During the winter months, bald eagle watching is one of my favorite pastimes. In Wisconsin where I live, the raptors tend to hang out on the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. Surprisingly, rather than head to the waterways’ wilds to indulge my hobby, I head to the cities on the banks.
The eagles prefer the cities along these rivers because of human-made structures: dams. In freezing winter temperatures, these dams keep the surrounding water churning and open, making fishing a lot easier for the birds.
In our quests to experience the many benefits of nature, I think we often overlook what’s available in our cities. Just as our human population has adapted to city life over the course of the last two hundred years, so have many species of wildlife.
In fact, our cities may become the hotbeds for studying animal evolution in the future.
Wild in the city
When we first hear the news about a previously unknown species being found, we tend to assume it lives in a remote region of our planet, at the bottom of an ocean floor or in the thick of a dense jungle. But more and more, we’re finding that wildlife has quietly been adapting to cities, just as we have.
Recently the Nature Conservancy reported that a new species of leopard frog was identified — in all places — on New York City’s Staten Island. And Charles Henny, a research zoologist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey in Corvallis, Oregon, says that there may be more ospreys nesting in North America than ever before. The reason could be that ospreys have forsaken trees in favor of building their 250-pound nests on power poles, cell phone towers, channel markers, and other human-made structures. Ospreys have learned to tolerate people, even raising their young next to busy highways or marinas.
According to Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University who has been studying urban coyotes in Chicago, a coyote living in that city has a 60 percent chance of surviving another year, while a rural coyote has only a 30 percent chance. It’s believed that because food and water are more readily available in cities, the urban animals are faring better than their rural cousins. Gehrt says coyotes have so acclimated to the city that they even understand how traffic flows when crossing the street.
Crows have used cities to their advantage, too. Known for dropping nuts and bones from great heights to crack the hard, outer shells so that they can reach the food inside, city crows have devised an even better method: they simply drop the previously impenetrable food into a street and let the cars crack it open.
It’s not “nature versus city” anymore
As a society, we’ve moved from an agrarian one to an urban one. Already, one of every two people lives in a city. It seems that rather than fleeing our streets and buildings to sequester themselves away in our last remaining wild places, animals are adapting to city life right alongside us. Some day, biologists studying evolution and adaptation may find metropolises such as New York just as valuable as the Galápagos Islands.
Years ago, on a trip to Patagonia, I remember marveling at the region’s remoteness, still intact wildernesses, and lack of development. My South American guide took the opportunity to say, “You know, there are beautiful things no matter where you live.”
Today, I think I truly understand what she was talking about.
Have you ever been surprised to learn of wildlife sightings in your city? Have you encountered any wild animals living close to your own backyard?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,