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Urban Wildlife

Image Credit: Ryan McElroy. A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) overlooks Seattle, Washington

With more than 80% of the US population living in urban and urbanizing areas, protecting and restoring wildlife habitat in our cities and suburbs has become a vital component of wildlife conservation. Urbanization can lead to habitat loss and fragmentation, but thoughtful, well-planned urban development can help ensure that cities provide healthy homes for animals such as birds, bats, butterflies, amphibians, fish, small mammals, and people alike.

Urban wildlife habitat can promote connectivity within urban landscapes, and serve as a refuge for species impacted by urbanization. Land and water conservation projects have the potential to provide benefits to urban wildlife habitat and species, and in so doing, connect the growing urban human population with nature, potentially broadening support for natural resource conservation nationwide and delivering valuable ecosystem services to support dense urban populations. Native wildlife adds a natural dimension to developed areas, allowing urban residents to connect with nature without driving hours to a protected reserve. Urban wildlife makes our cities more vibrant and desirable places to live, and contributes to healthy ecosystem functioning.

The Forest Service is working across boundaries to deliver science that supports native wildlife habitat and diverse, viable, and robust wildlife populations in urban areas.

Learn more about Forest Service Urban Research »


Forest Service scientists use animal behavior analysis, species population surveys, quantitative study, and computer modeling to determine how urbanization strategies can best meet the needs of native wildlife. In addition, scientists engage with "citizen scientists" to assist with urban research and reconnect urban dwellers with nature.

Study sites along a gradient of development, from urbanized and fragmented vegetation to more rural areas outside city edges, allow scientists to examine the effects of urbanization on different species populations along the wildland-urban interface. Monitoring wildlife distribution and behavior within city parks and open spaces leads to a more thorough understanding of how urban parks can provide critical wildlife habitat. The patterns we observed in wildlife population size and distribution with varying degrees of urbanization can enable city planners to predict and preemptively address the effects of future construction projects on urban wildlife.

Forest Service research focuses on several key areas: (1) measuring species diversity, abundance, and behavior in urban areas; (2) improving wildlife habitat in human-dominated ecosystems; (3) understanding the effects of development and habitat fragmentation on species populations; and (4) examining human perceptions of urban wildlife and stewardship experiences.

Highlighted Research

Conserving Avian Species Within the Suburban Landscape

In suburban western Massachusetts, the Forest Service is testing whether populations of the Wood Thrush, a declining forest bird, can persist in the face of increasing suburban development. Research scientists are finding that Wood Thrush population densities, nesting success, and fledgling survival rates are comparable between suburban and more forested study sites, suggesting that establishing conservation areas in suburban areas can be an effective tool for sustaining forest ecosystem integrity across the landscape.

Incorporating Bird Habitat into the i-Tree Software Suite


The Forest Service i-Tree decision tool, a software suite of urban forest assessment programs, will soon have the capacity to evaluate and map the suitability of the urban forest for bird habitat. Project results will form the basis of a wildlife habitat component for i-Tree, providing an additional tool for urban forest managers and planners to quantify the many benefits of our urban forests.

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Bat Conservation: The Importance of Urban Parks

Forest Service. Studies conducted in the southeastern U.S. found that urbanization may negatively impact smaller species of bat, like this Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis).

Urban parks and preserves provide refuge for many wildlife species as pressure from development, introduced species, and climate change increases. Forest Service scientists found that Los Angeles' Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the US, provides habitat for several bat species, including the wWestern mastiff which was thought to be extirpated from the area. Maintenance of such urban greenways could be critical to supporting wintering populations of bats. Forest Service researchers are also investigating the effects of urbanization on bats in the southeastern US. In a study of bat community structure across 10 national park sites in rural, suburban, and urban areas, scientists found decreases in species evenness, suggesting that some bat species are susceptible to urbanization and may become locally extinct over time. Maintaining high quality bat habitat in urban parks and green spaces may help preserve refuges for rare and sensitive species.

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The Value of Ants

Ants stabilize ecosystems and provide key ecosystem services, including acceleration of organic material decomposition and soil aeration, which can improve water infiltration and productivity. Forest Service researchers studied responses of ant communities to urbanization in the Lake Tahoe basin of the western United States. At development levels of approximately 30?40%, human activities had a strong, negative influence on ant species richness and abundance. The study suggests that conserving ant communities and the ecosystem services they provide might be an important target in land?use planning and conservation efforts.

Using Citizen Science to Increase Bird Population Information, Public Knowledge and Engagement

Forest Service researchers are partnering with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center on their Neighborhood Nestwatch project, an urban research project that assesses the health and vitality of backyard bird populations. The scientists mentor and train households how to track banded birds, monitor nests, and compile data. The effort aims to increase understanding of how the effects of urbanization impact the survival and breeding productivity of backyard bird populations, and to teach citizens living in developed areas about these effects. The citizen research effort excites local property owners about urban ecology, and the data are compiled to ask important questions about the biology and conservation of species from Florida, the Washington, DC Metro region, and Massachusetts.

Research Contacts

Scientist Contacts
Ken Belt Hydrologist, Northern Research Station
Susannah Lerman Research Ecologist, Northern Research Station
Susan Loeb Research Ecologist, Southern Research Station
Miranda Mockrin Research Scientist, Rocky Mountain Research Station
Ted Weller Research Ecologist, Pacific Southwest Research Station
Additional Contacts
Beth Larry Urban Research National Program Lead
Monica Tomosy Wildlife Research National Program Lead

Additional Resources and Publications