Cities: They’re Full of Real Animals

Cities offer home and habitat to a surprising variety of animals

  • NWF Staff
  • Mar 15, 2010
Oh That City Wildlife
Cities and suburbs may seem like the wrong places for wildlife, but in fact many of the same creatures that live in rugged wilderness also thrive in the urban environment. For example:

• New York’s Central Park is one of the country’s best birding sites, with 285 species spotted there to date. 
• Black bears hibernate in the crawl spaces of suburban New Jersey homes and explore Wisconsin shopping malls. 
• Coyotes roam backyards in the heart of Tucson, Arizona, and even hunt within a few miles of the White House. 
• Hundreds of species, from Canada geese to cottontail rabbits, are now reaching population levels never seen before, thanks to their ability to adapt to urban landscapes.

 A Lucky Generation

“This is probably the first time in our history that so many people have had a chance to experience so many animals so directly.” John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ urban wildlife program.

Creature Comforts in the City 
City wildlife benefits from both abundant food and surprisingly good habitat. For a peregrine falcon, a perch atop a skyscraper or tall bridge is just as good as its usual high-cliff hangout for spotting and diving down on prey. White-tailed deer, once nearly wipe out in the Northeast, now number in the millions, their population boom fueled in part by suburban tulips and vegetable gardens and the absence of predators.

Although many animals have benefited from city life, local humans may be getting the better part of the bargain—an opportunity to experience wild animals without having to travel far and wide.

A Spiritual Context for Nature

“All of our senses and capabilities, even our spiritual capacities, are based on ongoing contact with the natural world. Contact with nature is essential to our health and physical well-being.” Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale University.

 The Flip Side: Urban Dangers to Wildlife

Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park has looked at the breeding success of birds in both rural and urban habitats. He found that city birds actually do better getting through the nesting season than rural birds do, because the urbanites have fewer animals such as snakes and raccoons trying to kill them for food. But once the urban young leave the nest, they face a harsher world than rural birds do. “They are more likely to get nailed by cats,” says Charles Nilon, an urban wildlife ecologist at the University of Missouri–Columbia. 

Another hazard can be human hostility. Deer especially are now viewed as pests in many parts of the country. It’s one thing to catch a rare glimpse of a buck in the woods; it’s another to lose valuable landscaping plants or to risk having the animals crash through your windshield, which is why it’s becoming less controversial to reduce some deer populations by killing.

Who’s Helping Wildlife?

National polls show that 40 percent of U.S. households do something to attract wildlife to their homes, from installing bird feeders or ponds to planting the creatures’ favorite shrubs and flowers.

Do We Have to Kill City Wildlife to Get Along?

No!  Some cities have had success using less deadly methods than shooting off deer populations. In Michigan, for example, state biologists learned that if they took eggs and nests away from locally breeding Canada geese, “Eight of 10 birds that normally would have reared young in the Detroit metro area left and migrated north,” says John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ urban wildlife program. “They sat on the Canadian tundra for six weeks and did what geese used to do, which is to migrate and not be in city parks.”

Stories like this raise hope that humans and wild creatures will increasingly find ways to get along, a benefit for both.

How You Can Help City Wildlife

Here are some ways that you can deal with urban wildlife when it gets just a little too close for comfort:
• Raccoons: Cover trash cans securely; cap chimneys and repair loose shingles and vents to keep the animals out of the house; leave a radio on in an attic to chase away raccoons that already have set up housekeeping.
• Deer: Surround your garden with plastic deer fencing at least 6 feet high; spray a nontoxic deer repellent on the most vulnerable plants.
• Geese: It’s a crime to disturb nests without a federal permit, so contact your local animal control agency or a group like Geese Peace for help.
• Crows: Store your trash in securely closed plastic bags; do not leave pet food outside.

Adapted from "Wildlife in the Concrete Jungle" by John Carey, NATIONAL WILDLIFE, June/July 2006.

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