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Wildlife takes to the streets

May 29, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

As daily human activities have contracted and moved strictly indoors during this pandemic, wildlife has been expanding into our deserted streets. Around the world, in small towns and big cities, the shy and the bold creatures are enjoying the absence of humans and their life-threatening, fast-moving machines on four or more wheels. Many of the usual nocturnal or dawn and dusk sightings of urban and suburban creatures like foxes, coyotes and white-tailed deer are not unusual, though many animal sightings now go beyond the norm in terms of daytime visits, frequency, species and size of herds.  

In several North American cities, including Montreal, wild turkeys are gobbling along streets, sidewalks and golf courses. Los Angeles has had unusual black bear sightings and San Francisco coyotes. In Europe, wild boars have descended from the hills into Barcelona, Spain, and some Italian towns. In the Welsh town of Llandudno, a small herd of mountain goats has taken over the town since March and been feasting on residential hedge rows and other shrubs. Several Mediterranean ports have attracted dolphins again, as waterways are a little cleaner and safer without the usual boat traffic. Deer have been seen wandering around more openly and in larger groups in England and Japan. And in Santiago, Chile, wildlife officials have had to catch several pumas that were roaming in the city and release them away from human population. 

Increased wildlife sightings have been registered everywhere, says James Page of the Canadian Wildlife Federation. In early April, there were 15,000 new sightings reported on Inaturalist.ca, an online database where citizens can enter their plant and animal observations. This is a 58% increase over the same period last year. According to wildlife experts, we should not consider this an actual “re-wilding” of cities though, as humans have disappeared only temporarily. There are two important factors at play with the increased sightings – with people home all the time, we are bored and looking longingly out of our windows a lot more than usual and spotting the animals. Secondly, with little to no car or human traffic on the roads, wildlife has less disturbance and can feel safer venturing out at any time of the day. That will change again, as soon as business and traffic start returning to some normalcy. 

Personally, I am always excited about spotting wildlife, whether in their natural setting in a field or forest or in my neighbourhood. Though there is a good and, in some places, a bad side to human absence. A good thing is that in the short-term, having less disturbance during spring breeding season may result in larger litters of some species, in addition to fewer fatal collisions with vehicles for a couple more months. As with any major increase or decrease in certain animal species, this can have a trickle-down effect on the success of other species. Roughly speaking, for example, a sharp increase in the number of small mammals (like squirrels, rabbits, foxes etc.) means there is more food available for their predators, like coyotes, wolves and large birds of prey. This can result in larger survival rates and more breeding success of these predator species, which could in turn bring other issues with it, such as more predation of deer, sheep and potentially small domestic animals.  

Usually, it is the absence of wild food sources or too much human encroaching on their habitat that drives animals like coyotes, mountain lions or bears into our urban areas to scavenge for alternative food sources, not simply an absence of humans and cars. A downside of the current absence of humans is the shutdown of tourists as food providers. Most notably in Thailand, monkeys have got so used to receiving handouts from humans that they have become completely dependent on them. Some scary looking videos have emerged from the Thai city of Lopburi, northeast of Bangkok, where thousands of tourists usually visit ancient temples and it became the norm to feed the Macaque monkeys. Now, in the absence of humans feeding them, large gangs of up to 1,000, hungry and aggressive Macaques are roaming the streets looking for food and fighting over small scraps.

This highlights the detrimental effect of humans feeding wild animals and making them dependent on their handouts. There is a good reason for signs at tourist sites or wildlife areas, including ponds and waterfronts, advising people not to feed the wildlife! Some municipalities have by-laws prohibiting feeding wildlife because of the negative consequences to wildlife and humans, which often causes more harm than good. The Government of Ontario has posted the following common problems on their website.

– Threats to wildlife: Animals can become dependent on artificial food sources; can lose their natural fear of humans and pets, becoming more prone to conflict; artificial feed is not healthy for wildlife; wild animals may gather in large numbers when they are being fed and this concentration of animals in one area can spread parasites and disease and cause destruction of natural habitat;

– Threats to people: Feeding wildlife may attract “unwanted” animals to your property; they will learn to associate humans with food and can become a problem or real danger to you or your neighbours; habituated animals can become aggressive; and feeding animals near roads increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents, resulting in property damage, injury or death.

There is another problem that us two-legged creatures may cause soon, when Canadian parks start re-opening. Because we are all stir-crazy from being locked indoors for so long and craving the outdoors, how will that affect parks and wildlife when we show up in droves? The crowds will possibly include many people who normally don’t even bother much with parks and trails. Will large numbers of visitors damage parks and disturb wildlife so much that we might see a restriction in visitor numbers for those reasons? 

I hope not; somebody please let me out!!



         

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