How you can help urban wildlife – podcast

David Drake, Extension Wildlife Specialist
Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Total Time: 15:34

0:12 – What is urban wildlife?
1:55 – Common examples
5:23 – Department’s role in helping urban wildlife
6:24 – Urban Adapters in-depth
8:35 – What can we do?
11:05 – Infrastructure?
13:19 – Available educational resources
14:44 – Final info
15:20 – Lead out



Adam Wigger: “Urban Wildlife This Season”. We’re talking today with David Drake, Extension Wildlife Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Forest and Wildlife in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger. David, for those of us who are not familiar with the phrase, what is urban wildlife?

David Drake: Urban wildlife is a broad term to describe those species of animals that are living in a human dominated landscape, so kind of sharing that same landscape that humans share. And urban depends on how you want to define it. We typically think about urban from a standpoint of human density and the way the US Census Bureau  defines urban. The US Census Bureau essentially divides the country into two classifications: rural or urban, and that’s it. So urban, density based definition, and it typically is clusters of twenty five hundred or more people in a certain area, or fifty thousand or more people in a defined area. So when we think about urban, we typically think about cities – Chicago, New York City, LA, Houston, Minneapolis, wherever. Then we get into suburban, and suburban is also in that urban framework, so it’s an area where that land has been modified to suit our human needs. And you have increased density of human beings, just not as many humans as in that urban core. There is not necessarily a population based definition for suburban. So what I kind of talk about from an urban/suburban standpoint is I typically say urban just to encompass both urban and suburban, but generally, with urban you do have that population definition, that density based definition, with suburban you don’t. So when I talk about suburban, it’s typically,  you think about what it looks like. Its harder to define but you definitely know it when you see it. So when we think about urban and suburban, the variety of wildlife that are sharing that same landscape as humans are.

Adam Wigger: What are some common examples that we might see in this urban setting?

David Drake: Yeah so typically there are a bunch of different ways that we can classify or categorize wildlife. So we can think of them as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, we can think of them as game species, those species who are either hunted or trapped, and non-game species, those species that are not harvested, we can think about endangered species, non-endangered species, whatever the case may be. When we think about urban wildlife and describe urban wildlife, we think about them in generally three categories: urban avoiders, urban adapters, and urban exploiters. So, urban avoiders are typically those animals that there are either not sufficient quantity or quality of habitat to support them, and/or species that are not necessarily welcome into that urban landscape. So animals like grassland birds, typically you don’t see a lot of them in urbanized areas because there is just not sufficient amounts of grassland or prairies to support those birds. Other animals that are urban avoiders would be species that aren’t necessarily welcome into that urban landscape, and that tends to be larger predators, like black bears, or mountain lions, or other things that we don’t tend to like, like rattlesnakes, for example, so those would be urban avoiders. Urban [sic. adapters] are all those species that people tend to curse, because they did such a good job of adapting to that modified  landscape. So that would be white tailed deer, canada geese, raccoons, skunks, crows, vultures, things like that. So then we get into urban exploiters, and those are typically animals that are not native, they may not be native, to the United States, so European starlings, english/house sparrows, norway rats, house mice, things like that. But there are also some species that are kind of commensal, so they are somewhat reliant on human beings, and where you don’t have human settlements, you don’t find those species typically. But those are animals that really exploit that urban type area and do really quite well there. So that’s the spectrum of animals that we think about – but there are some species that if we give a little help, and that’s kind of what I try to focus on in a lot of what I do with my research and with my Extension programs, is if we build some habitat for them, then we may be able to provide enough habitat that we can support species that would typically be not in that urbanized area, if that habitat wasn’t available. So, some species like that might be some of the reptile or amphibian species, so some of the frog species, or some of the salamander species we have here in Wisconsin, or some of the snakes, and I know people aren’t terribly fond of snakes but they are a really beneficial animal to have around. Some bird species that if we can provide enough suitable habitat, we might be able to get those species back. So, when we think about urban wildlife, a lot of people think about urban wildlife and I think they equate it with overabundant wildlife or wildlife damage, so damage caused by overabundant species like deer, raccoons, skunks, and geese and things like that. I would like to see if we can move the conversation away from a more negative perspective to a more positive, and to start attracting species that wouldn’t normally be there, and balance out that wildlife component so it’s not just overabundant species, but we have a more balanced picture of species of wildlife, between species that are urban adapters and species that are urban avoiders but we can actually provide habitat for them so they can live in these urbanized landscapes.

