Trail camera network captures Syracuse’s secret urban wildlife (photos)
A coyote sniffing around Shove Park in Camillus. A wild turkey strutting in Westminster Park in Syracuse. A fisherman prowling the back nine at Drumlins Golf Course. A gray fox in an East Side garden, gnawing on a nut.
These are just a few scenes from a network of approximately 50 trail cameras operated by the New York Natural Heritage Programan environmental and forestry science (ESF) program at SUNY College funded primarily by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Think of the trail cam array as a low-fi version of Wild Kingdom: Syracuse Edition.
John Vanek, an ESF zoologist specializing in urban ecology, helped set up the trail cameras last fall to capture photos of eastern gray squirrels “across the rural/urban gradient,” said he declared, from the forests to the streets.
Squirrels are a “model organism” for studying the evolution of wildlife in urban settings, Vanek said. He placed 20 trail cameras around Syracuse, including various city parks and cemeteries; another 20 in rural areas as remote as Lake Otisco; and 10 in wooded suburban corridors, such as Woodchuck Hill Preserve in Manlius.
Trail cameras have revealed that a higher percentage of black-furred gray squirrels – the scientific term is “melanistic” – live in cities rather than rural areas. But why?
Vanek hypothesizes that melanistic gray squirrels stand out much more in the forest compared to their common gray squirrel cousins. This makes black squirrels more likely to be picked up by predators in rural areas and less likely to become a lunch in town.
So the next time you notice a black squirrel in your yard, it’s a product of natural selection.
Surveillance cameras revealed something else: Life is tough for squirrels in central New York, no matter what color they are or where they live. When squirrels aren’t munching on croissants in a city park (yes, it’s filmed), they’re being munched by coyotes, foxes, and fishermen. It’s all about the camera, too.
The trail cameras provided Vanek with the hard data needed to prove his hypothesis. He plans to publish the results of his squirrel study soon.
Meanwhile, trail cameras are still rolling, capturing thousands of mostly monotonous but sometimes dramatic photos of Syracuse’s secret urban wildlife.
Two photos in particular surprised Vanek.
Taken last June from a trail camera mounted at Oakwood Cemetery, the first photo above shows a coyote with a newborn fawn hanging limply in its jaws. The second photo below, taken about an hour later, shows a coyote trotting with the fawn’s dismembered leg.
“I know it happens,” Vanek said. “It’s just not something you expect to see on camera.”
The period during which coyotes target newborn fawns is very short, Vanek explained. In late spring, when fawns are born, coyotes methodically roam “linear features” like hedgerows or wooded hallways common in suburban areas, Vanek said, looking for places where mother deer park their babies. while they feed on your roses.
“So it was really lucky,” Vanek said, “to have the camera at the right time in the right place.”
Camera traps, as Vanek calls them, have revolutionized urban wildlife ecology. Trail cameras replaced old search methods, which often involved trapping live animals in snares. Few researchers today even know how to set foot traps, Vanek said.
Also, outside of rural areas, people are much less tolerant of what they believe is an inhumane practice akin to fur trapping, Vanek said.
“Camera traps really allow us to see things that researchers probably never could see in the 1970s,” when the ESF was a pioneer in the field of urban wildlife ecology, Vanek said. Take coyotes, for example. Fifty years ago, coyotes were spreading across the urban/rural divide of upstate New York. But without camera traps to record their movements, the researchers saw only their tracks.
One of the biggest surprises from Vanek’s trail camera research is the prevalence of gray foxes, the secretive, tree-climbing cousin of the carefree red fox. Eighty percent of trail cameras pointed at Syracuse’s greenways recorded gray foxes, Vanek said, usually at night because the animals are nocturnal.
In fact, trail cameras captured as many photos of gray foxes as they did of raccoons and possums, Syracuse’s three main urban carnivores, Vanek said.
“If you don’t have a camera trap, you will never see a gray fox, or very rarely,” Vanek said. “While you might spot that red fox crossing the road or in your backyard.”
In terms of human behavior, Vanek learned that surveillance cameras are more likely to be stolen in rural areas than in cities. His working hypothesis is that most city dwellers do not know what a trail camera is, while people in rural areas have more experience with trail cameras and may know their value.
Someone once stole a trail camera mounted at Burnet Park, Vanek said, but they later returned it after deleting the memory card.
The ESF trail camera network will remain in place for at least another year. The data collected from it is shared with the Urban Wildlife Information Networka partnership launched by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo that serves as a clearinghouse for urban camera trap networks across the United States. It’s a gold mine for urban wildlife conservationists like Vanek.
“We can analyze the data together and look at general patterns because we’re not looking at one specific city,” Vanek said. “And it expands the number of species that we can monitor and track data on instead of just squirrels.”
The data from the ESF camera traps has not yet appeared in any scientific publication. But it’s only a matter of time before a researcher somewhere, poring over tens of thousands of photos of Syracuse’s urban creatures, finds evidence of a certain behavior, or demographic trend. , or maybe he just stops to laugh at a squirrel scampering across the part with a stale croissant in its mouth.
Steve Featherstone covers the exterior for The Post-Standard, www.syracuse.com and NYUP.com. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @featheroutdoors. You can also follow all of our outdoor content at newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/ or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/upstatenyoutdoors.