Posts tagged urban wildlife

I know this month’s AHBE Lab theme has focused upon urban wildlife, but I want to share something more personal. It was during breakfast last week, while considering this month’s topic, when I looked out our window and noticed my my wife’s bird cages and our two birds perched within. While observing the two birds, I thought to myself, “Is this an example of urban wildlife?”

I looked outside my window and saw birds chirping in our tree. I wondered, “Why aren’t our birds considered part of the urban wildlife ecology?”

Looking into it further I discovered that 3.1% of America’s households own a pet bird. With over 3.6 million bird owners in this county, each caring for 2.3 birds per household, that adds up to a total of around 8.3 million birdies nationally. That is a lot of birds living within our cities! The idea also brought me to the conclusion we should create a new sub-category of urban wildlife to account for these type of formerly wild animal populations living amongst us in and around our homes.


Mona, our Parrotlet.

Let me introduce you to our two birds. First, there is Mona. She is a Parrotlet, or as some people call them, a Pocket Parrot, or even Forpus coelestis if you want to get scientific. Mona has been with us for over 7 years, coming from Pomona, California where she was hand-raised. Her ancestors are originally from South America near Peru.


Buddy, the Parakeet.

Then we have Buddy, who is a Parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus budgerigar). Although Buddy’s family roots are Australian, we first came upon Buddy at our favorite pet shop, Omar’s in Santa Monica. Like most of us whose ancestors came from elsewhere, both Mona and Buddy are also immigrants distant from their native ecologies.

I realized that the only difference between our birds and the birds hanging out in our backyard tree is that we’ve named this pair, they live with us, and that Mona and Buddy have become part of our family (at least in our mind). However, I know they’re still wild at heart, because all I have to do (heaven forbid) is open my front door and watch our family members fly out the door. Whether they’ll decide to fly back in through door at the end of the day is still wildly debatable.

Zootopia Concept Art / Central Station by Matthias Lechner for The Walt Disney Studios

Zootopia Concept Art / Central Station by Matthias Lechner for The Walt Disney Studios

When I first heard Disney planned to make a new feature animation about animals, I was not surprised. But after noticing people – specifically some adults friends – raving about the film, I reluctantly decided I needed to see what all the excitement was all about. Guess what? I’m now one of the raving Zootopians too.

Simply put, “Zootopia” is a movie about dreams and courage. Although the themes of the film are common within the animated genre, the film has been critically applauded for its metaphorical creativity, portraying a cast of animals, or what they called “anthropomorphic mammals”, within urban neighborhoods: Savanna Central (downtown), Tundratown, Rain Forest District, Sahara Square and Bunnyburrow.

Like its real world counterpart, downtown Savanna Central is where different animals live and work in a bustling metropolis. This utopian city comes complete with its own comprehensive municipal infrastructure system complete with different scaled commute facilities to accommodate for each species, a climate control system for cooling down Tundratown to the comfort of its inhabitants, and even a water recycling system for treating rainfalls in the Rain Forest District. Keen eyed architecture enthusiasts might notice the design of the Central Station in “Zootopia” resembles the Atocha railway station in Madrid, famous for its inner garden.

Madrid Atocha Railway Station / Creative Commons photo

Madrid Atocha Railway Station / Creative Commons photo

Most fictional animal films tend to portray beasts in an anthropomorphic style, or conclude with the wild animal finally being tamed at the end (such as in, “How to Train Your Dragon”). The narratives reflect the desire for a harmonious existence with wildlife, but only on human terms. In either case, animals are left as either pets or livestock. “Zootopia”‘s standout narrative feature is avoiding this trope.

Nara deer / Creative Commons photo

Nara deer / Creative Commons photo

Nara, a real city in Japan, is famous for the wild deers lingering everywhere. Under the protection of local residents and visitors, those “wild” deers commonly take over streets and parks, without any serious concerns about shelters and food supply like their wild cousins. The deer-hospitable city reminds me of another movie, one created by Studio Ghibli, “Pom Poko”. The film is a dark comedy about Japanese raccoons known as tanukis trying to protect their homeland from human’s urbanization. The ultimately fail in the end, so the tanukis transform into human being to survive in the city.

