Studying Urban Wildlife in Chicago

As director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Seth Magle, Ph.D., looks out for the wildlife that lives in our cities.

urban wildlife chicago

Seth is passionate about conserving rare and imperiled species, especially those whose natural habitats we’ve taken over, by mitigating the potential impacts of cities on wildlife as much as possible. He studies urban wildlife from many different angles, including through animal behavior, conservation genetics, and landscape ecology. His wants to help create a world where cities can play a role in conserving the biodiversity of the wildlife that lives within them.

We sat down with Seth to learn more about the wildlife in Chicago and what we can do to help them prosper in our urban environment.

Can you describe the mission of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo? Tell us about a few of your favorite projects that you’re working on right now.

The mission of the Urban Wildlife Institute is to do the research necessary for people and wildlife to co-exist in cities around the world.  Nothing too ambitious!

We a running a lot of great projects that I’m very proud of.  We have been conducting a camera trap survey around the Chicago area, capturing the diverse wildlife of the city on film,  for over ten years now, making it one of the largest-scale studies of its kind in the world.  We also spend a lot of time monitoring bats using ultrasonic detectors. Pretty soon we’ll be able to enlist the public in this project, so Chicagoans can walk around their neighborhoods at night with fancy iPads and detect bats on their own.  

I think the most important thing about the research we do is how we’re trying to use it.  We want to share our findings with urban planners and landscape architects so that together we can make blueprints for wildlife-friendly cities.  On an urban planet, making sanctuaries for wildlife means that we sometimes need to make homes for them right in our own backyards. It’s going to take a lot of scientific data to understand how to do that in a way that helps both people and animals.  

Besides the robins, pigeons, and squirrels we see roaming the streets everyday, what kind of wildlife can we see in Chicago if we look closely?
urban wildlife Chicago
A black crowned night heron

There’s so much more wildlife out there than people realize!  Of course you can usually spot rabbits and ring-billed gulls and geese. But keep an eye out and you might spot something rarer. If you go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, walk near the red wolf exhibit and look up. You might spot the black-crowned night heron, a state-threatened bird that looks a little like a dinosaur.  Look around in a place with rocks and you might spot a chipmunk scurrying from one place to another.  

If you go to chicagowildlifewatch.org, you can take part in our research and help us identify animals in the photos our camera traps take all across Chicago.  You’ll almost certainly see coyotes and raccoons, and you might spot something like a mink or a flying squirrel. Just because we’ve learned to ignore urban animals doesn’t mean they aren’t here.  All you really have to do is start to look around and you’ll be amazed by the diversity in our neighborhoods.  

We’ve paved over our landscape with asphalt, built giant buildings and molded our coastlines to our liking. Why is it important, even such in a human environment, to pay attention to the wildlife in our city?

We live on an urban planet. That’s increasingly obvious.  As our population continues to grow, our cities get bigger and bigger.  As a result, more and more animals will lose their habitats and struggle to survive.  

One solution to this crisis is to create nature preserves and parks; it’s incredibly important that we create large spaces that let wildlife and nature survive.  But it might not be enough. We may not be able to protect all the world’s diversity in the land we set aside.  That’s why it’s important that we think about how to build the sorts of cities that allow animals to thrive.  

Maintaining the earth’s biodiversity is of course good for plants and animals, but it turns out to be good for people, too.  Having access to nature makes people healthier and happier, and makes us feel connected to the places we live. It can be a win-win, but it’s not going to be easy.  We need to learn a lot more about both cities and urban wildlife before we’ll really know how to create truly green urban spaces. I believe, in the end, working together we can do it. 

What sort of diseases do urban animals carry that could transfer to us?

There are a large number of disease urban animals carry that affect humans, far more than I could name.  Lyme disease, leptospirosis, and rabies represent just a few.  

It’s never a good idea to handle an animal that you find in your neighborhood.  It might be sick, and trying to touch wildlife can harm both you and them. We’re working hard to understand how wildlife diseases spread in cities to protect both people and animals.  

All that said, I want to also remind people that the risk of getting diseases from wildlife is really very low.  As long as we take a few very simple precautions, such as not hand-feeding or touching wildlife, I believe the benefits we get from living near wildlife far outweigh the potential risks.  

How did you get involved in this work? What’s your favorite memory from your past experience?

I first got into urban wildlife as a result of a silly assignment I had in a class.  I was supposed to watch some animals and then write up a report on what I saw. After I stared at some urban prairie dogs for a while, I went to the library to see what people knew about urban prairie dogs.  Or urban coyotes. Or urban just about anything. And I found out that people knew just about nothing.  

urban wildlife chicago
A prairie dog

I couldn’t believe it.  Most people live in cities.  Why wouldn’t we want to understand the animals who live where we live?  I decided to try to learn a thing or two about urban animals and I never looked back.  

I have a lot of great memories from my fieldwork and my research, but one of my favorites is watching predators hunting prairie dogs in a tiny patch of grassland between a highway and an apartment complex.  I saw red-tailed hawks perch on skyscrapers and swoop down to grab prairie dogs in their talons, and at dawn, I saw coyotes waiting, perfectly still, to catch the first prairie dog that emerged from its burrow.  I was amazed at the ecological theater happening in the heart of a city, surrounded by thousands of people who had no idea. I’m still amazed by that today.    

What can city dwellers like us do in our daily lives to help maintain our urban wildlife?

There are a lot of things we can do.  The most important act is probably also the least satisfying — leave the animals alone!  Urban animals know what they’re doing, and they don’t need people approaching them or trying to give them a handout.  But there are things you can actively do to protect our wild neighbors. Making sure your garbage is secured is a way to stop animals from associating humans with food, which can harm them in the long-term.  Keeping your cats inside can protect local birds and other small animals.  

You can also help increase awareness of urban animals.  Take pictures, post them on social media, and talk to your friends and neighbors about the wildlife you see.  Learn your local birds and log what you see on a website like eBird or iNaturalist. Cities are wild places, and helping increase awareness of this is a step towards creating a society that embraces it.  

What if someone wants to help study urban wildlife but they’re not in Chicago?

My work takes place in Chicago, and I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve learned about Chicago’s wildlife.  But we’re also taking the next step forward, ensuring that not only do we learn about animals in Chicago, but urban wildlife all around the world.  

That’s why we’ve created a new research network, the Urban Wildlife Information Network, which is an alliance of researchers studying urban animals in their own cities. We’re pooling our information so we know what techniques work well to conserve animals worldwide.  The network is presently represented by 23 cities across North America, but we hope will eventually include hundreds of cities worldwide. If we want to build a wildlife-friendly urban planet, we need data from all across that planet, and the Urban Wildlife Information Network will help us get there. 

Thank you to everyone who came to see Seth speak about his work, live at DIRTT!

urban wildlife