Turn on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, or Nat Geo Channel, and you will probably be able to find a couple cool shows about exciting animals. Fierce predators, insanely huge fish, marine mammals that you just want to cuddle to pieces – really interesting stuff! The downside is that most wildlife shows focus on “exotic” animals. You’ve probably even seen a show on something like arctic foxes from the tundra or elephants herd on the African grasslands, but a PBS Nature special your own backyard wildlife? Maybe not quite as common. So how about we take a firsthand look at what’s in our own neighborhoods together? How will we do that?
Ladies and Gentlemen, for my next trick, I would like to make pictures out of thin air! Well, I’ll take pictures with a strategically placed trail camera that is motion-and-heat-sensing to allow snaps of moving animals but not the blowing wind. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…ah well.
Trail cameras, or camera traps, are a fantastic way for researchers to observe elusive wildlife (like snow leopards or Andean bears), and state and federal agencies use them monitor wildlife populations across the country. I used a trail camera in my Wildlife Monitoring class that I taught at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and I’ve heard of some school districts allowing teachers to use them for class projects. But, honestly, they can also be useful for learning on your own or with your kids.
If you guys would like to play along at home, I bought this camera:
It’s a Cuddeback trail camera that I got from Cabela’s for $99. Though often used by hunters, I just want to scope out what kind of wildlife is right there under my nebby nose. I’m setting this up today in the backyard of a friend’s house, so I will be sure to share with you all as soon as I have some images!
For those of you want to try this, I would highly encourage you to give it a whirl. If you’re concerned about the price, let me know and I can try to put folks in touch if they would like to share a camera. Land owners, you might be amazed with what visits your property. If you really don’t have any space (I don’t either, no worries), it might worth a try to ask a local park if they would let you do a trail camera survey for fun. They might be interested in what you find as well! Just be sure when you’re using a camera that you obey all local ordinances involving privacy, and if it’s not your land, ALWAYS get permission first!
Once you’ve found a camera, it simply needs to be placed (mine straps around a tree), and then left alone. Super easy. Do keep in mind where the camera is pointing, or you will have pictures of either all dirt of all tree top. I would also recommend checking your camera on a regular basis to be sure it isn’t stolen or damaged. Beyond that, if you’re just placing a camera for the joy of learning, it’s a very simple process. (If you are interested in more technical details for research or wildlife management, see here.)
In the past, I’ve used my trail cam in the Highland Park area in Pittsburgh. We’ll see what I find next in the North Hills!