In reality, urban designers, architects, and landscape architects have been experimenting with design methodologies with the hopes of finding a balance for urban coexistence between local wildlife and humans for many years. But the reality is that urbanization sacrifices part of the natural ecosystem forever, and it never fully recovers regardless of how many trees we plant or how many more reservoirs we build.

An interesting project being proposed is Maryland-based Working Group on Adaptive Systems’ “Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency”. The project proposes future space exploration manned with only robots and animals – no human being – essentially sending out a self-developing ecosystem into outer space without any human intervention. A whimsical project for sure, but it could prove an important and humbling reminder that life can continue on with or without the human race.

Urban animals have sacrificed and adapted to the human world, their adaptability possibly attributed to their wild nature. Technically speaking, human beings are also animals: Homo Sapiens – a mammal. So one might wonder, did we also sacrifice and adapt our nature for civilization’s sake?

P-22 on Trail Cam, December 2015  P-22 seen on a trail camera around a week before he was recaptured by biologists in mid-December. Creative Commons photo:  National Park Service/

P-22 on Trail Cam, December 2015, captured on a trail camera around a week before he was recaptured by biologists. Creative Commons photo: National Park Service/

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote about P-22, Los Angeles’s most famous mountain lion living in Griffith Park. First discovered in 2012, he was later captured by the National Park Service, tagged as P-22, fitted with a GPS-collar for monitoring and research purposes, then released. Well, P-22 is back in the news and, this time he is suspected of killing a koala bear at the L.A. Zoo. Although his role in the attack has not been proven, it is not surprising that safety concerns have been raised about his presence in the city.

“This is not a situation where we can get rid of the native wildlife and not expect this to happen again,” Kate Kuykendall of the National Park Service said.

When we first learned of P22’s existence in our local hills, the discovery generated much public excitement, but also fear. Biologists believe P-22 is the only mountain lion currently living in this part of Los Angeles. The big cat’s home range is considerably smaller due to barriers created by our freeways. Scientists surmise he roamed across the Santa Monica Mountains and survived crossing the busy 405 and 101 Freeways to get here. Now he is basically stuck here.

P-22 is adapting to life in an urban center. Except for last year’s incident when he wandered onto the property of a private residence, he remains elusive and few people ever see him. Often referred to as Ghosts of the City, urban carnivores like P-22, coyotes, and bobcats, have learned to live among humans, moving about at night or in the city’s shadows.

A young coyote in the hills of Mt. Washington, drinking from rainwater accumulated in a bird fountain, exhibiting their urban/suburban adaptability.

A young coyote in the hills of Mt. Washington, drinking from rainwater accumulated in a bird fountain, exhibiting their urban/suburban adaptability. Photo: Gregory Han

Coyotes, which have large and fast growing populations within major U.S. cities, have adapted so well to urban life that they have lost their fear of humans, and move more freely around and within cities than other carnivores. In Chicago, a coyote pair, fitted with cameras on their collars, and their pups are recorded waiting for traffic before successfully crossing a busy road—and doing so without being seen by anyone.

Urban carnivores survive by preying on local wildlife. For P-22 his prey is primarily mule deer, sometimes coyotes and raccoons (rarely koala bears). The biologists who tested P22 after he was collared found evidence that he was weak and ill from rat poison exposure, which he likely consumed from his smaller prey. The larger population of bobcats in Southern California often suffer from mange and death due to the same exposure found in the wildlife food chain. Reports of P-22’s illness raised awareness of the impact on our planet’s diverse populations due to people’s use of poisons. P-22 was again made famous when California regulators and others took action on banning poisons in the state.

