The Cultural History of Turkeys in America

A tom turkey

Turkey from Iowa County captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

Thanksgiving arrives next week, and the iconic image that pops into most people’s minds during this holiday is a big, roasted turkey in the middle of the kitchen table. But how did these large birds become a classic representation of this holiday? We took some time to dive a little deeper and learn more about the history of turkeys in North America, how Thanksgiving became a holiday, and how turkeys ended up as the main attraction on this day.

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) have always been native to the Americas. In fact, there is only one other species of turkey in the entire world: the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which lives in Central America, and has beautiful plumage that more closely resembles a peacock than the wild turkeys we are familiar with.

Importance in Native American Culture

Before their popularity in modern Thanksgiving feasts, turkeys have been an important part of the food and cultural systems of Native Americans for thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence of wild turkeys being domesticated by certain indigenous groups as far back as 2,000 years ago. Not all native communities domesticated the birds since they were so abundant, but tribes in the American southeast, southwest, central Mexico, and Guatemala were especially known for their domestication of turkeys.

Beyond serving as a source of food, the rest of the turkey’s feathers and bones were used for tools, regalia, and art. The reverence of turkeys varied widely from tribe to tribe and has a complex and beautiful history in native culture. The Wampanoag tribe in the east used turkey feathers for cloaks, while the Tuscarora and Catawba in the south used plumage for headdresses. In other tribes, turkeys played a role in traditional stories. The Caddo have a prestigious Turkey Dance related to tribal songs of war, honor and pride. Even through generations of genocide, forced removal from their lands, and substantial portions of culture that have been lost forever, turkeys still carry importance in the lives and ceremonies of many tribes today.

Two tom turkeys displaying

Turkeys captured on Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

Introduction of Turkeys to Europeans

Turkeys made their debut in European and Asian cuisine in the 1500s through Spanish trade routes. Many suspect that they received their name because these birds came to Europe by way of the country of Turkey. They were so popular with Europeans that the colonists even brought domesticated turkeys with them as they sailed to North America. To the colonists’ surprise, the large birds were already fairly abundant here.

Two turkeys and two deer

Turkeys encountering deer on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

The Founding of Thanksgiving

Despite popular legend, wild turkey was not served at the 1621 meal shared between the Wampanoag natives and the pilgrims. Instead, deer meat was provided by Wampanoag hunters.

The pilgrims had many seasonal “days of thanks” for a good fall harvest, and continued this tradition when they moved to North America, however there was not originally one common day that this was celebrated on.

In the mid-1800s, writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to make a single national holiday out of these common thanksgiving celebrations. Her goal was to bring the country together at a time when the Civil War was eminent. In 1863, Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving as a U.S. national holiday.

Flock of Turkeys

Flock of turkeys captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

How Turkeys Became a Thanksgiving Icon

Turkeys became the meat of choice for Thanksgiving celebrations because they were easy to harvest and their size was enough to feed a large family. Many families even had domesticated turkeys that they raised on their farms specifically for the purpose of a holiday meal.

Unfortunately, their popularity soon became their downfall as wild turkeys were overharvested throughout the 1800s. Soon, they were no longer found in most states. The last turkey disappeared from Wisconsin in 1881.

Startled Turkey

Turkey spreading its wings on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

Wildlife Success Story

Fortunately, nationwide efforts to revive turkey populations have been largely successful. In Wisconsin, wild turkeys were reintroduced by the Department of Natural Resources in 1976. Twenty-nine wild turkeys imported from Missouri were released in Vernon County. As they began to flourish, the new turkeys were trapped and relocated to other counties across the state. Now, tens of thousands of wild turkeys are harvested every year in Wisconsin. Click here for more details about hunting turkey in Wisconsin.

Whether you enjoy them for their meat, their beautiful plumage, or the fierce confidence they embody as they strut across the road, take a moment to give thanks that these magnificent birds are still around today!

A tom turkey displaying its feathers in the woods

A tom turkey displaying on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

 

Sources
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/where-did-the-domestic-turkey-come-from/
https://ebird.org/species/ocetur1
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/11/161121111328.htm
http://www.native-languages.org/legends-turkey.htm
https://www.colorado.edu/asmagazine/2018/02/27/native-americans-domesticated-turkeys
https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-eat-ymology-of-the-turkey-48036170/
https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sarah-hale
https://www.eekwi.org/animals/birds/wild-turkey
https://p.widencdn.net/vpukwf/turkupdate
https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/hunt/turkey

Snowshoe Hare Winter Coat Change

While we aren’t all ready to think about Wisconsin snow, some of us are certainly more suited to it than others. Take this snowshoe hare from Iron County, for example – looking at their feet, it’s no wonder where their name comes from!

At this point in the year, the snowshoe hare begins to transition to a snowy white coat and will soon take advantage of their large feet to glide atop the frigid snow. As the snow starts to stick these next couple weeks, think of this little hare and how it is adapted for the cold winter ahead.

