Project Info and Instructions

The Project

Bobcats, coyotes, fishers, foxes, and black bears live in close proximity to suburban and urban communities throughout the eastern half of the United States.  However, not much is known about how and where they're carving out a living in human-dominated environments and how frequently they're being observed by local residents.

The Mianus River Gorge, Teatown Lake Reservation, Westmoreland Sanctuary, and the Huston-Brumbaugh Nature Center have joined forces in the Wild Suburbia Project to study a variety of species over the next couple of years, but we need your help!

Local residents are an important source of information about local wildlife and nature.  Our scientists would like to enlist your participation to provide information about where and when you have seen these animals.

This page offers a summary of the project and instructions on how to participate.  We recommend you read all of this page as well as the species ID page in the tab above.  If you need to find a particular section, use the Table of Contents below.

1. The Project
2. What Do Project Participants Do?
3. Using the Online Survey
4. Sightings Data Explained
--a. Species Distribution Maps
--b. Presence/Absence Data
--c. How Can We Collect Absence Data via Citizen Science?
--d. At-Home Sightings
--e. Somewhere-Else Sightings

2. What Do Project Participants Do?

Citizen scientists report sightings of any bobcats, coyotes, fishers, foxes and/or black bears they observe while at home or traveling around the area.  Participants post the time, date, location, markings and anything unusual that they observe on our project website by using our Online Survey. More information on the project and the animals we are studying can be found in the tabs above.

We often run training and recruitment workshops to explain the project and teach people how to enter data.  You can certainly participate without coming to a workshop, but please review the information below so you can make sure your submission is done correctly and contains all the info we need.

3. Using the Online Survey

We encourage you to please read the slightly technical section "How Sightings Data Can be Used" below before you fill out the online survey.  This will help you understand how we need the data to be submitted and allow you to see why we are asking all these odd questions on the form.

The survey can be completed multiple times, so if you see something new at your home or somewhere else, you can return and fill out another survey.

The survey begins with a few contact info questions.  We reference all submissions by name and email so please give us the same email and name each time you fill out the survey.

The next question is important: you will select which type of observation you are submitting, either an "At-Home" sighting (or lack of any sighting) at your home or an incidental sighting "Somewhere-else", such as a park or along a road.  See the section on data analysis below for more information on the two types and why we differentiate them.

The survey will change based on what you enter in this question: if you select "At Home", it will ask what species you saw, if any, your address, and the date.  You can select multiple species, if you have seen more than one, and a date question will pop up according to whichever many species you checked.

If you are reporting only absence data at your home (i.e., you haven't ever seen anything), then you can check the last box "I have not seen any of these animals since I moved in".

Whether you report seeing any animals or not, the next two questions will ask for your address and the date you moved in to your home.  This gives us information on where the sighting was and allows us to see how these animals have grown or declined over time.

If you selected "Somewhere else" in the first question, the survey will automatically display the relevant questions:

The survey then has a section for any notes and comments you have about the sighting or your survey; for example, if you saw more than one animal, or if there were pups/cubs/kits, etc.  If you have many sightings, such as "I've seen the coyote every spring for the last 7 years", you can enter that information here rather than having to fill out numerous surveys.  If you have numerous Somewhere-else sightings, you can enter many surveys or fill out one the normal way and list the others in the comment box (be sure not to forget the date and location info).  If you only have a couple or have a lot of time, it saves us extra work if you complete multiple surveys, but we understand if you don't want to fill out a ton of surveys and just summarize a bunch in the comments box.

Lastly, the survey allows you to upload a picture if you were able to take one of your animal.  Please do so, as we would like to verify as many sightings as possible, and pictures make this much easier.

Don't forget to fill out the captcha (spam protection) and hit the Submit button.  You should then be forwarded to a confirmation page.

4. Sightings Data Explained

a. Species Distribution Maps

Before you submit data, it is important to discuss some analytical concepts.