Adam Wigger: You started to elaborate on it, but what is it exactly that you and your department do for urban wildlife or to benefit them?

David Drake: In our department, the department of forest and wildlife ecology, we have a wide range of faculty on both the forestry and wildlife side, and I think the one commonality amongst all of us is that we are all working in some system that has been influenced in some way or capacity by human beings. Some of us focus more on those human dominated systems, others focus on systems that are more natural or more wild. So I guess I might be the one who’s most focused on urban wildlife. There are colleagues that are doing things in that urban system – looking at different components or aspects of the way that animals are being influenced by or are using those modified systems. Most of what I do for my research in the Extension program is focused on strictly urban wildlife. 

Adam Wigger: Kind of going back to that and urban adapters, would you say or would you think that there is more of a trend of animals becoming more adaptatious to our urban settings, especially now that we’re expanding our cities, and life is becoming much more urban in the United States? 

David Drake: Yeah so a lot of the species, especially those species that are overabundant, so those urban adapters, they’re what we call habitat generalists, or edge-loving type species. So their species are not niche specialists, so they can range across a wide variety of habitat types, land cover and land use types. They typically have a wide range of diets, so a lot of them are omnivorous, or they can utilize a wide variety of food, and because of that, they are extremely adaptable. So, they are also what we call edge species. An edge is where two or more habitats come together, and so when you fragment a landscape, typically, you provide or create a lot of edge, either directly or indirectly. And so, we have created ideal habitats for a lot of these adapters, because, as we fragment the landscape to build and benefit us as human beings, for our residential needs, commercial needs, or work needs, or whatever the case may be, we are creating a tremendous amount of edge by all the fragmentation we are doing on the landscape, and these animals that are urban adapters just benefit tremendously from that creation of that edge. A lot of times, people say as the cities move out to where the animals are, as the cities expand they are kind of engulfing the animals, and while there is some truth to that, some of the animals are moving into the city, partly because there might not be competition there if you’re a territorial animal like a coyote, there may not be as many coyotes in the city as in the country. To start with, typically you get more animals of species in the city than you would typically have in the country, because there are more resources in the city to support those animals. But when an animal species starts to colonize or move into an urban area, one of the reasons they do that is because there is less competition than outside the city. So we have animals that are definitely moving into the city, because they are comfortable here, there’s suitable habitat for them, abundant food, shelter needs, things like that.

Adam Wigger: Kind of speaking on that, on those animals that are moving in or we’re moving out towards them, are there any that we need to be aware of, either that we need to take extra precautions to be safe from, or that we need to actively try and better their habitat?

David Drake: So most cities in North America, there’s probably not many cities that don’t have coyotes in them, and a lot of people are nervous of coyotes generally because they are a predator, and they certainly do kill small dogs, and if you go out to southern California for example, they will occasionally attack humans and things like that. The best thing we can do for wildlife is to make sure that they fear us, and as long as they fear us, and especially like predators like coyotes or red fox or bobcats, or even mountain lions that live in Phoenix or Los Angeles or things like that, as long as animals fear us, when they see us they will move away from us rather than be bold and move towards us, so that’s one of the best things we can do for species like that. For over overabundant species, the best thing we can do, or one of the best things we can do, and this is kind of controversial amongst urban residents, but one of the reasons we have overabundant species is because we have no cost-effective way to regulate their population growth. And so the easiest thing to do, or the most cost-effective thing to do I should say, is to harvest those animals. So either hunt them or trap them, so we can actually regulate their growth and not allow them to become so abundant that they become problematic for people. So that’s another issue that is an ongoing issue in urban settings. And then, as we have already talked a little bit about, there are some animals that don’t spend any time at all in urban areas because the habitat is just not present either, the abundance of quantity or quality habitat, and so, the more we can do to actually build suitable habitat to benefit wildlife, that’s another way that we can keep humans and wildlife separated or because they have some sort of suitable habitat that they are happy to stay in, and then they are not going to navigate across areas where there are a lot of humans typically, so you can hopefully moderate some of those human-wildlife interactions a little bit. Obviously as wildlife are moving across that urban landscape, there are plenty of perils for them as well, so they have to cross a lot of roads, and so there’s certainly mortality issues from getting hit by cars and things of that nature as well. So there’s a lot we can do, and a lot more that we can do than we are currently doing in many cities across North America.