Are you interested in exploring the wonders of Wisconsin wildlife from your home? Visit www.SnapshotWisconsin.org to view images captured from trail cameras across the state. It’s a fun and educational activity for all!

Rare Species Update: Moose Sightings

Moose are considered a rare species in the state of Wisconsin. They used to be found across the northern part of the state, but there hasn’t been an established population since the early 1900s1. Sightings of moose that wander over from Michigan or Minnesota are occasionally reported, but still rare.

That’s why our team was excited to discover several recent moose photos on our Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras. We captured our first moose photo back in 2018 in Vilas County. In the past two months, we’ve had four additional sightings across several counties. It is unclear if this is the same individual, or several different moose.

Below are some photos of the moose captured in Iron, Price, and Burnett Counties.

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We interviewed some volunteers who recently captured these moose photos on their Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras. Steve from Price County said, “My initial reaction was complete shock. This camera check had been especially fruitful, and I had gone through quite a few pictures when the moose showed up on my screen. It was so drastically different in size and color to the deer we had been seeing up until that point that it took a second for my brain to process what I was looking at. My wife was sitting next to me and we both realized what it was at about the same time. I think she was even more excited about it than I was! We know there are moose that have been occasionally spotted in the state, but we never dreamed we would see one in our own backyard!”

When asked if seeing a rare species has impacted his experience as a Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer, Steve said, “It’s been a lot of fun this whole time but seeing a rare animal like this first-hand really makes it more exciting. The thought that we could potentially see something like this again is a great motivator!”

Amanda from Iron County said she was ecstatic when she first saw the moose pictures. “Even though it took nearly a year for me to finally capture a moose, I have spent countless hours hiking to and from my Snapshot camera and each trip out is an adventure. I feel blessed to live in such a beautiful area and enjoy such amazing wildlife, but the moose in particular have really drawn me in, and I am so lucky to live in an area where we can see them.”

Thank you to all of our volunteers who host trail cameras and help classify photos on Zooniverse. Your work helps us collect important wildlife data! If you’ve recently seen a rare species such as a moose, cougar, or lynx, please report it using the DNR’s Large Mammal Observation form.

1. Watermolen, D. Murrell, M. Checklists of Wisconsin Vertebrates. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 2001. p 38.

October #SuperSnap

This month’s #SuperSnap features two collared elk cows from Jackson County.

Two elk cows with collars

A huge thanks to Zooniverse participant CheezyPie for the #SuperSnap nomination!

Continue classifying photos on Zooniverse and hashtagging your favorites for a chance to be featured in the next #SuperSnap blog post. Check out all of the nominations by searching “#SuperSnap” on the Snapshot Wisconsin Talk boards.

The Scarcity of Spotted Skunks

Everyone knows what a striped skunk looks (and smells) like. Their reputation precedes them. Around this time of year, they like to hunker down in their dens inside of rock openings or hollow logs. They’ll spend most of their time in these dens until May and June when females give birth to their litter of “kits”. When they do come out to find food, they dig for protein-rich insects and worms, and will also eat plants during the summer.

A stripped skunk

A stripped skunk captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

The striped skunk’s smaller cousin, the eastern spotted skunk, is a much rarer sight. Spotted skunks were historically found in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, but their range was primarily across the western plains states and some southern states. They are similar in size to a gray squirrel, and have a distinctive white, upside-down triangle on their foreheads. Their preferred habitat is near open prairies and brushy areas at the edges of woodlands.

A spotted skunk and striped skunk side by side

Graphic created by Sheri Amsel, http://www.exploringnature.org

In addition to spraying perceived threats with a smelly musk, eastern spotted skunks also have an unusual defense behavior. They will do a handstand on their front legs and stick their tail straight up in the air when threatened. They will also stomp the ground with their front paws.

Spotted Skunk Handstand

Spotted skunk performing its defensive handstand. Photo by Holly Agnieszka Bacal, labeled for public use.

The spotted skunk is so rare in Wisconsin that there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting in the state for decades. But it’s not just Wisconsin that they’ve disappeared from. Spotted skunks have been in decline across their entire range for the past century. A study done by Gompper and Hackett in 20051 found that harvest records from the 1980s showed the eastern spotted skunk had declined to less than 1% of what their population had been at the start of the 1900s. We know so little about spotted skunks that their causes of decline are unknown, but hypotheses include habitat loss, pesticide use, overharvesting, and disease1-4.

Spotted Skunk by a Log

An eastern spotted skunk near a log. Photo by Holly Kuchera, labeled for public use.

A group of concerned scientists have banded together to begin learning more about spotted skunks and to promote their conservation. The Eastern Spotted Skunk Cooperative Study Group is comprised of 140 wildlife biologists across dozens of state and federal agencies, universities, and tribal nations. In 2018, they authored a conservation plan for the species with the goal of summarizing what is already known about spotted skunks and identifying areas that need further research.

