Educational Series: Urban Animals Need Help Surviving in Cities

By Nick Engelfried
Cities and towns are likely not the first places that spring to mind when you try to picture an ideal wild animal habitat. It is absolutely true that many wild species require intact natural ecosystems relatively free of human interference in order to survive. However, a surprising number of animals can be found much closer to large human population centers, even including some of our biggest cities. Considering that urban areas cover an ever-growing percentage of the planet’s surface, it’s highly worthwhile for animal lovers to learn about the creatures who surround us in cities. In the process, we can not only come to better appreciate the places where we live, but also identify opportunities to improve the habitat potential of urban ecosystems.

One of the most obvious places to look for urban wildlife is in pockets of greenspace that persist in cities, either by design or accident. Some municipalities have done an admirable job factoring habitat conservation into their urban planning; Forest Park in Portland, Oregon is one of the largest such protected areas within a large city in the United States. This sprawling park covers 5,200 acres and includes 80 miles of hiking trails–much of it within minutes of downtown Portland–and supports species including coyotes, deer, great-horned owls, and over 100 other bird and 40 other mammal species. Not every urban landscape contains a natural space as large as Forest Park within its borders, but countless smaller parks and protected areas support similar arrays of animal species in towns and cities across the country.

In fact, even very small natural spaces can serve as vital habitat for insects and other tiny animals, who are able to thrive in hospitable backyards or vacant lots. A study discovered that 13% of the bee species native to the state of New York have been found living in gardens in New York City. As a group, bees seem to do especially well in urban environments as compared to other insects, with cities often supporting more bee species than nearby agricultural land. Of course, a wide variety of other invertebrates–from showy butterflies to more inconspicuous beetles, flies, and spiders–can also be found in cities. It’s also important to note that not all urban green spaces are equally likely to support an abundance of insects. Landscapes free of pesticides, and which contain a diversity of native plants, are much more likely to be used as insect habitat.

Urban insects provide many benefits including pollinating the flowers in our gardens and parks. They are also an important food source for larger wild creatures like birds, which can make their homes in pockets of greenspace provided their food and habitat needs are met. A wide variety of adaptable avian species, including small songbirds as well as birds of prey, have learned to survive and thrive in cities.

One ionic bird that famously makes a home in some large cities is the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest animal. These majestic raptors nearly went extinct in the U.S. in the 1960s, largely due to widespread use of the toxic pesticide DDT. After DDT was banned in the ‘70s, the birds slowly made a comeback–not only in the wilderness, but in some of the country’s densest population centers. Peregrines originally evolved to nest on steep cliff faces, and it turns out skyscrapers can serve as a substitute for this habitat. At the same time, an abundance of smaller birds like pigeons and starlings around human population centers provides urban peregrines with plenty of food. Today, this once-endangered species is well established in large cities including New York, where researchers have observed them preying on more than 75 different species of bird.

City greenspaces are capable of supporting many wildlife species within their boundaries–but they can also serve as important corridors linking larger natural habitats to one another. Some major cities have successfully worked to incorporate habitat corridors into their design. For example, Montreal, Canada’s “green alleys” project has transformed pavement into greenspaces that attract animals and people alike. There are now more than 340 green alleys in Montreal, providing more than 200 miles of habitat animals can use to move safely through the city. Increasingly, urban planners are recognizing the benefits of such green networks for people as well as wildlife.

Among the most valuable habitat corridors are those following streams. Riparian, or streamside ecosystems tend to support exceptionally large numbers of species compared to surrounding habitats, including fish and aquatic invertebrates who spend their days in the water, as well as large mammals who come to the bank to drink or hunt for food. When streams running through urban areas are protected and buffered by greenspace, they can provide a natural travel corridor for otters, beavers, raccoons, and many other animals. Sadly, many urban streams have been neglected and hemmed in by concrete for far too long; but that is starting to change. One of the most ambitious urban stream restoration projects is even now unfolding in Los Angeles, where local organizations are working to clean up sources of water pollution and restore semi-natural banks along certain sections of the Los Angeles River.

As efforts to make cities wildlife-friendly succeed, the odds of interactions occurring between humans and urban wildlife increase. Cultivating a respectful relationship between people and wild animals is essential if other species are to find a safe home near our population centers–and this is especially important when it comes to large species for whom the risk of conflict with humans is greatest. In smaller towns and even the edges of large cities, potential exists for humans to interact with predators like coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and even black bears or cougars.

One of the most important things to remember about urban wildlife is that like animals everywhere, they are motivated by food. Most negative interactions between people and bears, for example, occur because of improperly stored food or garbage drawing black bears into backyards. Other wild predators, from coyotes to great-horned owls, may be a threat to cats or other pets. It is best to keep your cats inside; not only for their sake, but because domestic house cats have a significant negative impact on urban song bird populations. With a degree of mutual respect and separation, humans and our pets can coexist peaceably with wild animals large and small.

Recognizing the animal habitat potential of cities and towns opens up the possibility of creating more opportunities for wildlife in places near to where we live, work, and play. Whether by growing native plants in your garden or getting involved in an urban greenspace restoration project, you can help make your community more hospitable to other species. The good news for animal lovers is we don’t have to go far to make a real, positive difference for creatures who share the landscapes we call home.

Photo credit: Darkone

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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