The type of data we are collecting in the Wild Suburbia Project is known in the wildlife 'biz' as distribution or range data.  You can think of a species' distribution as a map of an area color coded to show where the animal is found and where it is not found. These maps can be developed at many scales, from the entire Earth to a single forest, town, or region.  For example:


The above map tells us that the red fox is very widespread across the Earth (in fact it has the largest range of any land mammal except for people).  At the same time, even though in the global map above New York is completely colored red, at a smaller scale you know that foxes are not literally found on every inch of the state.  More zoomed in maps allow for more detail as to exactly where a species is and isn't.

b. Presence/Absence Data

To build these more detailed maps, biologists collect presence/absence data.  This is basically a list of places (sites) that have been surveyed and whether the animal was found there (present) or not (absent).  Usually presence is abbreviated with a "1" and absence is coded with a "0":

Site A     1
Site B     0
Site C     0
Site D     1

It is obvious at first glance that presence data is needed to map a species' distribution.  However, absence data is also very important, because if you do not have a record of places you surveyed and did not find the animal, you are never sure if the animal really is there but you just did not look.  This is especially important if you are trying to predict the presence or absence of an animal in a new place, based on patterns you found in data you previously collected.  With no record of where the animal is not, your predictions at a new place can be biased.

This is a subject that biologists have devoted a lot of study to figuring out, and there are additional issues researchers need to deal with related to false negatives (failing to find an animal even though it is really there) and false positives (reporting that you found the animal even though it is not really there) that we won't get into now but we encourage you to explore if you are interested (and are happy to talk about with you).

c. How Can We Collect Absence Data with Citizen Science?

Sightings ("I saw a coyote while hiking at such-and-such place") is good presence data, but it takes a bit more work to get absence data via citizen science.  Seeing an animal somewhere obviously means it is there, but not seeing it doesn't necessarily mean it is not there.  Determining -- with some amount of confidence -- that an animal is not at a location requires you to spend some time looking for it.

Thus, we are asking our citizen scientists to divide their observations into two types of sightings: those they collect at home (At-Home" sightings) and those they collect elsewhere by chance ("Somewhere-else" sightings). Why do we put you through this?  Hopefully the text wall below will explain it.

d. At-Home Sightings

We are assuming a couple of things with the at-home sightings.

  1. First, we are assuming that because you are living there, you spend some amount of regular effort being aware of what is going on in your backyard and around your home.  This effort can vary with household based on family size, schedule, couch potato-ness, etc.  But at least there is some semi-constant "monitoring" effort over a long period of time.

  2. Thus, if you report seeing, for example, a fox on your property on July 15, 2012, then you did not see one on July 14.  Nor did you see a bear on July 15, or you would have told us that too.

  3. You have a semi-decent memory.

So, if we make these assumptions, and know how long you have lived at your house since 2010, and you report seeing a fox in 2012, and you fill out a survey on Sept 1 2014, then you presumably have not seen a fox on your property in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014.  These periods of no fox observations can substitute for absence data when we look at how fox distributions have changed over time.

Also, if you report seeing a fox and only a fox, we know that you have not seen any bobcats, bears, coyotes, or fishers from 2005 - 2014.  So your house is now an absence point for those other species.

Additionally, we are encouraging people who have never seen any of our target animals to still fill out a survey and select "I have never seen any of these animals at my home".  Reporting a lack of sightings may not seem all that interesting, but if you are aware that absence data is as important as presence data, you can see why we want people to submit it.

e. Somewhere-else Sightings

People often see animals along the road, while hiking, in a park or golf course, and other random places.  These sightings can still provide presence data, but since you have not searched everywhere regularly, we cannot use these 'incidental' sightings in the standard presence/absence framework.

These sightings are still important for us to gather the first initial observations of species in new areas, and can be added to our "At-Home" dataset as presence observations.  There are also a few forms of analysis that can build maps based only on presence data, but many researchers think they are biased.  Comparing the predictions of our presence-absence At-Home sightings with the predictions of our presence-only sightings would be an interesting analysis and is something we are hoping to perform in the future.

As mentioned above, the topic of properly measuring where species are and are not, predicting where species will be or won't be in the future given environmental change, or predicting where they are without having to look for them, is an important question for wildlife biologists, and there have been many methods developed to try to accomplish these goals accurately.  If you are interested in learning more, you can check out the sites below:

coming soon