According to the group’s conservation plan, management of spotted skunks vary by state. Some states recognize spotted skunks as furbearers and allow hunting and trapping of the species, while other states do not. One of the spotted skunk sub-species that lives in the plains is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In the state of Wisconsin, spotted skunks are recognized as rare and the DNR asks that sightings be reported to the Natural Heritage Inventory Form. A photo is necessary to confirm a sighting, so make sure you snap a picture if you suspect you’ve stumbled upon one. Just make sure to give it space if you see it doing a headstand!

Peer-reviewed articles:
1. Gompper, M.E., and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8:195– 201.
2. Choate, J. R., E. D. Fleharty, and R. J. Little. 1974. Status of the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, in Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 76:226-233.
3. McCullough, C.R. 1983. Population status and habitat requirements of the eastern spotted skunk on the Ozark Plateau. M.S. Thesis. University of Missouri, Columbia. 60 pp.
4. Schwartz, C.W., and E.R. Schwartz. 2001. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Second Edition. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. 392 pp.

Falling Into Field Work in the Flambeau

The Snapshot Wisconsin team recently completed a second round of elk camera fieldwork in the Flambeau River State Forest. Below, Michael Kamp describes his field work experience along with his Snapshot teammate, Jamie Bugel.

The late morning sun was beginning to peek out as the Flambeau River glided serenely by. I watched downed maple leaves, their edges curled up, drifting down the river to unknown destinations. No boats traveled by this early fall morning. Taking one last look at the silent flow, Jamie and I walked back to our separate vehicles. Field work could not wait forever.

A river and trees

Nearby the Chippewa River. Photo by Ally Magnin.

After coasting down County Highway M, all the while on alert for crossing elk, we pulled off onto a gravel road. Shortly down the gravel road we parked in front of a gate to a walking trail. Stepping out of my vehicle, I gazed down the corridor of stunning fall colors. Auburn, golden, and rosy hues led the way to the site of our trail camera deployment. We strode down the path, following our GPS, towards the specific coordinates. A raven flew overhead cawing loudly – much throatier than its cousin the crow. Once we were within 20 meters, we veered off the treeless path to work our way through downed branches and a cluster of aspen trees. We selected a paper birch tree within a couple meters of the GPS point and positioned the trail camera facing north.

Truck and Subaru in front of trees

Field work vehicles parked in Flambeau River State Forest. Photos by Jamie Bugel (left) and Michael Kamp (right).

Next on the schedule was checking a trail camera down Lost Mile Road – a fitting name for such a lane far removed from town streets and city blocks. The sun now shone high above as the Subaru took the bumps and puddles of Lost Mile Road in rhythm. Once again, a metal gate impeded any vehicles hoping to pass, so Jamie and I continued on foot. This trail camera was further from the walking path, through swaying sandy brown grass and over the occasional muddy spot. A couple of eastern hemlocks, seemingly out of place in this open area, stood sentinel as we checked the trail camera. The batteries replaced and SD card in hand, we trekked back to our vehicles.   

Snapshot team member hiking in woods

Snapshot team member walking to trail camera. Photo by Ally Magnin.

Using the bed of Jamie’s pickup truck as an impromptu table, we ate a pleasant lunch before heading to the following trail camera. We drove a short way as a light breeze swirled fallen leaves on and off the road. The trail camera lay a couple hundred meters south of this gravel way.  We headed into the woods, ducking under dense shrubbery and paused to marvel at a towering yellow birch tree. Maybe elk wandered beneath that tree’s branches in the late 1800’s before they were extirpated from the state. After reintroduction efforts and over 100 years later, the same tree might experience elk again. Moving on, we found the trail camera without much difficulty, lying just above a small marsh. Another trail camera checked.

Checking the last trail camera for the day passed in much the same manner – hiking quietly through the forest undisturbed by anyone else. Walking back from the trail camera, we lingered on the crest of a hill to observe the late afternoon sun. The brilliant rays pierced a forest opening and illuminated our surroundings in a golden glow. A photo could simply not do the scene justice. However, I can still picture that scene. Rather than a digital likeness, it is instead an enduring image etched in my mind’s eye.

A road with trees

Views from Flambeau River State Forest. Photo by Ally Magnin.

When I think back to that sunny Friday during the tail end of September, I do not solely think about the trail cameras checked and data collected. I think about a day where Jamie and I had no cell service. There were no pings from our phones regarding news alerts or social media posts. There were no interruptions from the outside world. There was only a radio to call for help if needed. The gift of that day was we were truly present in the moment. That was the experience of fall in the Flambeau.

Building The Data Dashboard – From Inception to Release

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

This edition of the Snapshot newsletter is focused on a new Snapshot Wisconsin product, the Data Dashboard. The Data Dashboard is an interactive tool that let’s the public explore the data that Snapshot has collected in a new and exciting way. This dashboard marks an important step towards Snapshot’s goal of making its data more accessible to the volunteers who helped collect it, as well as the public more broadly.

