Urban animals didn’t sneak into our space. We built on theirs

Ecology | Gregory Beatty | July 29, 2021

While Saskatchewan has tons of uninhabited land, it’s far from a wilderness paradise. The province’s southern half, in fact, is one of the most altered landscapes on Earth with only a fraction of native prairie grasslands and wetlands left.

As for land that is inhabited, there’s not much tolerance for nature and wildlife there, either, says nature lover and award-winning Saskatoon writer Candace Savage.

Savage’s iconic 2004 work Prairie: A Natural History of the Heart of North America was revised and re-released last year. But right now we’re not talking about south Sask’s semi-wild scenery. Instead, we’re focussing on nature that’s a little closer to home.

“In Saskatchewan, I think it’s been the founding attitude of the society,” says Savage, who also does advocacy work with Wild About Saskatoon. “We’re just going to remove whatever is here and replace it with something we think would be better. With cities, the notion has been that they are human habitat, and nothing else really has a place.”

At the provincial level, organizations such as the Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan Partnership and Nature Saskatchewan work to preserve and restore grasslands and wetlands. Cities, spurred by organizations such as Wild About Saskatoon and Nature Regina, are taking tentative steps in that direction too.

“We know that a city without insects, birds and other animals is unliveable,” says Savage. “The pandemic has certainly brought that message home as so many of us have found pleasure and joy in being able to walk through parks and see birds and other wildlife. Psychologically, we need to have life around us.”

A Fundamental Re-Think

The great thing about urban wildlife promotion is that even if things stall at the government level [see sidebar], individuals (as property owners) can step forward on their own. Even small gestures, such as leaving leaf litter and plant stems in your yard and garden to give bees and other insects winter shelter and egg-laying sites can help.

From there, well, the sky’s pretty much the limit.

Step one in the journey, says Shirley Bartz, a biologist affiliated with Nature Regina, is a fundamental re-think of how we regard wildlife in our cities.

“When a wild animal is in an urban setting, it’s usually because it’s been displaced from natural habitat that’s been altered or outright destroyed by either agricultural or urban development,” says Bartz. “When they come into the city, it’s because they’re trying to find habitat where they can get their basic needs which are food, water and shelter — and then mates after that.

“Most of the time wild animals avoid people,” Bartz adds. “They do it because humans tend to produce disturbances that impact negatively on them. They also avoid humans because they’ve experienced the death of family members, or young, or just near misses in association with humans and they’re terrified of us.”

To limit the likelihood of human encounters in urban settings, some animals that typically feed and forage in daytime have even been known to shift to more nocturnal activity.

But don’t be fooled, the animals are definitely there.

“Wild About Saskatoon is a founding partner in the Urban Wildlife Information Network,” says Savage. “We have a series of camera traps in the city, and we’re discovering there’s a wealth of wildlife, including a surprising number of large mammals.

“Of course, we have the advantage of the river corridor that runs through Saskatoon,” Savage says. “The river valley is just so alive, so there is a lot of life that can adapt to urban environments. Given the changes that have occurred in the rural landscape, cities can even be refuges for wildlife.”

Step two for anyone wanting to support wildlife in our cities is to consult with organizations such as Nature Regina (natureregina.ca) and Wild About Saskatoon (wildaboutsaskatoon.org). They have all sorts of programs and resources to help make your property wildlife friendly.

Research is important because wild animals are precisely that — WILD! If the stuff we do to support them doesn’t meet their needs, they won’t benefit. Even worse, they could be harmed. A classic example there is people feeding bread to Canada geese, which can cause a serious wing deformity. Not to mention extra poop from what are already pooping machines.

Rebuilding Habitat

The gold standard for property owners is creating a native plant garden to support pollinators and other insects. They, in turn, form the base of a food chain that includes birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and small carnivores. Fruits, vegetables and perennials in the neighbourhood should benefit as well.

Bird feeders and birdhouses also get a high grade. But again, care needs to be taken not to harm the birds, says Bartz. “If people put out a feeder in the winter and birds flock to it, then they leave for a month on a holiday, the birds who were attracted and being supported by the feeder would be left high and dry.”

Once summer hits, birds have expanded food options. But feeders can still help when they’re raising young. In all seasons, it’s important to do regular light maintenance.

“Feeders often have spill, and there are birds that specifically feed on the ground,” says Bartz. “But if you have 20 birds feeding in the tree, and they’re pooping onto the ground, the birds feeding there can ingest those feces and that can cause salmonella outbreaks.”

With birdhouses, the culprit is mites — which can infest nests and limit reproductive success. After breeding season the houses should be cleaned to prepare for potential winter tenants, and then again in the spring before the migratory breeders arrive.

House cats are another obvious concern. In Canada, cats kill an estimated 150 to 250 million birds a year (with feral cats killing many millions more). Bartz has an outdoor enclosure to contain hers and has also strung embroidery thread on her outside windows to limit bird strikes.

