Balancing Nature

rats 1“’We started from this narrative in which the city is the villain, an evil landscape that chews up the environment and leaves nothing behind,’ he says.”
“That’s certainly true, but the other reality is we’re not going to stop urbanizing the planet, so how do we turn cities into something good, something positive, for wildlife?”

~ Seth Nagle, per Christine Dell’Amore

The balance of nature is not a static condition, but one that swings, sometimes precipitously, from one extreme to the next. Certainly, natural cycles cause such shifts, but human intervention has both direct and indirect effects. Ecosystems consist of many parts, all of which are required to provide the appropriate balance to function smoothly. If the balance is shifted too far in any direction, the system becomes unstable and fails to function properly.
Man has had major impact on ecosystems through our intentional and unintentional interference. While most often our effect has been to degrade natural ecosystems, we have also created opportunities for new habitats — creating conditions ripe for the proliferation of other species in urban and suburban areas.
“As people flock to cities like never before — six billion will live in urban areas by 2045 — they’re not alone. Attracted to plentiful food and mostly protected from hunting, among other natural dangers, a veritable menagerie of creatures also calls cities home.”

~ Christine Dell’Amore
John Marzluff has noted that suburban areas host a greater diversity of bird life than natural areas. Matthew L. Miller with The Nature Conservancy reported, “Bird feeding is a hugely popular urban pastime. More than 40 percent of U.S. households feed their backyard birds … That creates an abundance of birds, concentrated in specific, predictable areas. A predator’s bonanza.” Miller notes that the presence of hawks in urban and suburban areas is significantly increasing. Witnessing a sharp-shinned hawk swoop down on my own bird feeder, scattering the lucky ones and capturing the slowest, I am reminded that nature is a dangerous place.
Predators are a part of nature’s balancing act, and in some places the human impact has been to eliminate the predators to the detriment of the ecosystem. In Yellowstone National Park, biologists reintroduced wolves as apex predators at the top of the food chain to the park. Park staffer Brodie Farquhar observed, “Biologists are often faced with the grim task of documenting the cascade effects of what happens when a species is removed from an ecosystem, by local extirpation or even extinction. In Yellowstone, biologists have the rare, almost unique, opportunity to document what happens when an ecosystem becomes whole again, what happens when a key species is added back into the ecosystem equation.”
The wolf reintroduction has had a major impact not only on management of the deer, elk and moose populations, but has allowed the creation of greater beaver habitat, tree growth, and species diversity, along with improved water quality. Adding back the missing apex predator has restored some balance to the whole ecosystem.
City wildlife is impacted in more ways than just the addition of a few birds. National Geographic’s Christine Dell’Amore cites Clint Penick’s description of ‘pavement ants’ in New York, as being able to clear sidewalks of edible food extremely quickly. Other species, such as coyotes, raccoons, foxes and smaller mammals have found ways to thrive in urban areas. Raccoons have developed incredible problem-solving skills, learning how to open most garbage containers and avoid detection.
Environmental reporter, Oliver Milman has reported in the Guardian on the proliferation of rats in New York City and other major cities, feeding on garbage and litter and finding cozy homes in the city structures and underground utilities. The rat populations are apparently exacerbated by warmer conditions due to climate change.
Efforts to try to manage this “invasion” of wild creatures into urban and suburban areas are generally ineffective. Coyotes and ants have learned how to avoid vehicular and foot traffic, respectfully. Rat poison has had the effect of killing not only rats, but the limited number of rat predators that feed on the contaminated carcasses. And, Milman quotes Mike Deutsch, a veteran rat-catcher, “contrary to popular belief, cats aren’t very good at catching rats.”
So, if we can’t beat them, is there a way we can ‘join’ them?
Maybe we need to understand both the animals’ needs and instincts, and our own behaviors that are affecting them. Certainly, trash or litter is one way to attract wild animals of various kinds, so we should determine if that is something we should try to control. Other ways of managing the habitat that we create can also be identified and examined.
We also need to step back and examine our relationship to urban and suburban systems. We probably should accept that if we lure birds to our feeders, we’re also luring hawks and other predators that feed on them. We exist within ecosystems, and we can either serve as functional components of those systems, or disruptors. Either way, we will interact with others in our ecosystem and it’s up to us to define the role we want to play.
Remember, however, Nature bats last.

Additional information:
Christine Dell’Amore, How Wild Animals Are Hacking Life in the City, April 18, 2016, National Geographic

Brodie Farquhar, Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem, Jun 21, 2011, Yellowstone National Park,
John Marzluff, Subirdia, 2014
Matthew L. Miller, Why You’re Seeing More Hawks at Your Birdfeeder, December 31, 2018, Cool Green Science, The Nature Conservancy,
Oliver Milman, ‘We are at war’: New York’s Rat Crisis Made Worse by Climate Change, December 21, 2018, The Guardian

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