You can learn more about the development of the dashboard, as well as what features are currently available on it, in this edition of the Snapshot newsletter, or you can check out the dashboard for yourself at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

The idea of the Data Dashboard originated about two years ago, stemming from a desire to bring what Snapshot has learned full circle back to the volunteers and public. However, no one knew at the time what would eventually manifest from that desire. No one knew that the Data Dashboard was on the horizon.

The core purpose of Snapshot Wisconsin is to provide data for wildlife decision support and bringing citizens into that process. Citizen science projects like Snapshot Wisconsin rely upon the public’s aid to accomplish tasks that would be unfeasible or impossible otherwise, and making sure volunteers feel fulfilled and satisfied with their time investment is important to the Snapshot team.

As part of her dissertation research, Christine Anhalt-Depies, the project coordinator of Snapshot Wisconsin, investigated why volunteers joined the program, hoping to learn their motivations and reasons for staying. Her surveys taught the team much about what they needed to focus on to keep volunteers feeling fulfilled.

Two of the survey’s findings stood out to the team. First, many volunteers cared deeply about contributing to wildlife monitoring and wanted to see what wildlife was in their area and the state. Volunteers also wanted to see the fruit of their work, how the project was contributing to wildlife management decisions across Wisconsin. The Snapshot team knew from these findings that they needed something that would close the loop, bringing the data full circle.

To help close the loop, the Snapshot team decided to focus on making Snapshot findings more available and accessible to the public. They needed a tool that everyone could use and learn from. With that daunting task in front of them, the team started by investigating what kinds of platforms were even available for this type of visualization tool.

The Snapshot team explored many options but ultimately settled on R Shiny, an extension of the statistical software R, and soon a prototype was being built. The initial prototype of the dashboard started as a map of Wisconsin, but the team wanted to show more. The team needed a specialist with a vision of what the tool could become.

A Fresh Face Joins The Team

In November of this last year (2019), a new member joined the Snapshot Wisconsin team, and he would play a leading role in developing the Data Dashboard.

Ryan Bemowski, Data Scientist and Engineer at the Wisconsin DNR and developer of the Data Dashboard, recalled what it was like joining the project at this time. “There were many discussions still going on about what the tool was going to look like. The team was trying to figure out how they could best display the data in a way that was meaningful to volunteers and the public,” said Bemowski. “My primary task was to get the visualizations made by deciding what data to display and come up with ideas for the visualizations.”

Bemowski spent the next eight months reimagining the look and feel of the Data Dashboard. Bemowski kept one central piece of the prototype, the map of Wisconsin, but simplified it to show the percentage of cameras in each county or management unit that have detected the selected species at least once.

During these months, he also dived into what other data would be shown on the dashboard. Snapshot Wisconsin cameras have taken over 47 million photos to date, but many of these photos don’t contain animals. The majority of the photos that do contain animals will be classified correctly. However, the team knows that not all the photo classifications are accurate, complicating their use. Some species are particularly difficult to classify, often being mistaken for similar species, such as wolves (below left) and coyotes (below right).

Bemowski and the team wanted to show as much data as possible. However, they didn’t want to add data to the dashboard that was inaccurate, so they needed a way to determine how accurate the community was at classifying each species.

Bemowski explained the team’s approach to solving the inaccuracy issue. “We ran a round of accuracy analyses to see how accurate [classifications] are for each species, but we ended up only able to do the analysis for certain subsets of species,” said Bemowski. An accuracy analysis is a test to determine how many of the photos of a species are correctly classified using a sample of photos. The team’s accuracy analysis yielded an accuracy rate for most species. However, it didn’t work for certain species. “When you run an accuracy analysis, you must have a big enough sample for each species. In our case, some species like beaver just didn’t have enough photos to be analyzed properly.”

Additionally, a few species were analyzed but still excluded because of their low accuracy rate. Volunteers are overall very good at identifying most Wisconsin species, but some species are difficult and had a low accuracy. Bemowski mentioned that the team will continue to run more accuracy analyses and work towards getting all species on the dashboard eventually.

The Soft Launch, Feedback And Improvements

After much work, Bemowski and the team were ready mid-July to test out their tool with a soft launch to a handful of volunteers. They chose the 1,700 volunteers who host Snapshot trail cameras and asked for feedback on the dashboard. Around 90 responses came back, and three main themes emerged that the team began to think about.

First, the volunteers wanted clearer explanations about why species were included or excluded. Second, there was a desire that certain species be added to the dashboard, namely wolf and elk. Lastly, volunteers wanted to see data at a more granular scale, such as being able to see the data for specific cameras instead of countywide.

