Wildlife Habitat & Biodiversity

July 1, 2021

Mount Auburn’s 175 acres provide food, water, cover, and nesting sites for a diverse community of urban wildlife. Predators and prey are well-represented at the Cemetery, allowing the food web to follow its dynamic seasonal cycle. Guided by a Wildlife Action Plan (2015), Mount Auburn protects and enhances the value of this urban ecosystem and invites a community of researchers and educators to use the Cemetery as a living laboratory for the study of biodiversity.

The Fauna of Mount Auburn

It may be best known as a place where migratory birds take temporary cover each spring and fall, but the Cemetery is also home to many resident bird species. Screech owls make use of tree cavities, great blue herons hunt in the shallow emergent zones at each of our ponds, while red-tailed hawks captain the sky and snatch up small mammals from the grounds for nourishment. Mammals residing at Mount Auburn include Eastern cottontails, gray squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, raccoons, voles, shrews, skunks, field mice, moles, weasels, muskrats, mink, fishers, flying squirrels, red fox, and coyotes. Beneficial insects, including pollinators, are also represented at Mount Auburn. In addition to the insects naturally found on the grounds, Mount Auburn houses a honey bee apiary and has a certified beekeeper on staff. 

Though also present, amphibians, reptiles, and fish are less abundant than birds or mammals. Intense manipulation of the grounds during the 19th century and heavy pesticide use for most of the 20th century likely impacted their populations over time. We no longer rely on toxic herbicides to maintain our grounds, and recent habitat restoration projects have crated the spaces these species need to survive. Following strict conservation guidelines, the Cemetery started to reintroduce three native amphibian species in 2015: American toads, spring peepers, and gray tree frogs. All three species have since reached successful breeding populations on our grounds, and the chorus of trills and peeping adds a previously lacking element to the springtime landscape. We hope to introduce additional species in the future. Some amphibians, reptiles, and fish under consideration for reintroduction include the blue-spotted salamander, brown snake, northern red-belly snake, musk turtle, golden shiner, and banded sunfish. 

Planning and Planting for Wildlife

What is it that makes the Cemetery so welcoming for such a diverse range of wildlife species? Mount Auburn walks the line between ornamental landscape and natural, or even wild, terrain. Small-scale wildflower meadows, pocket butterfly gardens, and curbed/fenced burial lots managed as native perennials gardens dot the Cemetery’s landscape, providing food, cover, and breeding opportunities for insects and other native wildlife. Emergent plant zones border the banks of its four water bodies improving water quality and providing habitat for fish and other aquatic species. And in the historic center of Mount Auburn, fescue grasses requiring less frequent mowing now stand in the place of traditional turf to provide additional cover for various wildlife species. These naturalized areas offer diverse conditions that allow a range of wildlife to thrive and together create a network of spaces that facilitate safe movement through our landscape. 

The seed heads from flowering plants provide winter food sources for a variety of wildlife species. Photo by Jennifer Johnson.

Mount Auburn’s landscape was heavily manipulated and intensely managed for a long time, but it has balanced the ornamental with the natural in recent years. The native woodland restoration at Consecration Dell, a project begun nearly 30 years ago, started Mount Auburn on its current path. Since then, the Cemetery has prioritized using native plant material that has habitat value in its landscaping projects. Likewise, Mount Auburn’s standards of beauty no longer involve keeping all 175 acres of its grounds “crisp and clean.” Instead, maintenance practices now consider the integrity and productivity of its diverse ecosystems. In specific designated areas, fallen branches remain in place to provide habitat for fungi and cover for invertebrates, amphibians, and small animals. In other areas the remnants of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses stand throughout the winter months to provide wildlife cover and wintertime interest. In the video below, Mount Auburn Gardening Supervisor Steph Almasi shares the wintertime interest and habitat benefits in Asa Gray Garden.

A Living Laboratory

A team of Mount Auburn staff, academic research collaborators, and volunteer citizen scientists now study the health of Mount Auburn’s landscape and its wildlife communities through a series of ongoing research projects. The data collected through this monitoring allows the Cemetery to evaluate its past efforts to improve biodiversity and informs our future goals.  

From one scientific study, we now understand what dragonfly species are taking advantage of Mount Auburn’s habitat and successfully breeding at the Cemetery. Another study, which documents the presence and abundance of pollinators (insects and other species), allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of the plant material used in our pollinator gardens. And using a combination of bio-acoustic studies and mist nets to capture and release species, scientists have documented big brown bats, red bats, hoary bats, and little brown myotis in the Cemetery. Bat houses installed on the grounds in 2020 will further the bat research and monitoring already underway. An urban coyote study is now also underway. 

Biodiversity in the Face of Climate Change

When arthropods like caterpillars and beetles emerge each spring to feed on budding leaves and flowers, they become a food source for the migratory birds seeking temporary shelter at the Cemetery. Temperature is the prime factor impacting the emergence of leaves and flowers, while day length is the primary factor influencing bird migration. However, with accelerated climate warming, Mount Auburn’s trees and shrubs are budding and leafing out earlier than ever. So how will an earlier horticultural spring, and consequently earlier arthropod activity, impact the food needs of spring migrants arriving at roughly the same time each year? Three studies now underway at Mount Auburn are attempting to answer this question. 

The first effort is a phenology study that tracks the timing of life cycle stages, or phenophases, for ten deciduous tree and shrub species. Volunteers document weather conditions and collect the dates for budburst, leaf emergence, flower opening, and when leaves unfold at every specimen in the study. As part of a second study project, volunteers inspect the specimens on our phenology trail for evidence of arthropod activity each spring. Data collectors examine the underside of leaves for the number of arthropods present, diversity of species, and leaf damage. Every spring, a third survey documents all breeding species seen or heard at 16 points in the Cemetery. Nesting behavior, such as transporting nest materials or feeding newborns, is also recorded. 

All three studies collect valuable data that helps us understand how weather and climate impact Mount Auburn’s wildlife communities and their habitats. With this information, Mount Auburn can develop an even more resilient landscape that continues to meet the needs of its wildlife inhabitants.

Get Involved!

Mount Auburn’s Citizen Science Naturalist Program brings a community of well-trained volunteers together to support the biodiversity research underway at Mount Auburn. After completing an initial Naturalist Training program, volunteers can serve as capable research assistants and informal public educators. 

The Citizen Science Naturalist Program is open to all ages, providing opportunities for adults, K-12 schools, and homeschool networks to connect with nature in a meaningful way.  To sign up or learn more about current volunteer opportunities, contact Mount Auburn Director of Urban Ecology & Sustainability Paul Kwiatkowski at pkwiatkowski@mountauburn.org.

What’s Next?

As part of our Climate Action and Sustainability Plan, Mount Auburn has identified short- and long-term goals to strengthen the value of this important urban habitat.


Environmental Stewardship

at Mount Auburn

About the Author: Paul Kwiatkowski

Paul is Mount Auburn Cemetery's Director of Urban Ecology & Sustainability. View all posts by Paul Kwiatkowski →

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