How wild is your backyard?

CorrespondentMarch 2, 2014 

Dr. Roland Kays is director of the Biodiversity Research Laboratory at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State.

N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

While you’re sleeping, an amazing variety of animals are active in your backyard. Wildlife has quietly moved into residential areas, yet most people barely notice. Deer and squirrels can be seen in the day, but many animals – such as foxes, raccoons, opossums, bobcats and coyotes – are most active at night. We are starting a citizen science project to study this phenomenon and want Raleigh-area volunteers to help by running motion-sensitive cameras to “capture” these critters.

We know surprisingly little about the wildlife that time-share our properties. Our recent research found that many wild species used residential yards as much or more than nearby woods – your yard is actually their preferred habitat.

However, that was a small study and brought up more questions than answers. Why did we see numerous gray foxes but no red foxes? Why were coyotes so rarely detected in Raleigh when they are common in other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles? How close to people will bobcats venture? Does the presence of compost bins or bird feeders affect the kind of mammals that visit your yard?

These questions are important because these animals have direct impacts on the ecosystem we live in. Predators control the population and behavior of herbivores, and herbivores affect plant growth. Too many plant-eaters in an area can completely stop the growth of new trees, which allows weeds to take over. They can also wreak havoc on your garden.

We need volunteers in the Triangle area to run “camera traps” on their property (yard or nearby woods) and share data with our eMammal project. Simply strap a trail camera to a tree at knee height and let it run for two to three weeks. Waiting to see the pictures is the hardest part. Then plug the memory card into your computer and use eMammal software to look through the pictures – this is the fun part.

You will name each animal you see in the frame, and then upload the pictures to us. We will verify your IDs, and your photos will be included in a digital collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Soon, we will launch our new website where you can see your own pictures and compare your results with other backyards, state parks and gamelands.

To read more about the project and sign up to volunteer, visit http://emammal.wordpress.com. We can recommend what camera trap models to buy (Bushnell and Reconyx work best), and also have a few we can lend out.

Dr. Roland Kays is director of the Biodiversity Research Laboratory at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State.

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