After reading the survey responses, Bemowski and the team set about incorporating this feedback and getting the dashboard ready for the full launch to the public. The first theme was easy to address. Bemowski added a clickable pop-up (below the species list) to the dashboard that shows the accuracy rate for each species. Simultaneously, Bemowski and the team were able to finish the accuracy analyses of three more species and added them to the dashboard: Snowshoe hair, pheasant and fisher.

The second theme that emerged was a desire to see certain, high-interest species on the dashboard. Bemowski explained, “The reason we excluded some species [for the soft launch] is because, below a certain accuracy, we know some of the data is incorrect. If a species has a 50% accuracy rate, for example, we know that 50% of the data being shown is correct and 50% is incorrect.” The data for species with an accuracy rate below 95% is still stored and used in other ways, but the team wanted all the data on the dashboard to meet a minimum quality standard.

The team thought of a clever way to balance the public’s desire to see high-interest species like wolf and elk with their data accuracy standards. The photos of species with low accuracy and species of special interest go through an extra round of classification by species experts to confirm which photos are correct, so the accuracy of the expert-classified subset of photos is 100% and meets the data quality standards. The Snapshot team collectively decided that the best way to include the data for elk and wolves was to only use the expert-confirmed photos on the dashboard. Bemowski said, “We want to show correct data, as accurate as possible, without holding anything back.” This decision was the best compromise the team came up with.

The last theme focuses on granularity, or the scale to which you can “zoom in.” Some volunteers wanted to see beyond the county scale and look at data from individual cameras. Bemowski was conflicted about the topic of granularity though. “We don’t want to give the exact latitude and longitude of the cameras because of privacy concerns, but we still wanted to give as much granularity as possible.” Showing data at the county level is as granular (or “zoomed in”) as Snapshot can currently go, but the team hopes to eventually have individual dashboards for each camera’s host so that they can see the data for their cameras. However, that is still in the planning stage.A map of wisconsin showing bobcat detection by counties

What’s Next For The Dashboard?

Now that the dashboard is released, Bemowski reflected upon what the dashboard means to the project. “I’ve realized recently how big of a step this dashboard is for Snapshot Wisconsin: To go from collecting millions of photos to showing people what the data is saying and really analyzing that in depth. That’s a big step. Looking back, the intention has always been to transform Snapshot data into actionable outcomes,” but the Data Dashboard marks a major step towards Snapshot sharing its findings with the public.

The Data Dashboard’s current version is focused on making Snapshot’s findings available to the public, but more updates and additions to the dashboard are already on the planning board. “The Data Dashboard is an evolving product,” said Bemowski. “We are going to go through many iterations of it to improve the quality and abundance of data and species available. The next step is to build upon the dashboard so it can be more meaningful for decision makers, such as the county deer adivory councils (CDACs) and other wildlife management organizations around Wisconsin.”

Bemowski offered some advice for anyone going outside to interact with nature. “Improve your chances of seeing your favorite species by using the Dashboard to observe wildlife during their times of peak activity or use the dashboard to see if your favorite species have been detected in your county. Even if you don’t see your favorite species, you may be surprised at other wildlife you do see.”

Bemowski and the Snapshot team are momentarily celebrating reaching this important milestone before they continue to improve the dashboard. Bemowski said, “I wish I had something like this as a kid. I grew up in Wisconsin. I grew up a hunter and fisher; someone who enjoys the outdoors. I always heard that there isn’t enough information about wildlife, that people just don’t know what is there, and that all the ‘guesses’ from wildlife organizations [about what is around] aren’t true.”

“But the Data Dashboard is as close as you can get to really knowing what is out there,” continued Bemowski. “Drawing from a growing collection of over 2.3 million animal sightings from over 2,200 cameras locations across Wisconsin, the dashboard is a really awesome way to discover and experience these animal sightings.”

If you want to explore the Data Dashboard yourself, you can access it at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

A Volunteer Explores The Data Dashboard

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

This edition of the Snapshot newsletter is focused on a new Snapshot Wisconsin product, the Data Dashboard. The Data Dashboard is an interactive tool that let’s the public explore the data that Snapshot has collected in a new and exciting way. This dashboard marks an important step towards Snapshot’s goal of making its data more accessible to the volunteers who helped collect it, as well as the public more broadly.

You can learn more about the development of the dashboard, as well as what features are currently available on it, in this edition of the Snapshot newsletter, or you can check out the dashboard for yourself at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

Snapshot Wisconsin released its new data visualization tool to the public today. The tool is called the Data Dashboard and is a major step towards bringing the project full circle. The Data Dashboard offers volunteers and the public a new way to engage directly with this data, letting people choose which data they want to visualize.

At launch, the data for 18 animal species is available to explore, including how active species are during different times of the day and year and how the species are spatially distributed across the state. Data can be viewed for specific counties or statewide, and the data from maps and graphs can even be downloaded to share with others.

Christine Anhalt-Depies, project coordinator for Snapshot Wisconsin, described the intention and purpose of the dashboard. “The purpose of the dashboard is to close the loop – to make sure that people who are involved in collecting data have an opportunity to see the outputs of their work,” said Anhalt-Depies. “This first iteration of the dashboard is focused on giving the public a chance to explore data they’ve helped to generate.”

