Wild Animals in the Suburbs – How Habitat Loss Impacts American Wildlife
In recent years reports of wild animals in unusual locations have become quite common. Packs of coyotes prowling the hills outside (and inside) of Los Angeles encourage people to build tall walls or fences around their homes. In the eastern part of the United States, homeowners often spot deer on their suburban lawns.
Twenty years ago, sightings of wild animals generally occurred in environmentally appropriate areas. When I was growing up in the late/mid twentieth century, the sight of a fox or deer was a thrill to be related with great excitement. Nowadays, the deer wander behind shopping centers and garden shops on the outskirts of cities sell deer repellent.
Why are these wild animals invading highly populated regions? The answer is simple. The building boom of the 1980’s and 1990’s ate into outlying areas, creating vast tracks of housing developments in rural areas. The people who moved into the new houses needed schools, hospitals, and shopping centers so even more land was paved over. Animals with survival skills learned to live with people, roads, and populated locations. They adapted to their new surroundings.
As rural areas filled with bulldozers and noisy construction equipment, some of the wild animals fled the disruption. They moved towards the cities, traveling along the green, wooded paths near highways. Once in the suburbs, they found some sheltering trees and shrubbery. Food was available. Deer located gardens. Foxes dined on rats, mice, and the occasional rabbit. Hawks trolled back yards in search of bird feeders or hung out near the highways looking for unwary mice or rats.
Obviously, some incursion of wildlife has been helpful to suburban regions. The hawks, owls, and fox feed on vermin. Their food preferences are good for the neighborhood. But once those beautiful deer start munching on the azaleas, they are no longer so appealing.
Coyotes, in the west as well as the eastern coyotes that have increased their range greatly, consume vermin, but will gobble up the family cat or a small dog.
The loss of habitat in America is an old story. When the first British colonists arrived in the seventeenth century, the East Coast was one huge tract of virgin forest. Bison and elk lived on the East Coast, though they were smaller versions of their western cousins. The colonists soon cleared away the forest for farms, homesteads, and the burgeoning timber business. Trappers went into the forest to harvest animals’ furs.
Now, there are only a few hidden pockets of virgin forest. The wildlife that depended on such areas is mostly gone. America has created several extinctions including the end of the famous passenger pigeon. Flocks of passenger pigeons were once so huge, they darkened the sky with their passing. Despite the huge numbers of the pigeons, not one is left today. They were hunted into oblivion.
In the American south, the Ivory Bill woodpecker lived in hardwood bottomland and cypress swamps. But after the Civil War, timber companies invaded, creating more devastation than the war did. Southern hardwood forests disappeared at an alarming rate. By the early part of the twentieth century, the Ivory Bill was an increasingly rare sight. Trophy hunters shot occasional Ivory Bills, just to prove they were still around. As sightings decreased, and decades passed, the Ivory Bill woodpecker was assumed to be extinct, doomed by habitat loss.
The American bison is a familiar emblem of the United States of America. Bisons have been depicted on coins, and they dwell in our minds as symbols of American wildlife, and stand as the signature animal of the great American prairie. But, the American bison was dragged to the brink of extinction by hunting. Buffalo killing trips were conducted from train windows, and the bison were shot as the trains passed, their bodies left to rot on the plains.
America has done a lot of damage to wildlife in its short history. The wild things that lately invade the suburbs display a wonderful ability to adapt to unlikely surroundings. So, the next time you see something unusual, something a bit different, not quite a dog, and you wonder what you are looking at – maybe it is a wild animal, a bear, a coyote, or a fox right out there in your own back yard.