A small backyard nestled between houses on a well-used residential street in Alexandria, Va., seems like an unlikely spot for a wildlife “highway.”

But during one evening in March, Evan Kosinski’s neighbor told the 6-year-old about seeing two foxes, two raccoons, a rabbit and one opossum between midnight and 6 a.m. His neighbor doesn’t crouch outside all night watching for critters and never leaves food to attract animals.

Instead the neighbor uses a trail camera, or trail cam, as an extra pair of eyes observing wildlife activity without human interference.

Trail cams – small, motion-triggered, weatherproof cameras that operate with batteries – take videos or still photos. These easily operated devices are popular with nature lovers, educators and researchers. Daytime images are in color. Night images, relying on infrared lights that minimally affect animals, are in black-and-white. Trail cams offer an amazing look at the natural world of urban wildlife.

Wanting to learn more, Evan began looking for any animal signs in his fenced yard. Noticing a small hole under the steps of his family’s deck, he borrowed a cam and recorded a family of chipmunks coming and going.

This fox was captured early one morning last summer in a yard in Alexandria, Virginia. Foxes are regular visitors in suburban neighborhoods and often appear on trail cameras, which operate by motion sensor. (Ann Cameron Siegal / The Washington Post)
This fox was captured early one morning last summer in a yard in Alexandria, Virginia. Foxes are regular visitors in suburban neighborhoods and often appear on trail cameras, which operate by motion sensor. (Ann Cameron Siegal / The Washington Post)
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A “wow” moment occurred when, with permission, he put the cam facing a hole under the neighbor’s shed.

“It showed a litter of raccoons living there,” Evan told KidsPost.

A fox, seen passing earlier, spooked the mom into moving her five babies (called kits) that night, taking each by the scruff of the neck. Evan noticed that each move took about 10 minutes, so he figured that her next hiding place was nearby.

Tempted to go hunting for the raccoons, he wisely decided not to.

“The mom moved them because she was scared,” he said. “We might scare them more.”

Since receiving his own trail cam last summer, Evan has seen bunnies’ ears twitching as they munch on grass, a young opossum in search of ticks and insects, and cats on nighttime prowls for mice or other prey.

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“It’s a great hobby for someone Evan’s age,” said his dad, Shane Kosinski. “He tries different spots and angles and thinks about where the animals might go, and then if he doesn’t catch anything, he tries again.”

The use of trail cams in urban backyards provides year-round entertainment, as well as an education in animal behavior. What is creating mysterious holes in your yard, getting into your trash cans or eating your plants?

Evan hasn’t recorded any sick or seriously injured animals, but he has captured a limping fox on video. With research, he has learned that the best action to take is often no action.

“The rule of thumb is if the animal is moving in and out of your cam range, it’s probably OK,” said Carolyn Wilder, president of the Wildlife Rescue League in Virginia. “Wild animals are adapting to urban life, trying to coexist with us, and we want to figure out ways to live peacefully with them.”

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LEARN MORE

Keep these phone numbers and websites handy if you see injured wildlife. Each website can answer often-asked questions.

– Wildlife Rescue League (D.C. metro area): referral for help and questions. wildliferescueleague.org/wildlife-helpline. 703-440-0800.

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– City Wildlife (Washington): citywildlife.org. 202-882-1000.

– Wildlife Services (Maryland): bit.ly/3qS2Qc2. 877-463-6497.

– If you are outside the D.C. area, find resources through the Humane Society of the United States: humanesociety.org/resources/how-find-wildlife-rehabilitator.

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BE A CITIZEN SCIENTIST

Kids can upload cam footage to a Smithsonian-run database that monitors urban wildlife behavior at emammal.si.edu/urban-wild.

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TIPS FOR USING A CAM

Trail cams come in many sizes and price ranges. A good beginner cam can be purchased for less than $80. (Ann Cameron Siegal / The Washington Post)
Trail cams come in many sizes and price ranges. A good beginner cam can be purchased for less than $80. (Ann Cameron Siegal / The Washington Post)

Good beginner cams can be found online or in sporting goods stores for less than $80. (This site reviews a few: outdoorwilds.com/best-budget-trail-camera)

– Tie your cam securely to a fence or deck post, tree or bench.

– Face your cam north or south to avoid glare during sunrise and sunset.

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– Make sure branches or grasses are not in front of the cam’s sensor.

– Use manufacturer-recommended batteries and SD cards.Evan found regular SD cards easier to handle than micro SD cards. Lithium batteries last a long time in cold weather.

– Place your cam at knee height to photograph foxes, raccoons and other backyard wildlife on their level. Higher for birds.

– Check your cam only once or twice a week so you minimize disturbing wildlife’s natural activity.