This is P23, another Southern California mountain lion, filmed sunbathing near a Malibu backyard.

If he survives life in Los Angeles, biologists expect that P-22 will make his way back to the Santa Monica Mountains in search of a mate. Before he can do that however, he must navigate his way through our streets and again face the challenge of crossing our freeways. By the time he leaves us, we will learn much about him and our local wildlife. We may even learn more about ourselves as a community and the values we place on conservation and co-existing with nonhuman life.

Hell's Grannies

I have nothing personal against skunks.  I actually think they are kind of cute in a “oh-god-please-don’t-spray-me” way.  However, like the rest of the mammalian kingdom, I do have a problem with the way they smell. But, you have to admire them. They are a true testament of brains…or, er…stink over brawn.

Living in a neighborhood with a wide variety of wild critters, it is the skunk that stands atop of the neighborhood hierarchy. I’ve dubbed them the “Hell’s Grannies” of Silver Lake. Humans cross the street to avoid them when they saunter down the middle of the sidewalk. Possums hiss at them defiantly before making a hasty retreat. And even predatory coyotes avoid them at all cost. The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is one of the most successful urban wildlife species. They don’t care about no stink’n loss of habitat.  They adapt.

Silver Lake's neighbor, Los Feliz, is also known for their urban community of skunks.

Silver Lake’s neighbor, Los Feliz, is also known for their urban community of skunks.

When we first moved into our house, a female skunk had claimed our yard as her own. Blissfully ignorant of California land ownership laws – or perhaps willfully defiant – this female skunk set up camp in various places around the yard. Skunks are nocturnal, so during daylight hours we came to an unspoken understanding: I would not mess with her sleep and she would not mess with me. This uneasy truce was broken in the first couple of weeks when she decided that the crawl space under our house looked like an excellent place to hang out at night. I still would have been okay with this arrangement if she didn’t resort to using her spray to notify all other critters that this new hidey-hole was hers to claim. Obviously, chemical warfare treaties do not apply to our gal.

The house was almost un-liveable after she sprayed. Most odors over a long period of time fade in pungency due to “nose-blindness”, a process in which the nose acclimates to the smell and the brain eventually ignores it. Nose-blindness does not apply to skunk spray in close quarters. In fact, skunk spray imprints a kind of “smell memory”, an unshakable sense the smell is lingering. I swore to my wife I could still smell the skunk spray even after it had dissipated from the house. I spent the entire day at work asking my coworkers to sniff me.

Obviously, this cheeky critter needed to be taught a lesson.

First, we mounted chicken wire across all the crawl space openings. I smiled in satisfaction as I heard the frustrated chattering of my nemesis as she pushed against the newly erected barriers. Check.

Second, I did what most humans do when faced with a crisis of knowledge: I consulted Google. The internet advised reverse chemical warfare. And so I installed mothballs across the frontiers of my kingdom. Coffee grinds were also collected from work, then spread around the perimeter of the house and in the planter beds. Check.

After two weeks of relative calm, I was ready to claim victory.  Check and mate!

But I spoke too soon. Mothballs lose their potency pretty quickly outdoors, and replacing them regularly is relatively expensive. We mounted them in nylon stocking bags on the front gate and perimeter fence, making our yard look a little bit like a scene from the Blair Witch Project. This tactic turned out to be not necessarily the most labor-free solution.

By the end of the month, it was obvious our she-skunk had brushed off the initial shock and awe. She was back happily going about her business at night. By then the only reliable solution was the endless (and free) supply of used coffee grounds I used to spread around the house, like a levee holding back the tide. Amazingly, this resulted in a second great truce. The skunk stayed away from the house, while we didn’t go out into the yard at night. Sure there was the occasional spray of a nosey dog or an aggressive coyote. But I could live with the residual smell of skunk spray from afar versus the unforgettable trauma of spray inside our home.

