As humans, our habitat looks like houses and apartments, made of wood, brick and concrete, neatly arranged into streets, neighbourhoods, town and cities. For wildlife, habitat can look like nests and dens, made of sticks, stones and dirt, found in forests, fields, streams and wetlands. What humans and animals call habitat look quite different from each other but we live not far from one another—a bird nest in the tree outside your bedroom window, a den of foxes under your deck, a family of rabbits nibbling on the plants in your garden, a deer wandering through the shrubbery on the side of the road.
Many consider urban wildlife to be a nuisance but it is important to remember that these communities were often here before ours and have as much right to be here as we do. Having built our communities in what used to be natural areas, we need to know how to share our habitat with the wildlife that was here before us.
How is it that we have ended up sharing our sidewalks and backyards with wildlife that should be living in, well, the wild? When we build new neighbourhoods, homes, shopping centres and offices buildings, the development process causes destruction, alteration and fragmentation of wildlife habitat. And with this development, comes the need for roads, highways and other transportation corridors, which creates barriers for wildlife movement and force them to face hazards that they otherwise would not. Of course, many animals will leave an area as it is being developed but some species will adapt and integrate into the human landscape, which puts them in direct conflict with the humans who altered their habitat in the first place. And with this kind of cohabitation, comes conflict.
If you live in an urban or suburban area, most of your interactions with urban wildlife have probably been positive, if you even noticed them at all, but they can be harmful and dangerous for both humans and animals. Of course, coyotes and bears can appear threatening but even chipmunks, squirrels and deer can cause conflict. Urban wildlife interactions can result in bites, scratches and disease. Conflict with urban wildlife can also cause vehicle accidents, such as hitting a car that stopped for a squirrel, or property damage, like a beaver that wants to bring down your maple tree.
As our communities continue to grow, and as climate change continues to degrade natural habitat, it will become even more necessary for us to be able to live together in harmony. The easiest way to prevent conflict with urban wildlife is to live and let live. For instance, instead of having animals removed from your property, the City of Burlington recommends wrapping trees in a wire fabric to protect against beavers, enclosing areas underneath patios, decks and sheds to deter foxes and using flashing lights and shiny or bright materials to keep geese away. If you want to prevent urban wildlife from taking up residence on your property, you should pick ripe fruit from trees and bushes, clean up rotten fruit on the ground, use metal compost and garbage bins with tight lids and put compost and garbage out only on the morning of pick-up day instead of the night before. You can find more tips for living with urban wildlife here.
“Most importantly, do not feed urban wildlife!” says Brenda Van Ryswyk, Natural Heritage Ecologist at Conservation Halton. “Research has shown that most conflict with wildlife in urban areas occurs when someone in the neighbourhood has been feeding them, which alters their behaviour and makes them more likely to approach humans for food.”
With all of this being said, our relationship with urban wildlife doesn’t need to be “us against them.” As important as it is to protect ourselves from conflict with urban wildlife, it is just as important for us to protect urban wildlife from humans. Sharing our habitat creates opportunities for us to appreciate nature, encourages us to care for the environment and reminds us of the importance of conservation—especially for those that don’t have access to many other forms of nature.
“Some species of urban wildlife are needed to help control the populations of other species.” Van Ryswyk says. “Coyote, for instance, eat small mammals, such as rats, rabbits and mice, which prevents overpopulation of these species and reduces our chances of coming in conflict with them.”
Backyards can never take the place of large natural areas but they can support wildlife in urban areas. If you want to turn your property into a home for urban wildlife, there are four things you need: food, water, shelter and space. Of course, each species has their own preferences but, with a bit of planning, you can create a backyard habitat that will appeal to many species and encourage biodiversity on your property. The plants that you choose should be a combination of trees, shrubs, vines and flowers and should vary in height, density and colour. Wildlife tends to congregate where two or more different habitat areas meet, which is called edge effect, so you should alternate planted areas, open areas and water features. You can even plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house to provide shade in summer and sunlight in winter. Of course, if you want to attract native wildlife species—which you should!—you will want to plant native, non-invasive species. Native plant species are also better adapted to the pests, diseases, climate and other conditions of your area. Pollinator gardens, rock piles and even dead trees will help make your backyard feel even more like home for urban wildlife. Resist the urge to tidy up the natural area on your property—there are no straight lines or right angles in nature!
But the best way for us to live with wildlife is to preserve their natural habitat through conservation, so that they aren’t displaced in the first place. With so much natural area being destroyed, degraded and fragmented, the natural areas that are left are often too small to sustain wildlife and the corridors that they need to migrate, hibernate, pollinate and breed, are often broken or blocked. It is important that we protect the corridors already being used by wildlife and create new corridors for safe passage through our communities. It is possible for these fragmented habitats to be woven back together and for us to create communities that are more friendly for wildlife.
Whether you want to attract birds and butterflies to your backyard or you would prefer to discourage animals from visiting, urban wildlife has become an important part of ecosystems. Yes, even those raccoons.
Last modified: June 28, 2018