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Urban predators make city wildlife truly wild

By Sean Willett, April 6, 2016 —

pair of great horned owls have taken up residence in the trees by the University of Calgary C-Train station. While many students have spotted their fluffy chicks and heard their signature nighttime calls, some have also noticed  less adorable evidence of these birds’ residency — the dismembered squirrel and magpie corpses, along with the eerie absence of animal life anywhere near the owl nest.

Though the thought of predators feeding on the U of C’s rabbits, rodents and birds might make us cringe, these owls are filling a crucial role in our urban ecosystem. If we want to better coexist with wildlife, more of these urban predators should be encouraged — even if some find them distasteful.

As more land gets consumed by cities and towns, many rural animals have followed their human neighbours and adapted to life in the big city. Most of these animals are easy to live with or ignore — they are either small and unassuming like squirrels and sparrows, or skittish and elusive like rabbits and deer. Even raccoons, crows and other animals we view as pests are generally accepted as an inescapable part of the urban fauna.

But this tacit acceptance seems to stop when animals start eating each another. Predators like raptors, foxes and coyotes have started moving deeper into urban areas, and are often met with equal parts fear and outrage.

Sometimes this mistrust is caused by perceived risks to human safety, especially with animals like bobcats or coyotes. But these fears are rarely rooted in reality. Coyotes, the poster-children for dangerous urban wildlife, have only caused two deaths in recorded history. In reality, coyotes are generally quite docile, and only become aggressive when fed or cornered. Even large urban predators like black bears are rarely as much of a threat as people make them out to be, especially if left alone and denied access to human-created food sources.

But this dislike of predators is often only fueled by the fact that these animals eat other animals, and we don’t like seeing anything become a midday meal. When endangered peregrine falcons began taking residency in Brooklyn in the early ‘90s, residents were furious. They were upset the falcons were killing pigeons, and demanded the predators be removed.

While often unpleasant to observe first hand, predation like this is vital to the success of urban wildlife. Without it, prey animals like rabbits and pigeons eat and breed more, quickly overpopulating and becoming destructive pests. Predators are a natural control for these urban animal populations, creating healthier ecosystems within our cities and towns.

Recognizing these gaps in our urban ecosystems and working to fill them is a critical step towards a greener future. As more of our planet becomes urbanized, we’ll have to reconcile our own needs with those of the animals forced to share space with us. Of course, we shouldn’t tear our cities down and give it all back to nature. But we also can’t blindly ignore the wildlife trying to live in the hostile worlds we’re creating.

Instead, we can work towards creating cities and towns where humans and nature are encouraged to happily coexist. And part of this coexistence is living amongst predators, even if that sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable.

This discomfort can be useful, as it helps us normally sheltered city-dwellers face the realities of the natural world. They transform our neighbourhoods into wild places, ruled by systems and processes that have evolved over millennia. Allowing predators into our urban ecosystems gives us an opportunity to witness nature at its full potential.

So the next time you spot an owl on campus, think of how much richer our urban world is because of it. Even if that means having to see the occasional squirrel head.

Sean Willett is a third-year natural sciences student. He writes a bimonthly column about environmental issues called Parks and Conservation.

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