Then one summer evening at dusk, my wife was doing the dishes with the back door open when she noticed one large black and white tail followed by two smaller ones. Our skunk had given birth to a litter. With the mother as the head of a matriarchy, her babies (called “kits”) would stay with her for about a year. Great.

Fortunately, young skunks do not fully develop spray glands until adulthood, so they are relatively stink-less. We watched the siblings wrestle and frolic in the yard, then run away when the neighbor’s dog barked. One came over to check me out while I was watering the porch plants. I immediately dropped the hose and backed away slowly. This little guy/gal was learning who was boss, and it obviously wasn’t me.

It was pretty early on when one sibling disappeared. Mother and child went about business as usual until Mom came back alone one evening. Urban wildlife is still very much wild.

For the next year, the truce held.

There is comfort in habit. Pour out coffee grinds around the house on Sunday, take out the garbage on Wednesday. There were occasional violations of the treaty, like the time I opened the front door to see our skunk lounging on the front porch. She nodded at me as if to say, “Sup, dude” (she was a native Angeleno after all). I hastily, but gently closed the door. Whatever I needed to do outside, I could do it later.

That season, our skunk had a litter of four kits. My nephew raved about how cute these baby skunks were (he really wanted a dog at the time), but his tune changed when he and his father were trapped in the house while the family of five spread out across the front yard digging for grubs. We ended up lobbing “coffee grind bombs” (scoops of coffee grounds wrapped in paper towels) around the yard, opening up an avenue of egress after the ensuing chaos. Shortly thereafter, the kits started to disappear one by one. In just a few weeks, they were all gone. We suspected the desperate coyotes affected by the drought had turned to them as a food source. The coyotes were getting bolder in the neighborhood, and without their olfactory weaponry, kits can’t really defend themselves. But, who knows, cars are as likely a suspect when it comes to urban wildlife deaths.

One early morning, we could smell our skunk come back from her nightly hunting/foraging trip. We knew right away something was wrong. Usually, even if she had just sprayed, we could smell her just for a few minutes as she returned to her backyard den. This time, the smell lingered but didn’t dissipate. She was hanging around. As the night continued into the early morn, we finally got up to see what was going on. We could just catch a glimpse of her white tail stripe in the bamboo grove. We believe she had barely survived the fight of her life, and she couldn’t quite make it back to the den. By the afternoon, the smell and the tail had disappeared, and our skunk problem was solved.

I wouldn’t say I miss her. Her departure was more like having an annoying neighbor move away. But even with an annoying neighbor, you form a weird sense of care for them, however superficially and fleetingly. It was interesting to see the life cycle of an animal forced to adapt to our environment. My only conclusion is that the streets of Los Angeles are not an easy place to live – even for a Hell’s Granny.

As Principal Restoration Ecologist and co-founder of Tidal Influence, Eric Zahn is helping to grow a constituency for the restoration and conservation of the fragmented coastal ecosystem of the San Gabriel River Estuary. Through research, monitoring, and public education, his company helps to protect and restore coastal ecosystems and one particularly fascinating species, the Pacific green sea turtle.

Jennifer Zell of AHBE Landscape Architects spoke with Eric recently about his scientific work monitoring the species and raising public awareness about the importance of conservation and restoration of their habitat.

Pacific Green Turtles have been sighted as far north as the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Chile, with populations swimming as far as Japan and southern parts of Russia's Pacific coast.

Pacific Green Turtles have been sighted as far north as the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Chile, with populations swimming as far as Japan and southern parts of Russia’s Pacific coast.

