Urban Wilderness and Backyard Awareness

Excerpted from The Naturalist’s Companion: A Field Guide to Observing and Understanding Wildlife by Dave Hall (Mountaineers Books, 2022). Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.
—Edward Abbey

Years ago I worked at an after-school program in downtown Ithaca, New York. While outside on the playground one afternoon, I observed a pair of crows constructing a nest in one of the spruce trees at the edge of the schoolyard. Over the ensuing weeks I found great pleasure in watching the comings and goings of these urban corvids.

Eggs were laid and about eighteen days later they hatched. I vividly remember this day—there was clearly something different going on in the nest. Where once the patient mother sat, she now stood on the edge of the nest and looked in on her young hatchlings. There was much activity as the adults brought food home to their newborns. Eventually I began to see small black heads peering over the edge of the nest. One young bird was obviously the handful of the bunch. As this particular bird grew, I noticed she had trouble staying put; her parents often expressed concern as she explored the tree’s dense branches.

One day I arrived at work surprised to see the new crows had been banded by a team of researchers from Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. Owing to the new black wing tag adorned with white letters, the most mischievous of the fledglings now had a name: KT. She continued her antics, expanding her range from the nest into the spruce’s environs.

On my walk to school one afternoon, I heard a spate of urgent distress calls. About a block from the school I located the adult crows. KT had apparently glided across the street, landed in a hedge between two houses, and caught the attention of a neighborhood cat. Although I rarely intrude on and disrupt the natural order, I had grown especially fond of this family and decided to come to KT’s rescue. I chased off the cat and used a broom to persuade KT off the top of the hedge. She awkwardly landed in the middle of a driveway where I covered her with my flannel shirt.

While all this was happening I was being pursued and heckled by her parents; this mating pair and the previous year’s offspring swept dangerously close to my head. Once captured, an ungrateful KT hissed at me. I quickly walked her across the street and into the schoolyard to the base of the spruce. I unwrapped the young crow from my flannel, held her aloft in my hands, and tossed her up into the tree.

KT found her way to the nest and became a model child. Her once cavalier personality was now cautious. She listened to her parents and went on to live the life of an urban crow. But after the incident with the cat, my presence was no longer tolerated. Crows perched near the school and heckled me. I even tried removing my hat and using a different door when leaving the building, but nothing worked. Eventually the young crows became strong enough to leave the nest. I would see KT around the neighborhood from time to time with her black wing tag with white letters.

This story and others like it illustrate the notion that you don’t need to travel to grand, out-of-the-way places to commune with nature. Animals of all stripes—coyotes, falcons, raccoons, and such—appear to have found and capitalized on the innumerable resources available to them within the constructs of civilization. Just because your suburban or urban neighborhood is familiar doesn’t mean it isn’t replete with opportunities to view a wide variety of wildlife.

In my local county seat of Ithaca, New York, many unexpected wild animals either make their home in the shadows (and sometimes out of them) or pass through. I have spotted coyotes, foxes (both red and gray), and a myriad of migrating birds. In and around the waters of Stewart Park, which borders the city along the shores of Cayuga Lake, 270 bird species have been spotted! That works out to be about 33 percent of all birds species in the entire country. Our urban creeks see runs of salmon, trout, and eels. Most recently, young sturgeon, which are being reestablished, have started to spawn up Fall Creek; they swim past the high school, the backyards of urban homes, and up to the base of massive Ithaca Falls, all within the city limits.

It’s easy to pass through the world oblivious to your surroundings, be they wild or urban. Awareness, ultimately, is a choice.

Why Urban Wilderness and Why Now?

Urban wilderness is anything but urbane. Everything in these pages—the skills, approaches, and philosophies—is no less applicable to environments dominated by humanity than to wilderness. When I find myself in urban and suburban areas, I am just as vigilant about detecting wildlife as I am in wilder places. In truth, a greater density of wildlife often exists closer to humanity than in truly feral ecosystems. As the global population expands and we continue to encroach on natural areas, the collision of these two seemingly incompatible worlds is inevitable.

A number of reasons account for the proliferation of wildlife in metropolitan areas. For one, if an animal can avoid being hit by an automobile, a city can serve as a safe haven from many predators. (This trend seems to be shifting as coyotes, foxes, and birds of prey are now adapting to take advantage of these situations.)

In addition to unique opportunities to find food—in Dumpsters, garbage cans, and compost bins—urban centers offer animals safety from human hunting. Once species learn where these spaces are located, they may find life far less stressful than if they were to live in a heavily forested area. I know the deer in my rural locale are much more concerned with the comings and goings of humans than their suburban counterparts a mere fifteen miles away. There is something about the prospect of being shot that makes an animal hypervigilant.

Urban landscapes also offer an array of sheltering opportunities. Abandoned buildings and tunnels, sewer systems, and attics all offer places for sanctuary. When red-tailed hawks became comfortable nesting in Manhattan, one famous pair decided to build their home on a ledge near actress Mary Tyler Moore’s apartment on Fifth Avenue. From their vantage atop this stately building, this pair of raptors was able to hunt for quarry in nearby Central Park.

Backyard Awareness

A multitude of simple methods can be used to coax wildlife into the open by providing the elements they require for survival. This leads us to a discussion of what I’ve dubbed backyard awareness.

I find backyard awareness to be one of life’s great pleasures. Few things are as thrilling as glancing out my window from the comfort of my kitchen to catch a glimpse of a unique or interesting visitor. Installing bird feeders, bird baths, and bat houses and planting fruiting shrubs (as well as making other habitat improvements, including growing butterfly host plants) can make even the most seemingly inhospitable environment suddenly inviting. To me making our homes welcoming to butterflies and other wildlife is among the easiest ways to not only do something positive for our wild kin but also enrich our own lives.

In our yard, we have planted flowers that support our growing ruby-throated hummingbird population. The flowers along with two feeders make them a constant and entertaining presence. They have become comfortable to the point of sitting on our fingers as they take nectar from the feeder held in our hands. Garter snakes seem to be multiplying each year as well. Gardens, rock walls, and scrap piles of wood put out intentionally have made superb habitat for these beautiful reptiles.

On a visit to the Buffalo area, I met up with my old friend Don, who had recently purchased a house in an older neighborhood in Williamsville, New York. Don has been interested in connecting with nature for as long as I’ve known him. He had planted a variety of fruit trees and berry bushes and also set up a bird feeder. Despite living in an environment where humans are a dominant presence, Don shares his backyard with white-tailed deer, eastern cottontails, nesting robins, and foxes.

A mile or so away we fished the local creek. This wild corridor within the boundaries of the village of Williamsville held sign of beaver, mink, and raccoon. We also saw steelhead trout that had migrated from the Niagara River. As we fished we observed turkey vultures, mallards, and a belted kingfisher surveying the banks.

The Naturalist’s Companion fills an important void in outdoor education by teaching readers how to become more learned and patient observers and, ultimately, more proficient naturalists. Through exhaustive time in the field, author Dave Hall has developed a comprehensive understanding of nature awareness and refined his skills to enhance any time spent outdoors and to foster closer, more respectful encounters with wildlife. Available everywhere books are sold.

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