As a city-dweller blessed with multiple, engineered means of meeting my life-sustaining needs for food, water, and shelter, I often wonder how urban wildlife, their world superimposed upon ours, manage to meet theirs. After all, our cities are human encampments, designed to meet only human (and domesticated animal) needs and, historically, to keep other species out. While, arguably, that design has met those goals, many furred and feathered species have adapted to those imposed limitations and have established urban footholds.
Do you ever wonder just how these animals—with no drive-thrus (but who need truly fast food), no ethnic bistros (but often have specific dietary needs), or flowing faucets—manage not only to survive, but thrive?
Encyclopedic knowledge about the natural history of urban wildlife isn’t required to entertain that question. My own morning walks and back-yard meanderings often yield glimpses into secrets of wildlife survival. Curious observation goes a long way, and observation with a creative perspective can glean new insight (and lead to deeper observation, a photographic study, and a visit with enlightening references to pursue…well, knowledge of natural history). Keeping a camera handy helps me to see my familiar environment with a fresh eye (and is the basis for this intermittent column of photo essays).
For example, the first photo below is of a typical backyard scene in a late Midwestern autumn. Not only is there a barrier to terrestrial wildlife movement (the 6-foot wooden fence), it’s a scene apparently lacking in the way of life support. Just an old, edging-toward-death, silver maple. Yet….
… if you observe more closely, you’ll see something else, something you may have ignored or kicked in frustration. Be careful. You may be kicking someone’s water bowl.
Water is the most critical need for wildlife, even as their human admirers put out bushels of feed and seed. Water finds many places to pool in a city, places both natural and industrial. This, however, is the real thing, a small oasis holding rainfall just long enough for a cool drink. Once you spot these small natural depressions, you’ll see them everywhere…whether forming from a surfacing maple root…
…or creating a constellation of cups at the base of an old gnarly trunk.
Jack Phillips, consulting arborist and principal of the New Tree School, defined these as “cankers that result from mechanical injury or herbivory when consumers are present.” He added, “they make great bird baths.”
Whatever their etiology, these common liquid reservoirs provide transient but valuable resources for wildlife (and another reason for preserving old trees). They’re one small example of the intricacy of means with which the natural world provides support for the community living in it.
So keep your eyes open and senses sharp when wandering the usual paths. Share what you find. And don’t forget water when you’re refilling the feeders.