Adam Wigger: What are some of the things that we can be doing? I’ve seen articles on the internet about wildlife bridges over highways or other kinds of infrastructure like that – what would you say?

David Drake: Yeah so the wildlife bridges, some of the more famous ones if you will, are across the trans-Canadian highway, and that is really out in areas where you’re in more non-urban areas, in more wild-type areas. In the city, there’s a few things we can do. One of the most stable landforms in the city are residential yards. You don’t see that getting torn down or razed very often. So, whatever people can do to plant native landscaping in their yard to benefit wildlife, from pollinator habitat to food resources from natural sources that are providing food for all four season if you’re in the temperate regions like we are in Wisconsin, that would be beneficial. Making sure there’s available water, having water sources and things like that. And make sure that the habitat is connected, so that we don’t just have habitat in one yard and then that one yard is surrounded by inhospitable habitat in all the yards that are not providing that habitat. The more habitat we can actually provide, in that urban area, the better for sure, and make sure its connected habitat for sure. If you don’t want to plant things, there are lots of anthropogenic sources of habitats, so you can put out bird baths, bird feeders, bird houses, bat houses, and I think another thing we can do that is as big of a deal as providing habitat is educating people about what type of wildlife are in the city, what’s normal behavior, what’s not normal behavior for the wildlife, what people can do to actually benefit the wildlife, and trying to improve or increase people’s knowledge and tolerance for those animals that are in the cities, and so that humans are actually happy to share that landscape with the wildlife and we can make those interactions between humans and wildlife as positive as possible, because the humans are not ever leaving the city, and the wildlife will ever rarely leave the city, so we better figure out how to live together.

AW: Perfect segway into my next question, what kind of resources are available to educate on that, or are there any specific ones that you’d recommend?

David Drake: Yeah so there are resources out there and I’m going to put a shameless plug in for a couple of them – we have a website that we’ve developed that’s called, so on that website, it’s a pretty comprehensive website, it shows what urban landscape looks like, the wildlife that you would expect to see in these urban landscapes, similar to what we’ve talked about already, different ways to help wildlife, in terms of habitat management practices, things of that nature. And so that’s a really good website to look at. There are some other things out there through the National Wildlife Federation, they have a certified backyard wildlife program, Cornell University through their lab of ornithology, they have Yard Works which is a mapping tool and a resource that you can use to actually figure out how to plant habitat in your yard, American Bird Conservancy has some really good resources about native plants that you might want to plant. There are some really good. If you google urban wildlife, that probably would be the best way to find some of those resources unless you have specific websites you have to go to. So those are good resources, sometimes, depending on the state, some state wildlife agencies have resources for urban wildlife, nature centers in local cities are typically pretty good places as well.

Adam Wigger: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss today, any information you want to put out there?

David Drake: Again, I would just encourage people to plant native wildlife as much as you can, both in your individual yard, if there’s common areas in your neighborhood, city parks, that would be great, and if you can make that habitat as connected as possible, that would be wonderful. And then, educate yourself what types of wildlife are around you, what is normal and what is not normal behavior for those wildlife and do all you can to increase your tolerance for the wildlife that are there and do all you can to help the wildlife that are there as well.

Adam Wigger:  Yeah awesome, biodiversity is in!

David Drake: It is!

Adam Wigger: Thank you, David! We’ve been visiting today with Extension Wildlife Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Forest and Wildlife in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger.

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