WHY ARE SO MANY ANIMALS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD? (part 1)

by Whit Gibbons

August 16, 2009


We watched three broad-winged hawks circle above our suburban neighborhood in South Carolina this summer. In recent months I have seen a wide variety of wildlife not typically associated with residential areas. I have also heard other people speak of the diversity of wild animals in neighborhoods that were once almost the exclusive domain of mostly dogs, cats, and gray squirrels.

Broad-winged hawks breed as far north as Canada and then begin migrating south, some as far as South America, in late summer and fall. They are notable because they make a high-pitched whistling sound that is distinctive from all other birds in the area. In fact, we noticed that when two of the hawks whistled (presumably to each other) from the tops of tall oak trees 100 feet apart, the songbirds that are usually so apparent were nowhere to be seen. Even birdseed in the feeders could not lure these potential hawk morsels out of their hiding places when the hawks were present. Having such spectacular predators around elevates the drama of nature's backyard wildlife show.

Another recent observation in a city park by an early morning walker was a gray fox that crossed the road where there was no traffic at the moment, picked up speed, and grabbed a gray squirrel feeding on the ground. The park is surrounded by residential areas, and a small protected wetland area is nearby. The fox was clearly a healthy animal at home in its surroundings, even to the point of safely negotiating a road crossing. Other large wildlife species that people often hear or see now in suburban areas are large owls, barred and great horneds being the most common. Raccoons, opossums, and even coyotes are frequent visitors in many neighborhoods. Deer, of course, have become enough of a problem in some areas to keep local plant nurseries in business replacing residential flora. Harmless rat snakes, which frequently reach lengths approaching six feet, are a species that I hear reports of from many residential areas throughout their range in the eastern United States.

Even invertebrates--butterflies, dragonflies, and other flying creatures--seem to be more common in neighborhoods than they were in the past. And the animals people find in their swimming pool skimmers--small snakes, frogs, and bizarre beetles-- are enough to start a fascinating menagerie.

What's going on with this apparently newfound diversity? Do we really have more wildlife than only two or three decades ago? Several reasons come to mind for why woodland creatures are seemingly more prevalent in residential America than ever before. One reason, which I have mentioned before, is the prevalence of leash laws in suburban areas. No roaming dogs threaten foxes, coons, possums, and coyotes in their daytime hiding places, which are now safe havens for adults and young alike.

Another obvious explanation for an increase in numerous animal species is the reduction in chemical pollution that has been forced on the pesticide and herbicide industries. While we may be better off as a society with certain agricultural pest controls, indiscriminating killing agents that have widespread effects on insects and other invertebrates (DDT being the world class poster child) have no place in today's world. Regulating these insidious chemicals is in the best interest of all of us. Small invertebrates are the base of the food chain for many of the larger animals that eat them. When the base is destroyed, the effect moves upward.

This wealth of wildlife diversity that is seemingly more apparent now than in the mid-20th century is a positive sign in many ways. Wildlife reconnects us with the natural world. And when people enjoy something--such as having a wide variety of wildlife species in their neighborhoods--they want to maintain the status quo. You may not like having your cat chased by a coyote or the bluebirds that have finally taken up residence in that bluebird box eaten by a rat snake, but the positive impacts of a neighborhood with wildlife far exceed the negative consequences of any special incidents. (Next week: more reasons why we see more wildlife and how to increase your chances of doing so.)


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