Sunday, June 21, 2015

Walk on the wild side - on Main Street

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wildlife, cities

Do children still sing "Skip to my Lou"? One verse repeats, "Pigs in the parlor/What'll I do?". Other verses mention flies in the buttermilk, a cat in the cream jar, and a couple of birds. If you want to get creative, verses could be added about coyotes or deer in the back yard, cottontails in the corncrib, and if you were in Cape Town, baboons in the kitchen.

Most people in the cities tend to think of the city as a pretty sterile place, inhabited only by humans and their pets, maybe with pigeons and sparrows around, and a few pests such as flies thrown in. Tristan Donovan is here to tell us there is more to cities than we might imagine, in Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle.

Much of the book contains stories about animals, not just in suburban areas and city fringes, but right in the middle of our cities around the world: Boars in Berlin, Coyotes in Chicago, the resident Cougar in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, a flock of Parrots in Brooklyn, Baboons breaking into homes in Cape Town, and the finding by researchers in Raleigh that every home is host to at least 100 species of insects and spiders.

Why should there be animals in our cities? By making cities comfortable for humans, we have made them comfortable for a multitude of opportunistic animals. In the U.S., northern cities are warmer, sometimes as much as 10°F and even more. Further south, many spaces are air conditioned, so an overheated jaybird in Tucson might make its way into the local WalMart to cool off. Cities in dry places are wetter, and homes in wet places are drier, than their surroundings. Snakes have been found with half their bodies hanging into a hot tub on a cool night, occasionally diverting a human romantic encounter from its intended course. And there is food everywhere, everywhere! Raccoons raiding garbage cans. Crows and gulls picking at road kill. Rats in the storm sewers, eating our refuse and being hunted by snakes and coyotes and wildcats. To a bobcat a rat's intended purpose is turning our crap into his lunch.

Biologists have compared animals in cities with their rural counterparts, and have found that many species are more abundant, better fed and live longer in a city than in the countryside. Why wouldn't there be animals in our cities?

I really like the turn taken in the last couple of chapters. We ought to be making our cities more friendly to species we like. For most people, a little time spent watching rabbits or otters is calming. My wife was quite delighted one day to report seeing a deer "pronking" down our street outside our hedge. A few endangered species are actually doing better in cities than in their "native" habitat. The Peregrine Falcons nesting on window ledges in skyscrapers come to mind (Bookmark the DuPont FalconCam and take a look beginning next March; just now I see only feathers in the nest).

Many doctrinaire environmentalists might shudder at the thought of making our cities into better habitat for beneficial or endangered animals. To them, cities are Evil and part of the probem; there's no way they can be part of the solution. But face it, cities are here to stay. They presently encumber only 2% of the land area, but that is growing, and their impact is greater than you might think. A certain parrot species is found in greater numbers in certain southwestern U.S. cities than in its entire home range in Mexico. They go where the living is better!

And suppose we were to succeed in creating cities in which nothing could live except humans and a short list of "approved" human pets. Then what? Should inner city kids—and their parents—be deprived of the sight of a blue jay, cardinal or indigo bunting? Should they be doomed never to see a living rabbit or raccoon? Should the endangered parrots of the U.S. southwest be "repatriated" to a "native" habitat that is getting too degraded to support them?

I don't like flies in my home, so I welcome the spiders that live here. There are at least 10 species that I've found. Only when a spider gets too big and is found crawling on the bed do I evict her. Our yard hosts rabbits and squirrels, so I do have to put small-mesh fencing around the garden, and we hope for the occasional visit by a fox to keep their numbers in check (she comes through every couple of years). We see deer droppings under the apple tree in the fall. As long as I don't corner a deer and get clipped by those front hooves, I'm happy to have one bed down there occasionally. We're planting a greater variety of flowers to draw butterflies, but avoiding the "butterfly bush" which is too concentrated and becomes a praying mantis colony beneath which one finds piles of butterfly wings! When I find a robin nest in the hedge, that section goes an extra month without being clipped until the chicks fledge. We let wasps nest in the louvers of the attic vents, but not in areas where children might play. Wasps are great predators of the insects I don't want to encounter. We encourage dragonflies, which keep the mosquito population down. A local hawk "tends to" the various little mammals such as mice and voles.

I appreciate the biologists who agree with Mr. Donovan, and are working to make our cities better for human-animal coexistence. Of course we don't want rats everywhere, but the best exterminators are Maine Coon cats, not poison baits that kill so many other animals as a byproduct, and make rat bodies poisonous to house cats and wild cats. With proper education we can even learn to live with coyotes in our midst...and we aren't going to see those exterminated anytime soon, anyway! Nearby New Jersey residents need to learn to think like bears so they don't attract them where they don't want them, but do attract them where they do want them. We need to face it, humans are part of nature. Let's open up to seeing "who else" shares our cities.

A very education and refreshing book.

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