Exploring The Data Dashboard With A Volunteer 

One of the best features of the Data Dashboard is that it lets people explore the wildlife in our state at their pace. The dashboard is open ended and can be explored in whatever order you want, but sometimes a guide is nice to follow along with. A member of the Snapshot team virtually sat down with a long-term Snapshot volunteer on Skype and let them explore the Data Dashboard.

Tim Sprain has been a volunteer with Snapshot Wisconsin for nearly 3 years. He hosts three Snapshot cameras in three separate counties. Sprain is a middle school teacher and uses Snapshot in his classroom to describe biology concepts in an interactive way. Sprain shared his screen with Sarah Cameron, a member of the Snapshot team and head of the educator engagement side of Snapshot. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion between Sprain and Cameron.

The Map Of Wisconsin – Counties and Ecological Landscapes

While Sprain was getting set up to share his screen, Cameron said, “One thing I like to remember when talking about the dashboard is the fact that we were literally sitting in a room at the DNR office about two years back, brainstorming how we can share the data that the volunteers were collecting back with them. We had this grand idea of a dashboard but had no idea how we were going to accomplish it. It’s been really exciting to see the progress over the years and have a product now that we can give back to our volunteers – something they can connect to.”

Sprain agreed and added, “A lot of times, people don’t have the knowledge or resources to understand what animals are in their backyard. I see this dashboard as a huge resource to educate them. My goal [as an educator] is to be a catalyst for experiential learning, and Snapshot Wisconsin is all about making sure people get a chance to be involved.”

“Years ago,” continued Sprain, “[DNR staff] pointed me towards what the DNR offers to families and students other than hunting, fishing and trapping, and I’ve kept up on the email updates that the DNR sends out. When Snapshot Wisconsin came onboard, it was a natural fit.” Sprain finished loading the Data Dashboard on his computer and was ready to explore the dashboard. Sprain started with the map of Wisconsin (on the left side of the dashboard). The map shows how many of the trail cameras in a given area have captured the selected species. The map can be broken into counties or ecological landscapes, such as the Northern highlands or Southwest savanna.

Map of bear detections by county

Map of bear detections by ecological landscape

Sprain said, “I’m excited to share the map of Wisconsin with my students, because it has ecological landscapes. It will help them understand how humans and animals use different landscapes and that animals have adaptations to suit the habitat in their landscape. Habitats are the most important piece towards maintaining our rich diversity of animals and flora in the state, which is an indication of our health as humans. This awareness can help build the understanding that we are all in this together. It’s also cool that you have the ecological zones because ecological borders are more real [to wildlife] than county lines.”

Sprain hovered over the three counties he has cameras in and started clicking on different species. Sprain mentioned how he has had to use a different approach this year to incorporating Snapshot into his teaching, since Sprain’s school district is starting virtually. Sprain explained, “In a normal year, [my class and I] would take a trip in the first week of school. I take them to a forested park and ask them what they notice. The kids ask me questions [about the plant and animals they see], and I introduce Snapshot Wisconsin by showing the trail camera pictures. I ask again, ‘What is this,’ or ‘What do you see now?’”

“Often times students will recognize a deer, but they get confused when they see a coyote, fox or wolf,” said Sprain. Sprain recalled a special moment of discovery he had with his students. “When they saw a fisher, it was just the most wonderful moment of learning. They didn’t know what a fisher is, but [to them] it looked sort of like a wolverine. They couldn’t quite figure it out.” Sprain used this moment to teach his students something new about fishers. “Now, they feel this connection to knowing something that they didn’t know before about this mysterious creature living in their bluffs.”

A fisher.

A fisher captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

Sprain hovered over La Crosse county specifically, since that is where the camera that saw the fisher was located. Sprain was excited to discover that there was only one camera out of 13 in the county that had seen a fisher. It was his camera.

Cameron added, “It will be really cool to share with your students that the data they helped collect got that one point out of 13 in La Crosse county. I’m also glad you mentioned fisher, because that wasn’t there [until recently.]” Fisher, as well as four other species, was added to the dashboard in response to the feedback volunteers gave during a soft launch to trail camera hosts.

Sprain joked, “You should have seen the look on the landowner when I shared the [fisher discovery] with the family. They were dumbfounded. They didn’t even know what a fisher was!”

“Oh, that’s so funny,” said Cameron. “That was one of our early and exciting findings of the project, realizing that fishers were a lot farther south in the state than we expected. We’ve had a lot of people come to us and say, ‘Wow I caught a fisher on my property! I didn’t know they were down here.’”

Why Species Were Included Or Excluded

Sprain moved on from the map and started looking more closely at the Species list next to the map. There are 18 species currently available on the dashboard – some common species and some rare like wolf and elk.

