Have you ever seen a wild animal in your city or town? It is often a surprise for urban dwellers to learn that their communities are home to many wild animals. From small creatures like insects, spiders, and rodents to larger animals like raccoons, hawks, and even deer, urban areas often support a wide variety of wildlife. What brings them to town? Should we feed them? How can we enjoy urban wildlife? Let's take a closer look at these questions and more.
Habitat is Home
All living things need good habitat. As long as food, water, and shelter can be found in an appropriate space, some kind of animal will be able to survive. Many of our communities provide quite a bit of habitat for wildlife. Think about your own community. You know the park you like to visit with your friends? This is an example of possible habitat for urban wildlife. How about your backyard? Backyards that have a variety of flowers, trees, and shrubs can provide a small habitat for wildlife. Even something as simple as putting up a bird feeder and bird bath can make your yard a more attractive habitat. Your school's outdoor classroom could also be a good habitat that wildlife might use.
Many Idaho communities have greenbelts that follow along rivers. While we enjoy walking and biking on the greenbelt paths, wildlife takes advantage of the habitat the greenbelt travels through. Greenbelts can also act as corridors that wildlife can travel along to get from habitat on one side of a community to habitat on another side. A series of green spaces like city parks, nature centers, or gardens can also act as a safe habitat corridor for wildlife.
A lot of our communities are located right next to good wildlife habitat, such as along rivers or at the base of foothills and mountains. Since wildlife does not read signs, they do not know where their habitat ends and the city begins. As long as the city provides good habitat, they will take advantage of the food, water, and shelter the city provides. Some of these animals may stay in town while others will move back and forth depending on their needs.
'Tis the Season
The wildlife you see in your community is often dependent on the time of year. Winter is a time when you might see more wildlife or different kinds of wildlife in town than during the summer months. As snow covers food in the high country, many animals move into lower elevation areas. Here, the snow is not as deep, making it easier to find food. It is also warmer, which increases winter survival.
Deer and elk tend to use the same general areas each winter. These areas are called “winter range” and they are very important for these animals' survival. Unfortunately, some of our communities are close to winter range. Sometimes, houses are built right in winter range. This can cause problems for both wildlife and people. Hungry wildlife will find food where they can find it, even in your backyard! This can be a problem for homeowners who spend a lot of money to landscape their yard only to find out that the plants they used are a favorite food of wintering deer. Careful planning can help make sure that we do not build in winter range needed by wildlife.
Imagine yourself at some big event at an unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar things. You do not recognize anything. It is loud and filled with unfamiliar smells. Suddenly, you are separated from your family. You are lost!
Some of the wildlife that ends up in town seems to simply be lost. This can happen to the bull elk in Boise, the mountain lion in Pocatello, or the moose in Coeur d' Alene. For whatever reason, the animal got off-track and ended up in town with no idea how to leave. These animals are often frightened and may react unpredictably. If you ever see an animal like this, call Fish and Game. Biologists can help safely remove the animal and return it to the wild where it knows how to get around.
Food, Glorious Food!
When you are hungry, what is the first thing you do? You probably search the kitchen. Wildlife is not much different. When hunger strikes, they search their habitat for food. If they do not find it, they move on to another area to look for food. This could lead them into town, especially in the fall and winter. People in urban areas provide wildlife with food both on-purpose and by accident.
Any kind of food left outdoors is a possible food for wildlife. Pet food left on the patio attracts raccoons and skunks. A garden full of vegetables might be irresistible to deer. The open barbeque on the deck could attract a bear. Since wildlife cannot grocery shop, they have to rely on the food they find, where and when they find it. If the food source is reliable, they will return time and again to eat, and they often bring their friends. This is why the single raccoon that ate your cat's food turns into six raccoons by the next week.
Many people feed the birds. They put up feeders with different kinds of food to attract different kinds of birds. Unlike animals such as deer and raccoons, birds do not become dependent upon feeders. If feeders are empty, birds simply move on to another area where they can find food.
So, is feeding wildlife bad? The answer is usually, yes. Except for birds, animals can become dependent on hand-outs from people. In addition, the food we think wildlife needs may not be good for them. Wild animals have very specific nutritional requirements. Many of the foods we think are similar to wild foods cannot be digested by wildlife or do not have the proper nutrients. This means that the animals you are trying to help are not helped at all.
Feeding wildlife can also increase the spread of disease. When we feed wildlife, the animals sometimes gather in very large numbers. If one of them is sick, it is much more likely that the sick animal will spread disease to the rest of the group. It is kind of like the sick student in your classroom who passed his cold on to everyone else in the class.
Another important reason not to feed wildlife is safety. Animals that become used to people are no longer afraid of people. They can become aggressive. The people trying to feed wildlife can get chased, bitten, kicked, or worse. Wildlife is called “wild” for a reason. They are not like our pets but are instead wild creatures that are adapted to their way of life, not ours.
Lions and Coyotes and Bears, Oh My!
When you think of wildlife in town, you do not usually think of predators. But occasionally these larger animals make their way into our communities. It is rare to encounter them, but when seen, they usually attract a lot of attention.
These animals are attracted to communities because of food. In the case of bears, it is often because the berry plants they need in the fall do not produce berries. The bears go in search of food and can end up in our backyards.
Mountain lions sometimes follow deer herds as they move into lower elevation areas during the winter. On the rare occasions that they are around, these big cats are so secretive that they are rarely seen.
Coyotes are the predator most likely to be seen in town. These highly adaptable animals go where the food is, and cities offer a wide variety of options including mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, and sometimes, unfortunately, cats and small dogs. However, if food is not available, coyotes will move on to better habitat.
These animals tend to be nocturnal. If one of them does visit your community, the most you are likely to see of them are the tracks and scat they leave behind.
Enjoying Urban Wildlife
Having wildlife visit your backyard is exciting. It can provide you and your family with a connection to the natural world, even if your backyard is in town. Here are some ways to learn about and enjoy the urban wildlife in your community:
Set up a bird feeder and learn to identify the birds that use the feeders. Keep a list of the species you observe.
Check for animal tracks and scat in your yard, neighborhood, and favorite nearby park. Use a field guide to identify the tracks and to determine what the animal was doing.
Put up bird houses in your yard.
Plant a butterfly or hummingbird garden in your yard.
If your family has a garden, avoid using pesticides. This will encourage native beneficial insects.
Keep a pair of binoculars near a window to observe wildlife.
Plant native plants in your yard to provide food and shelter.
Build a small pond in your yard as a family project.
Put a toad house in your flowerbed.
Talk to your parents about supporting the preservation of green space in your community.
Talk to your teacher and principal about building an outdoor classroom or garden at your school.
Start a nature club at your school.
Take photographs of the animals you see. Use them to make a collage or wildlife journal.
Complete wildlife-related badges in scouts.
Practice good wildlife watching skills — keep quiet and still and always observe at a distance.
The discovery of raccoon tracks in the snow or the sight of a hawk soaring over your school can add some excitement to your day. It is nice to know that even in our urban communities, we can still enjoy a bit of wild Idaho. Enjoy your wild neighbors!