Wildlife in Chicago surviving urban sprawl

By Meghan Keyes

As people hurry through Chicago, they may notice a rat scurrying through an alley or a pigeon pecking at garbage, but when night falls, coyotes roam the streets, possums dig through trash and a skunk might make itself at home in a garage.

Several organizations in the city are focused on reducing the conflict between nature and people, with efforts including the 50 motion and heat sensor cameras installed in the Chicagoland area this year.

“A lot of these species are located in urban areas, but for the most part people are not going to see them,” said Seth Magle of the Urban Wildlife Institute. “We have a fair number of coyotes, foxes, possums and other carnivores that are pretty good at avoiding people in urban areas. It seems like when people come into contact with animals, they’re dealing with an animal that may be in the process of becoming a nuisance animal.”

The Lincoln Park Zoo was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Davee Foundation in January 2009 to set up the Urban Wildlife Institute, which researches interactions between city residents and animals.

The institute plans to add 50 more motion and heat sensor cameras this year and 200 total cameras within the next few years. It also plans to do more animal trapping and utilize radio collars for tracking.

“The goal of the cameras is to understand these medium to large size mammals, to understand their patterns of movement in the area and what sorts of sites maintain these types of species,” Magle said. “We can start to understand how it is they navigate around an urban area.”

The species in urban areas are often nocturnal both naturally and by adaptation. They generally avoid interaction with people.

“Being aware of wildlife is an important part,” said Tim Schweizer, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “The best way to prevent wildlife interactions is [to] prevent opportunities.”

Opportunities for wildlife interactions can range from raccoons knocking over a garbage can to coyotes approaching small pets.

“Squirrels are notorious for making tree branches into a highway and jumping right across from the tree to the house, and finding ways to get into the attic,” Travis said. “Sometimes something as simple as keeping a garbage can secured, keeping tree branches trimmed back, those types of things are simple ways to minimize contact with wildlife.”

Solutions to animal problems begin with education and awareness. Animal Care and Control is moving toward less relocation.

“We certainly do it if an animal is injured or if an animal is in somebody’s dwelling, but other than that, we don’t have the resources to trap animals in the alleys because somebody doesn’t like it,” Travis said. She also said one of the easiest and least confrontational ways to rid a home of a problem animal is to annoy it.

“I actually had a skunk in my garage last summer and I left the door ajar and turned the lights on, put a radio out there,” Travis said. “I came back a day or two later, and he was nowhere to be found.”

All three organizations emphasized people should never feed an animal.

“By feeding the animal we have now interrupted its natural instinct to go and roam, to look for food and hunt,” Travis said. “So we have now created a situation where the animal is now geographically centered in that area.”

Young animals that are seemingly alone are no cause for concern, according

to Schweizer.

“Just leave them alone, especially in spring,” Schweizer said. “Your instinct may be that these animals were abandoned by their mother, but it may be hiding or in the area.”

Regardless of nuisances or bigger problems, the wildlife is staying in Chicago.

“The issue of urban wildlife is a big one, and it’s going to become bigger,” Magle said. “We have an important duty to … conserve biodiversity in such a way that we minimize the conflicts with humans.”