Central Park in New York. Several cities in the institute’s research network offer DIY urban safari opportunities for travelers — and residents — who think animal-watching should be part of the urban experience.
In terms of wild things, Austin is best known for its colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that roost under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge each year. Considered the largest urban bat colony, the estimated 1.5 million creatures put on a synchronized display each evening, spring to fall, as they spiral out from under the bridge to hunt insects.
About a 15-minute drive from the bridge, the Wild Basin Creative Research Center, co-managed by St. Edward’s University and Travis County, makes 227 acres of Texas Hill Country habitat open to the public. Its wildlife cameras have captured images of coyotes, bobcats, armadillos and owls.
“A lot of the species are pretty shy, and you won’t get a chance to see them in action, but there’s a lot of activity around sunset,” said Amy Belaire, the director of research and a professor in the masters of environment management program at St. Edward’s.
Birders may spot the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. “Its song is distinctive, and you can hear it before you see it,” said Belaire, who suggests listening to a recording first and bringing a pair of good binoculars.
From downtown to the suburbs, the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute has been monitoring everything from insects to coyotes. Several years ago, the zoo opened Nature Boardwalk, a walkway around one of its ponds where habitat restoration led to the return of black-crowned night herons. The endangered species grew from 24 pairs in 2009 to 300 in the area today.
“We were hoping to attract rare bird species and hadn’t thought of herons, but they showed up rapidly, and we’ve worked closely to understand why they chose that site and thrive,” said Magle, of the wildlife institute. “People think you can’t do nature preservation in a city unless it has massive amounts of land, but Nature Boardwalk shows us that’s not true.”
In a recent month, field cameras set up by biologists at the University of Colorado Denver captured more than 2,000 images of wildlife across the metro area.
“The main things we found were coyote, red fox, raccoons, mule deer and lots of squirrels,” said Laurel Hartley, an associate professor of integrative biology at the university. “I’m guessing at some point we might see black bear and mountain lions.”
Among wildlife-rich area parks, the 15,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge located between the airport and downtown is home to bison, black-footed ferrets and more than 280 species of birds, including bald eagles. Chatfield State Park in suburban Littleton is also rich in birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
“Indianapolis is fortunate to have some really large patches of forested habitat,” said Ryan of Butler University.
Two large parks bracket the city, including the 5,200-acre Eagle Creek Park on the west side, which has its own Ornithology Center, and the 1,700-acre Fort Harrison State Park on the east side. There may be sightings downtown, too.
“We have documented coyote, fox, deer, mink and beaver within a mile or two of the Monument Circle, which represents the geographical and cultural center of the city,” he said.
He has a fondness for woodchucks, which are secretive but indicate a fairly healthy habitat, and has been surprised at the great number of Eastern cottontail rabbits in the city. Look for them at dawn or dusk and the hours before or after.
“For other things, you just have to get lucky,” said Ryan, who noted that a coyote was recently spotted on Butler’s campus. “A coyote at the back steps of your office, that’s just dumb luck.”
The vast Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area adjacent to Los Angeles offers more than 150,000 acres of chaparral-covered mountains with more than 500 miles of hiking trails. From the peaks, hikers can see the ocean in one direction and the city’s sprawl in another.
Almost half the land in the park is privately held, and the park service actively promotes the coexistence of humans and animals by outlining safe practices for homeowners. Researchers have monitored 54 mountain lions since 2002.
“The odds are low for seeing carnivores in the park,” said Justin Brown, an ecologist with the National Park Service who works in the Santa Monica Mountains. Although the park is also home to bobcats, coyotes and ringtails, he said, “You have a better chance of seeing deer, bird species, small kangaroo rats and grasshopper mice.”
The park’s geographic diversity, including oak woods, grasslands and coast, attracts more than 380 species of birds, best viewed in the mornings and evenings.
“Coyote and bobcat and raccoon need to go out at night, but you might get lucky at dawn and dusk,” he said.