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Meeting and greeting the new neighbours

by Bob Bancroft

It’s happening all across North America. In California, coyotes walk along fence tops between backyards. Within Los Angeles city limits, a bobcat dens in the trunk of an abandoned, rusted out ’57 Chev. In urban Toronto, a higher concentration of raccoons exists than are found in nearby rural landscapes. In Nova Scotia, a mature black bear meanders down Truro’s main shopping area, captured under street lights only by surveillance cameras. In New Brunswick, an estimated 200 white-tailed deer roam through St. Andrews and other places like Quispamsis and Hampton, rigourously pruning fruit trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. A cougar is reported passing through a Halifax subdivision, probably following deer.

Whether you live in a crowded city, a tidy town, a quiet village or a tree-lined suburb, across North America wild animals including bobcats, lynx, cougars, bears, coyotes, foxes, white-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, owls, peregrine falcons and other wildlife may be your new neighbours.

“Sprawl” describes the process whereby farmland and natural wildlife habitats and ecosystems surrounding urban areas are transformed into the concrete and pavement of roads, highways, malls, residential areas and industrial parks. In North America this transformation has been rapidly applied, using “bulldozer” technology.

The colonization of North America by European settlers coincided with massive forest clearing. Forest wildlife species were, and still are displaced whenever ground is broken for agricultural, business and housing developments in the boonies. Today’s forestry activities clear large green swaths with heavy machinery, leaving moonscapes devoid of the essentials required by the forest animals and plants that once lived there.

In similar fashion, rivers are channelized and dammed, blocking fish access to traditional spawning sites, while ecologically important marshes are drained using taxpayer money to become agricultural fields. Wild animals that persist or interfere in these and other activities are often considered a nuisance.

Your property was once wildlife habitat. Since it was cleared, some animals and plants have attempted to fit into the altered landscape. Many turtle, frog, toad and salamander populations use the same breeding ponds every spring, despite new land developments. Crossing busy roads and travelling through back yards with pesticides, dogs, cats and kids can be hazardous. Turtles often lay eggs in roadside gravel instead of along naturally exposed gravel banks. This often does not end well.

Many wild animals learn to make a living among us. Some are even attracted. In London, England, pigeons take early morning rides out of the city on top of railcars to forage in the countryside throughout the day, returning by evening trains to roost in the city.

American robins quickly capitalized on our penchant for lawns, moving on to formerly dry lands that are converted into irrigated green swaths wherever subdivisions are constructed.

Individuals of some species forgo the wild entirely. Many Canada geese are opting for lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, and parks, rendering “barefoot in the park” a precarious, slippery experience.

Increasing numbers of wild animals are adopting a “learn to live with them” approach. Railroad tracks and urban walking paths along the flood zones of rivers and streams provide easy downtown access for many four-legged creatures like deer, coyotes, raccoons, groundhogs, porcupines, rabbits, otters, weasels, mink, beavers and skunks. Their presence entices predators like hawks, owls, black bears, red foxes, bobcats, and cougars to hunt in urban parts of eastern Canada.

Coyotes kill red foxes, and that predation forces some foxes to move closer to human populations. However, like raccoons, some coyote populations are currently present in higher concentrations in some urban areas than in natural landscapes. Forest overcutting means that cities, towns and villages often possess the oldest local trees with holes or cavities and larger branches. Those features attract squirrels, nesting owls and night-roosting crows.

In earlier times a gun hung over the doorway of many rural homes, offering a quick resolution whenever winged or four-legged predators threatened domestic livestock. Gun laws now prevent instant access. Depending on the province, for safety reasons it’s illegal to discharge a firearm within specified distances of neighbouring homes. During hunting seasons, a few deer seem to sense that proximity to dwellings confers a degree of protection. One young buck bedded down every day in the marsh below our house, venturing out at dusk. For many wildlife species, the human “fear-factor” has diminished.

Nowadays industrial forest “management” prevails on publically-owned (Crown) lands. Many forest wildlife species are forced off massive Crown land clear cuts, moving instead to smaller, privately-owned land holdings where (hopefully) more ecologically friendly management may offer more stable habitats.

Centuries ago, chimney swifts nested and roosted in hollow, old trees. As older trees became scarce, these migratory swifts switched to large chimneys that were lined with bricks and mortar, and unused in warm weather. In recent times insurance companies insist that stainless liners be installed in such chimneys. The new inside surfaces are too smooth for the swifts to grip. The few stands of old growth forest with some hollow trees continue to be flattened by the forest industry. Government apologists suggest that the swifts displaced by old tree harvests can simply relocate. To where?

Thankfully, some villages and towns in eastern North America have noted the chimney swift’s dilemma. When a large building is demolished they leave the old industrial chimney standing, for the swifts. Perhaps there’s a chimney that could be saved near you?

Feeders have altered the fall migration patterns of many bird species. A great deal of energy must be expended for a flight south. Feeder-based overwintering can be a risky strategy, but it also eliminates the long trip north every spring, and confers a first choice of breeding territories (and worms) when the local weather finally does improve. 

Groups like Nature Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and many others are promoting the creation of back yard wildlife habitats across the land. Whether it’s planting flowers for hummingbirds or monarch butterflies, building a pond for fish, aquatic mammals, water birds and amphibians, or installing a bat house, humans can provide many missing elements that species require in terms of shelter, food and breeding. Nest boxes are a substitute for the lack of holes in young trees in which to build a nest. Actively managing properties to attract wildlife is one approach to helping wildlife survive in challenging human environments.

Homeowners can also adopt procedures to minimize the enticements and conflicts that can arise when some wild animals come to town. Any holes that invite building access should be plugged. Meat scraps are best kept out of compost piles and daily bird seed feeding adjusted to leave minimal amounts by nightfall. Stored garbage should be well-secured. Flower garden re-arrangements could favour less wildlife-attractive plants. For example, substitute inedible daffodils for those all-too-tasty tulips. 

Wild animals are among us, and they are here to stay. Nature is connecting human habitats with an extensive cast of characters. It’s an opportunity to learn more about—and enjoy—those new neighbours. 

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