Strolling through the Central Canal, a great blue heron looks for its lunch. Foxes prowl along Pogue’s Run creek, just a few miles from Monument Circle. And on Butler’s South Campus, nestled beneath a concrete wall, seven coyote pups climb from their den.
All through Indianapolis, humans and wildlife live together in urban spaces. Most city dwellers probably don’t know the creatures are there. But at Butler University, a research project called Indy Wildlife Watch is helping the community be more mindful of its furred and feathered neighbors.
For the last five years, faculty from Butler’s Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES) have been placing motion-triggered cameras at nearly 50 sites across Indianapolis to catch the animals in action. Locations range from parks to golf courses, cemeteries to schools, and they are spread from the heart of downtown up through Indy’s northern suburbs. As creatures pass by, the photos capture data about which species are present, as well as how wildlife varies throughout the city depending on location or habitat type. It’s all part of a national project called the Urban Wildlife Information Network, which collects and compares wildlife data from more than 30 cities.
“There is more wildlife in cities than we might expect,” says Travis Ryan, Professor of Biological Sciences. Other faculty involved with the project include Biological Science Professor Carmen Salsbury, CUES Director Julia Angstmann, and Rasitha Jayasekare, Associate Professor of Statistics and Actuarial Science. “The world is only becoming more urban, so we need to understand what works and what doesn’t in our coexistence with wildlife in cities.”
Across the nation, all the network’s participants place their cameras for one month at a time, during the same months each year: April, July, October, and January. In Indianapolis alone, the cameras take tens of thousands of photos during each stay at their sites, so identifying the animals in all those images is one of the project’s most challenging tasks. Now, Hoosiers across Indy can lend a hand.
A new website hosted through Zooniverse invites community members to help tag the photos. Users are given an image and a list of animals to choose from. If they aren’t sure what’s pictured, a library of creature characteristics (color, pattern, tail type, and so on) offers some clues.
Website users also have the chance to help choose which photos should be shared on the Indy Wildlife Watch social media accounts by highlighting those they think are spectacular shots, or that feature uncommon species. The @indywildwatch profile on Instagram has been sharing these images—often featuring coyotes, foxes, deer, or large birds—since the research began.
“This community outreach lets people know about the wildlife that’s in the city,” Ryan explains. “Their participation helps us, but it’s also educational for them. This helps raise awareness that humans are not the only residents in the city.”
Now with five years of data (or, more than 400,000 photos from Indy alone), researchers have been able to start looking for patterns.
One study published late last year found that raccoons prefer environments with lower housing density. On the other hand, while coyotes stick to the outskirts of urban areas, they are more likely to be found in densely populated cities. Another current study looks at how virus-related lockdowns affected the outdoor activity of both humans and wildlife.
Ryan has begun to notice some trends specific to the Circle City. For one, there are a lot of squirrels.
“We have fox squirrels everywhere—the kind you would typically see on Butler’s campus or in your backyard,” he says. “There are also grey squirrels and red squirrels, and we even have a couple images of flying squirrels—in addition to the ground squirrels, which are chipmunks and groundhogs.”
Raccoons are far more common in Indianapolis than in the network’s other cities. There are also quite a few opossums, cottontail rabbits, and deer. Red squirrels show up in patches, and water-loving critters like mink and beaver stick to areas near Fall Creek or the White River.
One day a few years ago, Ryan was flipping through the pictures and had to do a double-take. He contacted other network members, and everyone confirmed: yes, that was a badger. When Ryan called the Indiana DNR, they said it was only the second or third badger sighting for Marion County in half a century. And it was just a couple miles from downtown.
Moving forward, researchers hope to ask more questions about how wildlife activity is changing over time. “The nature of the city isn’t static,” Ryan explains. “By having a project that goes on for several years, we will be able to document how changes in infrastructure, land use, and development may have an impact on wildlife.” Researchers hope this information will help leaders plan greener, healthier cities for all the species that call those places home.