I wake up some mornings to the unmistakable sound of turkeys gobbling in my back yard. A whole flock pecks around in my grass before flying away, startled, when the 8-point buck makes its daily hike up my neighbor's driveway. This wouldn't seem unusual if I didn't live in a city. But these types of sightings are becoming more commonplace as wildlife around the nation creeps into urbania — checking out the old neighborhoods as their own habitats grow increasingly sparse.
Ten years ago, Stan Gehrt, a professor of environmental and natural resources at Ohio State University, would have thought you were crazy had you suggested wildlife, even carnivores, would settle into our concrete jungles. Now? He spends his days researching the more than 2,000 coyotes living in Chicago. "There are no areas [of the Chicago metropolitan area] that do not have coyotes," he says. Gehrt and his team put radio collars on the coyotes and found they were surviving in the city with greater success than their rural brethren, snacking on rodents and Canadian geese.
The Windy City is not an isolated example of wilderness, either. This past July, for example, animal control workers caught a coyote near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. In California, residents lived in terror this summer as mountain lions crept into housing developments. Mountain lions, a significantly greater threat for humans than coyotes, are native to the Box Springs Mountain area, where human housing continues to spread. According to KTLA news, "Sightings and occasional attacks on humans are inevitable as newer developments continue encroaching into the creatures' domain." The cats have been found in other areas of the state and "lethal predators" such as bears and wolves have been popping in to visit formerly wooded areas.
Gehrt sees a combination of causes resulting in our newly shared spaces. First, the amount of urbanized land has increased dramatically. Also, the numbers of these predators have increased over the last 50 years since we've stopped persecuting them as much. Territorial animals such as mountain lions move to urban areas to exploit other habitats for survival. This leads to cases like Chicago, where packs of coyotes are born and raised in the city — several generations of the critters feeling more comfortable with their human neighbors.
Unfortunately for the wildlife, the human response to their presence often results in lethal animal control efforts rather than attempts to peacefully cohabitate. While it can be a bit startling to find animals on a fire escape, there are small changes humans can make to keep critters (or carnivorous cats) away. Organizations such as Born Free USA and the Animal Protection Institute work with communities around the country to find nonlethal solutions to keep everyone happy. Their work ranges from large projects like "beaver deceivers," which deter dams in public water, to educational brochures that educate residents.
According to API, wildlife is attracted to human dwellings for two reasons: food and shelter. This was certainly true in my case. The turkeys pecked through my compost bin and the deer ate my tomato plants. API reminded me to secure the lid to my bin and trash cans and put a fence around the yard. But one of the biggest problems attracting wildlife to our streets lies in a habit so seemingly harmless, nearly everyone does it: bird feeding.
Zibby Wilder, director of public relations at Born Free, says feeding birds allows people to feel connected with wildlife, but what we often don't realize is this practice sets off a chain reaction. Birdseed falls to the ground where squirrels and rodents nibble at their leisure. These larger rodents attract the big predators, like cougars in Seattle who view back yards as room service. "The fact is animals are a part of our environment," Wilder says. "Feeding birds feeds other animals, too. We need to let them be wild. When you start with one animal, you put the platter out to everyone else, too."
Gehrt's research, while not complete, suggests wildlife is going to be with us for the long term, whether we live in rural Montana or Greenwich Village, Manhattan. One goal of Gehrt's project is to figure out a set of best practices for humans and coyotes to live together peacefully. Until that project is complete, the best we can do is be alert and make sure we keep our food to ourselves.