“Students always ask after all the carnivores, as well as ones that are unique like porcupine,” said Sprain. “I love that porcupine is on the list! The kids love porcupine.” Between his three cameras and a few annual field trips, Sprain’s class gets to see quite a few of our Wisconsin species. “We don’t have any wolves on our cameras yet, but I see [on the dashboard] that other cameras have picked them up in my counties… so they are there.”

Sprain and Cameron continued to discuss different animals that his students like seeing, and the conversation turned towards species that weren’t included on the species list, namely beaver.

Cameron directed Sprain to look under the species list at the blue text about missing species. Cameron said, “We thought that would be a question that would come up quite a bit, so this popup provides some extra information [on why some species were included and other excluded.]”

This popup explains the main criteria to be included on the dashboard, having a 95% accuracy rate. An accuracy rate is a measure of how often volunteers correctly classify a given species. If photos of a species are classified correctly at least 95% of the time, then that species was added to the dashboard. There is also a table with every species that Snapshot volunteers can classify, such as the partial table below. Each species on the list has an accuracy rate and explanation if it wasn’t included.

Anhalt-Depies jumped back into the conversation and said, “For species with low accuracy, we will eventually be able to provide an expert review of that species’ photos, such as badger with an accuracy of .624 [which is below the .95 or 95% cutoff]. We will be reviewing those photos and including them in a later version of the dashboard.”

The Snapshot team knows there are some classification errors in the data, but anything with an accuracy above .95 is acceptable for this purpose. Sprain ask Anhalt-Depies about the two cameras in Milwaukee county with snowshoe hare detections, and Anhalt-Depies explained that those are likely misclassified and within the 5% of the time the data was incorrect.

Sprain replied, “I like that there is a discussion of accuracy and human error. Science is not perfection, but to see these [accuracy rate] numbers… now I understand why a species wasn’t included.”

Sprain and Cameron each commented on how impressed they were overall with the accuracy of Snapshot volunteers. Cameron said, “One thing I encourage for volunteers who want to help increase their accuracy is to involve others. You [Sprain] mentioned that your students work together to classify photos. My dad calls me basically every time he checks his camera to verify that a photo is an opossum… or a racoon. Just having a couple eyes on the photos increases accuracy but also makes it a more enjoyable experience working with others.”

Sprain jumped in and added, “That is what it is all about, a social network of citizens contributing to science! Working together for a much bigger purpose but also feeling great about seeing the wilderness and ecology in the state of Wisconsin – that is the goal.”

Visualizing Animal Activity and Detection Rates

Soon, Sprain had moved on to the next section of the dashboard, the graph of animal activity. The graph, located on the right side of the dashboard, plots how many times a species has been seen at each hour of the day or each month of the year, depending on which option you choose.

“I like that you can see activity by hour or month,” said Sprain. Sprain started making connections between activity patterns he observed and known behavior of those species. Bears, for example, become more active during the spring and summer months yet are rarely seen during the winter. “I’ll ask my students the question, why are they so active during certain months? Some students think it is a difference in population size, instead of a behavioral difference like preparing for hibernation or reproduction. I get a lot of giggles in the seventh-grade classroom, but the question is very relevant to teaching animal ecology and biology.”

The graph can also be adjusted to show which hours of the day a species is more active. The dashboard shows that sandhill crane, for example, are mainly active during the day but are most active between 10:00am-1:00pm. Bird watchers could increase their chance of spotting one by using the dashboard to find its peak activity times. The same could apply to any of the 18 species shown on the dashboard.

The second tab of the activity chart shows detection rates. Initially set to show the top five species detected state-wide, the detection rate chart can show much more than you may expect. If the selected species isn’t among the top five species, it will appear as a sixth bar on the chart. Additionally, individual counties can be selected to show the data for both the state and selected county. Using these features together, Sprain was able to discover that bobcat, elk, porcupine, and wolf were detected slightly more often in Jackson county, where one of his cameras is located.

Overcoming Insufficient Data

Three counties don’t show species data and are labelled as insufficient data. These counties have less than five cameras. If enough data isn’t being pulled from cameras in a county, then the dashboard doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, let’s say you live in a county with only one camera. If a rare species like the whooping crane walks across that camera, then that species now has a 100% detection rate (one camera out of one camera) in that county. The dashboard would give off the impression that whooping cranes were extremely common in that county, when the species is actually quite rare. This is why Snapshot requires a minimum of five cameras per county before the dashboard will show data for it. If you live in a county that is labeled as Insufficient Data, then consider hosting a camera or encouraging others to host one. There are a lot of opportunities, not only on private lands, but also on public lands to host Snapshot cameras.

Cameron said, “There are a lot of ways to get involved, no matter where you are or whether you have access to land. Snapshot is a really unique project in that there are so many ways to get involved. You could host a trail camera, classify photos online or just participate in some of the educator resources. There is a lot to explore and to offer!”

