Nature in the City

April 9, 2017 | Posted in: Modern Bestiary, Science

Illustrations by Albert Weisgerber for the Brothers Grimm, Germany, circa 1900.

Illustration by Albert Weisgerber for the Brothers Grimm, Germany, circa 1900.

“Our Father who are in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums…”
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row


I have a lot of lovely neighbors, but by far my favorite are the ravens and crows. I’ve witnessed several couples build their large nests on the ledges of tall buildings; even been lucky enough to watch one youngster learn to fly. Several times a year I watch as the crows go to war, a raucous group flying overhead for minutes at a time, psyching one another up with shrieks and dives for the clash ahead. Another territorial dispute over what we humans call “our” town.

Living here in a city, not a big one mind you, but still urban as can be with its organized blocks packed tight with residences, shopping centers, roads, schools, hospitals, all garlanded with electrical lines, lampposts, and traffic lights (the sprawl of the human mind made material), there’s little recognition of nature. We seem to think that ecology is absent here in these concrete worlds of our own, built by human hands for human wants and needs, no other life forms invited to the party unless planted in a pot or kept on leash. But though the diversity may be less than ecosystems left to their own willful evolution, our cities still teem with non-human life.

Besides the Corvus family (the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays who are aggressive and clever enough to survive amongst less-than-hospitable humans), there’re many others that share our urban landscape: coyotes in our neighborhood parks, pigeons on the roofs of our five-star hotels, raccoons in the our trash cans, weeds breaking apart concrete, foxes moving silently down streets at night, rats and mice everywhere. These are species that haven’t only managed to survive humanity’s relentless usurpation of space and resources but are thriving at our sides, sharing our homes and public spaces despite our every attempt to remove them. They’re commensals and synanthropes, species who’ve adapted to subsist off of the human lifestyle, eating our discards, making homes in our home, sometimes literally eating off the table.

Illustration from Animal Heroes, Ernest Seton, 1905

Illustration from Animal Heroes, Ernest Seton, 1905

“We humans have always allowed ourselves the luxury of entertaining two contradictory ideas at the same time…. We can despise the animals that fail to adapt to human domination of the planet—and at the same time, we can despise the animals that have adapted to humans and live alongside us in profusion. Seagulls that haunt landfill sites, pigeons that fly around city centres, cockroaches in our kitchens: all these we treat with contempt.” Simon Barnes, Ten Million Aliens

Flies, mosquitoes, and wasps crash your picnic. The racket that raccoons make in the dead of night in the gutters can sound like hell has opened a portal. That coyote in the park is eyeing your tiny dog like it’s a meat-popsicle. Those pigeons and squirrels are getting too close for comfort, ready to snatch that bagel right out of your hand. Rats in some cities outnumber the people. The city is wild with nature, bursting with nonhumans. Some in fact can’t even live in an environment not inhabited by humans:

Carpet beetles, bed bugs, grain beetles, house crickets, flour moths: “Throughout most of the world these household animals do not occur ‘in the wild’—they are no longer wild animals and they only occur in buildings occupied by humans.” Richard Jones, House Guests, House Pests

The Rabbit's Christmas Party, Beatrix Potter, c. 1892

The Rabbit’s Christmas Party, Beatrix Potter, c. 1892

These non-human city-dwellers are affected by the rhythms of urban life in many of the same ways we ourselves are. They’ve become more adapted to stress and learned to live among crushingly large populations and human interference. The city bird and the country bird are indeed a different breed:

“When Barbara Helm, a University of Glasgow ornithologist, compared blackbirds in Munich with their country cousins, she found that city birds start their workdays earlier and their biological clocks tick faster. Just like their human counterparts, they adopt a faster pace, work longer hours, and rest and sleep less in cities where upward-showering light washes out the stars and our handmade constellations cluster near the ground. Urban males also molt sooner and reach sexual maturity faster. In contrast, country blackbirds begin their day traditionally, at sunrise, don’t rush, and sleep longer. ‘Our work shows for the first time,’ Helm concluded, ‘that when sharing human habitats, a wild animal species has a different internal clock.'” Diane Ackerman, The Human Age

Many of our fellow city-dwellers are also getting smarter. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B showed an increase in brain size in ten different species of small mammals living in urban areas, including mice, bats, voles, shrews, squirrels, and gophers. They have to be smarter to avoid all our attempts at combating their numbers, keeping them out, and so far, they’re winning.

Cover of Collier's magazine, April 1912

Cover of Collier’s magazine, April 1912

And I know, I know, it’s easy to root for the underdog coyote when it isn’t trying to eat my cat. But not all the species that make themselves at home in our neighborhoods are damaging or disturbing to humans. Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate along the same path every year, zooming through their favorite backyards annually, now often dependent on the sugary nectar of feeders and the planted gardens we so carefully maintain. Bats keep down huge numbers of insect pests that would otherwise plague us. An eco-city is a healthier, more sustainable city, and relies on making homes for plant and animal species which help us to have cleaner air and water, fresher foods, and cooler microclimates.

With fewer and fewer places left to live that aren’t inhabited and drastically transformed by humans, we don’t really have a right to complain anymore when displaced species come knocking on our front doors. There’s no idealized “nature” separate from humans, and nature makes its home in the places built by and for us just as cozily as it does in the wilds. There’re always cracks and avenues where other lifeforms can fashion a living. Many of these species add interest and variety, some benefit and some annoy, but as long as they aren’t causing direct harm, I’m on team “urban wildlife.”

“In the heart of a city I have heard the wild geese crying on the pathways that lie over a vanished forest.” Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid


The following books informed this post:
Ten Million Aliens, Simon Barnes
House Guests, House Pests, Richard Jones
Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, David Quammen
The Human Age, Diane Ackerman


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.