Wild About Urban Nature

Today, 80% of Canadians live in cities. As our migration to urban areas has increased over the past 100+ years, so has our separation from nature. Despite our concrete roadways and our lawns, wild plants and animals continue to exist and even thrive in our urban communities, often right under our noses.

Many of the wildlife species who share our neighbourhoods are those who have learned to live with us. They are the birds and animals and plants that are the most adaptable, the ones who benefit when we leave our garbage unattended or a bare strip of soil along the driveway. The wildlife we see are the species who are the most bold and their familiarity and boldness often breeds contempt—there’s little respect for the urban magpie or dandelion. 

These species are the ones who are most likely to poke at the edges of our carefully crafted lifestyle and aesthetic. Magpies, for example, are among our smartest and most beautiful western Canadian birds (imagine seeing their vivid black and white plumage in an exotic locale), but are considered nuisances by anyone who has had them steal their dog’s food or get into the garbage. Their intelligence lets them take advantage of our laziness and their tolerance of our presence lets them thrive in our backyards.

A black and white bird with a long tail sits on top of a utlity access panel in the street.
Black-billed magpies are common urban residents. Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Despite their visibility, so-called nuisance species aren’t the only wildlife present, even in the most newly developed neighbourhoods. Many plants and animals who make their homes in our neighbourhoods often go unnoticed, either because of their ability to hide from us either deliberately through the use of camouflage or through behaviour that keeps them out of sight. Most often, however, it is our lack of observational skills that keeps us from noticing those species that try to stay out of our way.

I have never considered myself a birder, but last summer I downloaded the Merlin app on my phone. Among its other features, Merlin can identify birds by their calls. Almost overnight, I realized that what I had thought was a suburban neighbourhood devoid of bird life, was filled with birdsong—the birds were simply out of sight in the trees. 

A small yellow bird with red streaks on its breast perches on a tree branch.
Yellow warblers can be found in urban trees, but they stay out of sight. Rodney Campbell, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Often, we don’t recognize the presence of other wildlife until we’re forced to. An unexpected animal, particularly one that’s large enough to potentially harm us, such as a moose or a cougar, never goes unnoticed. These animals are considered intruders in our urban communities and are swiftly removed. 

We rarely think of wildlife as something that belongs in an urban environment. Most of our interactions are with species that we tolerate, while many others fly under the radar. However, many studies show that interacting with nature is good for us. It decreases our stress, improves our moods, and can fill us with a sense of wonder

The first step to finding wildlife in your neighbourhood is to pay attention to the plants and animals that may use your backyard. Use an app like Merlin or iNaturalist to keep a list, or simply add notes to a paper calendar. Something to keep in mind—the robin that nests in your yard this year may very well be the same one you saw last year. Many animals return to the same territories year after year. 

A cottontail rabbit is alert in a field of clover.
Cottontail rabbits can often be seen in urban environments. Pewterblack, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Adding natural features to your backyard, such as native plants, trees, and even small water features can also attract wildlife. Even a small piece of habitat is important, many species rely on corridors to travel within urban areas, backyard habitat can create an important link in the chain. 

Native plants and animals are everywhere—even in our cities—adding richness to our everyday lives, even if we don’t always see it.