Even if you are just interested in learning about wildlife in the state, you can help out Snapshot by giving them feedback on the dashboard. There is a survey at the bottom of the dashboard for anyone, not just volunteers, to offer ideas for future versions of the dashboard. After all, the Data Dashboard is designed to help Snapshot come full circle, so they want to hear from you. While not every idea can be implemented, the major themes in the survey responses impact what the team focuses on moving forward.

Cameron reiterated, “The data dashboard isn’t just for Snapshot volunteers. It is for anyone interested in Wisconsin wildlife. Snapshot and the Data Dashboard are special because they wouldn’t be possible without our trail camera hosts and folks classifying online.”

Let’s Discover Our Wildlife Together

Snapshot’s slogan, “Let’s Discover Our Wildlife Together,” isn’t a mistake. Snapshot is a project about people (from Wisconsin and across the globe) working together to monitor our wildlife. “While we know so much about Wisconsin wildlife, there is still so much we don’t know,” said Cameron. “Having tools like this dashboard help us fill in those gaps and get a more complete picture of what is really happening in Wisconsin.”

Sprain added, “[The dashboard lets] each citizen take away a piece of Wisconsin culture and have it become a part of their life. There is no denying the presence of these animals on the cameras. That is the power of this data.”

Whatever your motivation for wanting to see Wisconsin wildlife, check out Snapshot Wisconsin’s Data Dashboard. Version 1.0 is now available to the public.

Lastly, Anhalt-Depies offered Snapshot’s hope for the future of the dashboard. “We are now at a point where the project has really good coverage across the state. Our hope is that, as the dashboard evolves, it becomes a powerful tool for decision makers,” so keep an eye out for what is available in future versions of the dashboard!

You can visit the Data Dashboard at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

September #SuperSnap

The gorgeous reds and browns of autumn are already beginning to seep across the state of Wisconsin. This month’s #SuperSnap features an equally gorgeous red fox hunting a small rodent.

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A huge thanks to Zooniverse participant gardenmaeve for the #SuperSnap nomination!

Continue classifying photos on Zooniverse and hashtagging your favorites for a chance to be featured in the next #SuperSnap blog post. Check out all of the nominations by searching “#SuperSnap” on the Snapshot Wisconsin Talk boards.

Flying Squirrels

Squirrels are so common in Wisconsin that many of us take them for granted. They’re everywhere, stealing bird seed, digging holes, chattering from the tree outside of your window. Of all the animal photos we’ve collected at Snapshot Wisconsin, squirrels and chipmunks make up 9%, making them our second largest animal category after deer. Most people know of the gray squirrel and fox squirrel, but Wisconsin is home to eight other squirrel species as well. I was most surprised to learn that we have not just one, but two distinct species of flying squirrels (the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel).

A fox squirrel looking right at the camera
Fox squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

Growing up, I had no idea we had flying squirrels in our state. I had assumed that these unique gliders were only found in vast tracks of forest out west. Two years ago, a family friend told me a story about a flying squirrel that snuck in through a hole in their old farmhouse and took a nap inside one of their pillows. It wasn’t until they laid their head on the pillow that they startled the squirrel, which quickly bolted for safety. Thankfully, most of us don’t have alarming encounters with squirrels, but this story made me realize that I had been living alongside these small creatures all my life and I had no idea they were there. I decided to learn more about them. 

A small flying squirrel on a log at night.
Flying squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera at night.

Flying squirrels are nocturnal, which explains why they only show up on our Snapshot Wisconsin cameras at night. They have large, glassy eyes and cinnamon-colored fur. During the day, flying squirrels make themselves at home in old woodpecker holes or other naturally occurring cavities in trees. You might be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re in the woods a few hours after dark, or just before dawn when they’re most active.

A flying squirrel spread out mid-flight
A ventral view of a flying squirrel captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

“Flying” is actually a misleading term since these tiny squirrels get around by jumping from the trunk of a tree, then using their extra skin to help them glide to the next trunk. The farthest observed glide was over 290 feet, but most glides are around 60 feet.  

Although the southern flying squirrel is found across the state, the northern flying squirrel is mostly found in the old-growth forests in the northern part of our state. The northern flying squirrel is a species of “special concern” in Wisconsin. This means it is not yet threatened or endangered, but they are still protected and monitored. A flying squirrel’s diet can include nuts, fruits, buds, and insects, but a large portion also comes from mushrooms. They help spread the spores of these fungi, which assist coniferous trees with water and nutrient absorption. The flying squirrels themselves are also prey for a large number of species, some of which include owls, coyotes, weasels, fox, and hawks.

I was surprised to learn just how much these small creatures contribute to our state’s ecosystems. It just goes to show that there’s always more to learn about the wildlife around you.

Sources:
https://www.eekwi.org/animals/mammals/flying-squirrel
https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/er/ER0678.pdf
https://academic.oup.com/jmammal/article/88/4/862/909098#15736779