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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center Pilots Yardversity Project

Susan Bence
Riverwest residents Corey Zetts and her daughter Ivy joined in the Yardversity pilot this summer.

Some highly engaged naturalists — including those at Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center — are piloting a project called Yardversity to lure people to the outdoors as well as fuel research about the natural world.

READ: Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center Strikes On A Formula That Works

Yardversity kicked off on a late afternoon in July when Ethan Bott took to YouTube to provide a how-to for people interested in studying the ecology of their own backyards.

Bott is part of the Urban Ecology Center’s research and community science team.

Credit Screen shot courtesy Urban Ecology Center
In this era of virtual gatherings, Ethan Bott with the Urban Ecology Center has been guiding Yardversity participants through the pilot remotely.

Yardversity relies on a free app called iNaturalist. Bott says UC Berkeley and National Geographic teamed up to create the app.

“And it’s super easy to use. If you have access to a smartphone that has a camera and a Wi-Fi connection at some point, you’re able to literally go outside with your phone, take a picture of a plant or animal, a fungi — any living organism and it will then make it’s best guess at identifying it,” Bott explains.

Credit Susan Bence / WUWM
Tim Vargo, like most of the Urban Ecology Center team, has been working from home for months. Vargo hopes Yardversity connects more people to nature, and to one another during the pandemic.

Bott’s boss Tim Vargo says the Yardversity idea was the brainchild of a friend and colleague who teaches at Auburn University in Ala

“He called me and said, ‘Hey, I have this idea about studying the ecology of people’s backyards, and I have this name I want to try on you — it’s Yardversity as a combination of diversity in your backyard,' ” Vargo explains.

Vargo says Yardversity is meant to be light and engaging, as people begin to learn about the flora and fauna just outside their homes. But he says it also could be important by helping to create a giant database of what’s living, thriving or perishing in urban greenspaces.

“The field of ecology is only a few of decades old and the field of urban ecology is even younger. Most ecological studies are in wildnerness or large expanses … but backyards add up to over 50 million acres in the U.S. alone,” Vargo says.

Vargo says as more and more greenspace is gobbled up by development, it’s important to know what’s left and how biodiverse it is. “[Urban greenspaces], probably, are very important for some of the small insects in terms of being food for the animals, in terms of pollinating,” he says.

Credit Susan Bence
Ivy in Yardversity action.

Corey Zetts and her daughter Ivy are among the people intrigued by the Yardversity project.

Ivy takes a smartphone picture of a native grass in her backyard in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood.

A glistening insect finds a temporary home in Ivy’s hair. Turns out it's a Japanese beetle — unfortunately, it’s invasive.

A few weeks later, Corey and Ivy take up the next challenge — moths! With more than 11,000 species in North America alone, there had to be some in their yard.

They watched a YouTube video created by Urban Ecology Center educator Erin Whitney who offered moth-attracting tips.

“So not all moths are attracted to light, so if you’d like to lure them with a sugary delight, it’s called moth sugaring. You’re going to want to use one banana or banana peel a few days before,” Whitney explains.

Turns out, Corey didn’t have a few days to spare. Instead Ivy was busy “painting” some of her dad’s prized kombucha onto their fence and garage. Kombucha didn’t do the trick, but after lots of waiting and watching Corey and Ivy discover moths of different colors and sizes fluttering around their porch light.

Credit Susan Bence
Auburn University professor Chris Lepczyk came up with the Yardversity idea and asked Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center to test it out.

Urban Ecology Center says so far more than 200 people, most from the Milwaukee area, but a smattering from states as far away as New Hampshire have used the iNaturalist app to participate in the Yardversity project.

Chris Lepczyk is thrilled with the early signs of success. He’s the Alabama-based professor who came up with the idea.  

“I would love to see two things happen: A more ecologically-literate nation that cares about the species we have and how we influence them, and as a researcher, I hope we can learn broader patterns of what’s similar and different across the country,” he says.

Urban Ecology Center plans to keep the Yardversity project rolling, including by sharing more tips on how to use the app and collect and identify nature just outside of your door.

This weekend, the center will encourage people to pull out their phones and look for birds.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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