9 Simple Ways to Bring More Wildlife to Big Cities

Cities are far healthier and more interesting when neighbors aren't only the two-legged kind.

A snowy owl perches outside the headquarters of 'The Washington Post' in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24. (Photo: Nathaniel Gran/'The Washington Post' via Getty Images)

Feb 3, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The spectacle of wildlife on city streets has been making the news lately, in ways both delightful and disturbing. It’s not just the snowy owls that have mysteriously decamped from the Arctic this winter to turn up in places like downtown Washington, D.C. It’s also the cosmopolitan coyotes living full-time in the Chicago Loop, and the mountain lion in Griffith Park, hemmed in by highways in the heart of Los Angeles. It’s the wild turkeys that some people now regard as “a scourge” in parts of New York City (though others remember when the species was almost eradicated from North America). It’s porpoises that recently swam up the Thames into the center of London, and the estimated 3,000 wild boars wandering around the streets of Berlin.

What’s going on here? It’s possible that urban wildlife enthusiasts, aided by camera traps and other new technologies, are simply revealing some of the wildlife that has always lived, unsuspected, all around us. But wildlife is probably also responding to larger changes in the landscape. One theory on snowy owls suggests that a surplus of lemmings in the Arctic has produced a bumper crop of owls, now spreading out into new habitat. The opposite theory says species are coming into the cities because they can no longer find the food and habitat they need in wilder terrain. That is, wildlife is being caught between landscapes that are, on one side, increasingly plowed under for intensive industrial agriculture and, on the other side, ever more sprawling and urbanized.

In the United States, just in the 1990s, expanding urbanization ate up an area equivalent to Vermont and New Hampshire combined. By mid-century, cities and suburbs in the lower 48 states will occupy three times as much land as in 1990. Worldwide, 61 percent of people will live in urban areas by 2030, up from 29 percent in 1950, according to a United Nations report.

These changes mean cities and suburbs need to plan for wildlife, partly to minimize conflict, but mainly to welcome and promote newcomers to the neighborhood. “We must abandon our segregationist attitude toward nature—humans here, nature somewhere else,” says University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy.

Tallamy is part of a growing urban wildlife movement—with an agenda that ranges from promoting pretty songbirds in our backyards to providing essential ecosystem services to meet our own need for clean water, clean air, and food on our tables. Tallamy and other researchers suggest nine useful steps cities and home owners can take to become more wildlife friendly:

1. Bumblebees, honeybees, and other essential pollinators are in decline worldwide, and cities can help reverse that worrisome trend. In the United Kingdom, 60 cities have recently planted wildlife meadows, inspired by the extensive meadows planted at the 2012 London Olympics. Your own yard, or your kids’ school grounds, can also provide suitable habitat to encourage pollinators and other beneficial insects like monarch butterflies. Here’s a website with tips for getting started.

2. Lobby your town and state highway departments to reduce mowing and spraying of highway margins. Nationwide, that land could provide millions of acres of habitat for small animals—and save taxpayer dollars now wasted on unnecessary mowing.

3. Plant more trees, but choose the right species to make them wildlife-friendly. Home owners tend to go for ornamental exotics like Bradford pears, and city parks departments likewise treat gingkoes and Kousa dogwoods as street-smart standbys. But oaks, for instance, are a much better choice, says Tallamy, because they provide habitat for 557 species of caterpillar. Why would anybody want caterpillars? Because that’s what birds eat: A single pair of Carolina chickadees needs to bring between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to the nest to rear a clutch of a half dozen nestlings. Plant the right trees, and you’ll probably never know the caterpillars are there, because they are masters of camouflage. But the birds will find them.

4. A perfect lawn is a poor measure of a life well lived. Minimize lawns, and mow less often—every two or three weeks, say—to encourage native pollinators. Lay off the chemicals and fertilizers, which just end up in your drinking water, or a fish’s. Parks departments can also attract more birds, butterflies, and other wildlife by breaking up endless lawns with the right mix of shrubs, to add structure and variety. Visit local companies and talk about more wildlife-friendly alternatives to the sprawling lawns around many office buildings. (The alternatives often turn out to be more employee- and budget-friendly too.)

5. Meet with local building owners to discuss ways to reduce bird collisions. A new study says building collisions kill up to 988 million birds in the United States every year—second only to the deaths caused by house cats. It’s not just high-rises either: More than half those deaths involve low-rise buildings, and just under half are residences. Here’s a link for advice from the American Bird Conservancy.

6. Join up your yard with those of like-minded neighbors to create pockets of wildlife-friendly habitat. The big idea of creating wildlife corridors can work on a small scale too.

7. Don’t feed the animals. Bird feeders are a reasonable exception. They seem to be harmless in most cases, though they don’t appear to increase the overall abundance of birds. But feeding deer, foxes, raccoons, and other wildlife can create a risk to public safety—and to the animals themselves. In particular, don’t feed stray cats and dogs. They not only kill wildlife but can also spread rabies and other diseases in wildlife and humans alike.

8. Keep your cats indoors. That single step would save the lives of billions of birds and small mammals every year. If you’re worried that a housebound cat will become frustrated or bored, the Humane Society suggests ways to keep kitty interested at home without putting wildlife in peril.

9. Spread the word. Most everybody perks up at the news of a fox crossing the road or a snowy owl turning up in a local marsh. Your excitement—at the water cooler or via social media—can be contagious.

The idea is to bring people around to the idea that any city is healthier and more interesting when the neighbors aren’t only of the two-legged variety.

The landscape is changing dramatically all around us. If we hope to keep a place for wildlife in this world, it’s going to take more than just building tolerance or accommodation. We also need to recover a sense of delight at having wildlife live among us.