One final tip: while one of the big pluses of having wildlife around, as Savage noted, is observing them, you need to be discrete.

“Even just people viewing a nest in the countryside can draw coyotes, foxes and racoons,” says Bartz. “In the city, it can draw the attention of a crow or magpie, and they can be nest predators. So can squirrels. They’re extremely intelligent, and if you’re feeding birds they’re already aware of that activity.”

Raptors may be drawn to your yard too, so be prepared for that possibility. Because, again, as much as we might wish to anthropomorphize the animals we’re observing and interacting with, they are WILD.

Step three in the urban wildlife journey is learning to manage conflict. Doing things like securing your garbage containers and exterior of your house to deter unwanted intruders can help, along with keeping dogs on the leash in parks and fencing off your garden to protect against rabbits and other veggie nibblers.

On occasion, it may even require a bit of sacrifice on our part. Considering how much displacement animals have already suffered at our hands, it seems a small price to pay.

Too often, though, we put our own welfare ahead of theirs, says Bartz.

“We want to support wildlife, but in most cases the things we do to support our own comfort, such as killing mosquitoes, has a huge effect on non-target wildlife such as dragonflies, moths, butterflies and bees.

“We’re not trying to intentionally kill them, but they are casualties of our urbanization,” she adds. “We need to learn to live side by side with these animals, and there are ways to do that.”


Less Talk, More Action

In 2018, Saskatoon joined the Urban Wildlife Information Network. Started by Lincoln Zoo in Chicago in 2010, UWIN has grown to include 35 cities in North America. Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Boston and San Francisco are some of the U.S. partners, while Saskatoon and Edmonton are the lone Canadian affiliates — although Regina has expressed interest.

Wild About Saskatoon’s Candace Savage appreciates the commitment Saskatoon made to join UWIN. But so far, she says, progress has been slow.

“Saskatoon has made all the right statements about growing in harmony with nature,” Savage says. “But when it comes right down to it, decisions are made for human convenience and profit. Half-steps toward conservation end up getting made. But in the final analysis, they are useless.”

The pressure points between municipal (and sometimes provincial) governments and urban wildlife are many and varied — starting with daily operations. In a typical workday, city crews do all sorts of city crew stuff all over the city.

With scheduled maintenance in particular, cities should respect the needs of wildlife where possible, says biologist Shirley Bartz from Nature Regina.

“In late June, Regina was clearing the cattails and bulrushes growing in a ditch on the west side of the Lewvan,” says Bartz. “Redwing blackbirds and ducks with nests were displaced by that. And it was heartbreaking to see those birds just milling around in the bare water that was left behind, or just sitting on top of the pile of cattails that had been dumped.

“Here, the worker said the city had determined the nests were flooded by the spring rains we did have,” says Bartz. “But the practice of clearing the ditches can be timed and doesn’t need to occur during the nesting period. If the city had waited until late July the majority of nesting activity would’ve been finished.”

The biggest pressure point in government wildlife relations, of course, is development. And there, Saskatoon’s performance since joining UWIN has been disappointing, says Savage.

“There was a very large sharp-tailed grouse lek with 38 birds dancing,” says Savage. “It was inside city limits, and was one of the largest in Saskatchewan. Last year, there were only five. That followed the city’s decision to build a system of roads which cut through the area.”

Traffic on the roads disturbed the birds and brought coyotes into the area, which increased the risk of predation. And Savage intends to consult with sharp-tailed grouse experts and challenge the city to restore the habitat.

Another threat is looming, too. It involves a provincial plan for a highway that would run through northeast Saskatoon, with the city planning a new subdivision. But the area is prime wildlife habitat, says Savage.

“In [northeast] Saskatoon, we have these ancient river courses that go by the uninspiring name of swales,” she says. “They are somewhat damaged, but they’re in a pretty close to natural state and the amount of life that persists in those places is mind-boggling. There are more than 100 bird species and 200 plant species, along with badgers, weasels and coyotes.

“Cities have this impulse to develop as much land as possible to expand the tax base, and developers do it because of the possibility of profit,” Savage adds. “But we really need to resist those urges and have strong policies and processes to make sure those areas continue to function. They can’t be narrowly defined and cut off from all the connections that keep them alive.”

To borrow an analogy from sport — or, at least, a popular game — an ecosystem is like a Jenga tower. If you take away too many pieces, it collapses.

And as humanity is learning with climate change, anything that hurts the viability of our ecosystem hurts us.

“In a city, having healthy, natural areas isn’t a frill,” says Savage. “We don’t want to live in a concrete jungle. That isn’t a suitable habitat for human beings. Then on top of that, we are in this terrifying biodiversity crash so we have to be doing the best we can to support life wherever we are. And cities have a role to play in that.” /Gregory Beatty