Column: Rural wildlife increasingly moving into urban settings
Some birds and animals have always found humans to be good neighbors, whether people wanted them around or not. Birds, such as robins, are welcomed near our homes while English sparrows and European starlings are not so popular. Urban squirrels are often entertaining and generally tolerated, if not liked. Mice and rats have been attracted to human development for thousands of years and have been hated just as long. Some new wildlife species have joined us in town in the last 50 years that are a bit surprising given their long-assumed wild nature.
We’ve been used to the sound of Canada geese overhead for years as local birds fly between ponds and their favorite feeding spots around Nevada. They used to graze in an open meadow north of our lot, but that’s filled in with apartments and houses over the years. I was curious the other day when the sound of geese seemed particularly close and not moving. Had they become so at ease with people that they were landing to graze in some neighbor’s yard? I soon spotted them perched on some neighbors’ roofs. Back-yard dogs might harass them on the ground, but those roofs seemed a safe place to survey the area and “discuss” the latest developments with each other. They’ve returned to those perches repeatedly since then to continue their observations and conversation.
No wild geese nested in Iowa when I was a boy, but almost every town now has their summer resident flock – at least if there’s any water nearby. Towns with open water in winter may have them year-round. They nest in wilder rural settings, too, where they act like you might expect wild geese to act. They become upset and move away if people approach them. Many urban geese act like domesticated birds.
Geese are not the only waterfowl finding urban settings to their liking. Riverside parks, landscaping ponds and stormwater retention basins have become common. Wild mallard ducks have decided that these water features are a good place to hang out, too. Like geese, these birds have become increasingly tolerant of people. That’s true as long as they’re in town on “their home turf” but when flying out to feed on nearby farmland they’re as wild as their cousins migrating in from Arctic Canada. They seem to know where it’s OK to be tame or safer to be wild.
Urban deer herds have become a topic of some concern. They’re hard on vegetation when their numbers become high and cause more frequent vehicle/deer collisions. They’ve certainly become hard on some of my flowers and garden plants that aren’t protected by taller fences. We seldom had deer in the yard back in the 1990s, and when we saw them they were edgy and quick to flee. Our local deer are not petting zoo deer yet, but they’re hardly alarmed by people anymore. An urban neighborhood with all it’s tasty landscape plantings is a veritable smorgasbord for deer.
Predators have been moving to town, too. I have seen red-tailed and Cooper’s hawk nests in town in recent years. A well-known family of foxes lived under an old building at Nevada’s historic Evergreen Lane property for several years. A recent news article described how Iowa State University students are studying foxes that live on campus. It’s likely that foxes feel safer there than outside town where coyotes threaten them. Those sly little foxes have pretty much mastered city life and appear to be at ease with lots of people nearby. They’d better keep a sharp lookout, though. I have seen occasional coyotes passing through Nevada and wouldn’t be surprised if wily coyotes, too, soon decide that life might be easier in town.
Our human “footprint” on the land continues to grow. Some wild creatures are proving to be more adaptable than we once thought. I wonder what other wild creatures might soon decide that if they can’t beat ’em, join ’em, by moving to town.