by Whit Gibbons

December 27, 2015

Finding wild animal tracks is always a bit exciting, especially to little kids. So when my grandson proudly pointed to several deer footprints in a mulched area by our house, I played into his enthusiasm.

We discussed that they probably had been left the night before when no one could see them and maybe we should look for them at night.

I explained that these were not the tracks of Rudolph and Santa's other deer that had come through recently, because they would be on our rooftop, not in the side yard. Just kidding. He already knew that.

However, while feigning fascination, I did turn a watchful eye toward our camellias, azaleas and forsythia, wondering which ones would be eaten first when they reached their peak in the spring.

I also considered how frequently I am asked about the abundance of wild animals that are showing up in residential neighborhoods in many areas.

Some are perceived as nuisances, including armadillos that burrow, coyotes that might eat a pet cat and deer that munch on shrubbery and garden vegetables. All are encountered more commonly than in the past.

The reasons for wildlife's newfound interest in suburban neighborhoods are several. In many areas the enforcement of leash laws has eliminated dogs as control agents.

No deer frequented our yard when our wide-roaming German shepherd was still alive because he would have taken issue with such an intrusion. But other reasons can also be given.

The fortunate reduction in widespread use of certain pesticides and herbicides that kill a wide variety of harmless insects and other invertebrates is almost certainly a factor.

We still have too many pesticides lurking about, but things are better than they were.

Another factor is the vegetational maturity of many neighborhoods.

Older, more established residential areas in a community typically have larger shrubs and trees than when they were first developed, leading to more wildlife habitat.

An interesting comparison these days would be the number of wildlife sightings in housing areas established during the last decade with older neighborhoods that have had time to become revegetated.

Also, our overall environmental outlook has changed: more people have a positive attitude toward protecting wildlife.

As a result, people in a community are more likely to support efforts to retain undeveloped habitats, especially wetlands and natural woods, where native species can flourish.

Concomitant with that is a greater familiarity with and interest in learning about wildlife, so that wild animals are more likely to be noticed.

Another possible cause for wildlife in residential areas is that certain species may have actually "learned" how to coexist with humans and have adapted to new opportunities for feeding (garbage cans), hiding (beneath porches and houses) and nesting (eaves, chimneys) that are absent in wild habitats.

Many snakes, turtles and mammals might actually have learned to avoid crossing highways or residential roads, which is often a costly behavior.

Do road-crossing tendencies have a genetic component? Maybe animals that avoid roads are more likely to survive and produce offspring that inherit road-avoidance behavior?

A final reason for why certain larger animals seem more abundant than they once were is they have been able to expand their original geographic ranges or to reinhabit areas where they had been exterminated earlier.

Range expansion might occur because former predators have been eliminated (such as mountain lions that eat deer) or new food sources have become available (such as agricultural crops or horticultural plants).

Whatever the reasons may be, natural adaptations by certain species have permitted them to adjust successfully to human inhabitation of a large portion of the country.

Personally, I'm willing to sacrifice a few yard plants to have deer or rabbits visiting occasionally.

And though I do not particularly like the idea of what damage deer hooves might inflict on our roof, I'm certainly not going to do anything to keep Santa away.

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