LB sea turtleShortly after moving to Long Beach, I was riding my bicycle along the San Gabriel River trail when I spotted what at first I thought was a piece of carpet. I then recognized it as some sort of mysterious sea creature moving gracefully through the brackish waters. It was a Pacific green sea turtle! How did you first learn about the sea turtles in the San Gabriel River?
Back in 2009 I was teaching a class at Cal State Long Beach and one of the student group projects was to create a monitoring plan for a special status species living in the Los Cerritos Wetlands. We contacted Dan Larson at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) because we learned he was following the population of sea turtles in the San Gabriel River. We organized a tour and he showed us where he goes to see the turtles, and that was my first experience [seeing the sea turtles]. That group of students wrote a citizen scientists monitoring plan, which was tested and refined by my students the next year, and is now the monitoring plan for these turtles that is currently being used by the Aquarium of the Pacific.

What brings the turtles to this particular location?
We know a lot about these turtles, like where they are and what their ages are, mostly juveniles. But why they are here is still a big [unanswered] question. The easy answer is that they are attracted to the warm water discharged from the AES power plant, and there is some connection to sea turtles that follow a pattern of warm water. However, it is likely that the remnant estuary has always provided refuge for this species. There is an extremely active population living in nearby Anaheim Bay, which is a much larger and protected natural estuary. The other day I was doing wildlife monitoring there and took a lunch break and sea turtles were popping their heads up all over the place.

People seem to love turtles, we anthropomorphize them like “Crush” in the movie Finding Nemo. What is it about the animal that is so compelling to humans?
They are mysterious. People can’t easily interact with them and seeing one is like seeing a mermaid. You have to go with them into their native habitat. At the San Gabriel River, people wait for long periods of time to see one pop up their head for a second. People can also see them at an aquarium, but it is a rare opportunity to see them with your two eyes [in the wild]. Because of the gaps in knowledge about their life history, scientists also see the species as mysterious. We call these gaps the “Lost Years”. Scientists don’t know where the turtles go to do their breeding. We know where the females go to nest, but we don’t know where the males and females go to mate—important information to know in order to protect their breeding grounds.

Do you think the turtles gives you an audience to teach about the local wetlands ecosystem that you would not otherwise have?
Yes, 100%. They are a charismatic megafauna that can be experienced right here in the Los Cerritos Wetlands and this is a conservation species that we have adopted. We give tours and get 100 people to come out. The tours are very popular and this enthusiasm enables us to show what we are doing to actively protect and preserve the species, like what properties are actively being acquired to increase habitat. It is critically important to restore the turtle’s natural habitat and people definitely get that message on our tours.

You are passionate about edge conditions between highly urbanized landscapes and remnant pieces of coastal ecosystem habitats along the urbanized coastal zone of Southern California versus somewhere distant, like the Galápagos Islands. How does your work with Tidal Influence feed your passion?
As a resident of Long Beach, I see the needs of humans as important. I also see myself as needing to speak for species that cannot speak for themselves. As a community member, I am not coming from the outside and telling the community, “This is how this should look,” or “This should go here.” But, from my position within the community I can say, “Here is where the two – humans and wildlife – can commingle and on these edges is where that happens.”

People can come to the wetlands and see a sea turtle or heron, and they get excited. Then we are able to teach about the ecological phenomenon that is happening further at the core of the habitat, and what needs to be conserved, and which sensitive core areas need to be protected. It is during these moments people become stewards.

Is there a message, or call to action that you train your employees to include in presentations, tours, and community events?
The call to action is for people to become more aware and to learn about the Los Cerritos Wetlands, and what is down the street from their home.  We have these pockets of habitats where species exist, and we want people to go out and learn how to help in the places where they live.

For years I have been trying to work up the courage to trespass and get on my standup paddle board to get an up-close look at the turtles. Do you want to go with me?
I would be happy if I never touch the river. I’ve seen the color the water turns after a rain; the San Gabriel River has become a glorified storm drain capturing pollutants from the entire watershed. The necessary BMPs have not be put in place upriver, and the rains bring trash and pollutants that you don’t see. I would love to go into the river after the upriver communities have taken the necessary steps to make the water clean and I know the sea turtles would appreciate the clean water as well.

To learn more, visit the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust and Tidal Influence. A special thanks to Eric Zahn for this interview.