Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Review: The Urban Bestiary

When wildlife lives alongside humans in urban or suburban environments, it becomes a frequent source of conflict, from groundhogs eating their way through vegetable gardens to squirrels chewing their way into houses. At the same time, it can inspire people to learn more about the natural world. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt explores how humans interact with the wildlife close to home.

A bestiary is a book which combines descriptions of animals and their habits with mythology and symbolism. The animals may be real or imagined. This book avoids reporting mythology as fact, as bestiaries of the past often did, but it allows room for speculation or conjecture alongside more solid natural history.

The focus is on those animals that people are most likely to encounter in urban or suburban enviroments, particularly mammals and birds. In some cases family groups are lumped together in a single chapter, and other chapters combine species that are only distantly related but have habitats or behaviors in common. It also includes chapters on subjects that are not usually thought of as wildlife, such as chickens, humans, and trees. There are frequent sidebars with information on identifying tracks and sign or about an animal's behavior.

Haupt takes a humane view, both of urban wildlife (some of it widely disliked) and of the people that interact with these creatures. Even aspects of these creatures that cause disgust, such as the scaly tails of rats and opossums, become objects of curiosity. In explaining how an opossum uses its prehensile tail, Haupt writes:
"It's a winsome image, really: the tail coiled around a branch of leaves, and the opossum scampering (insofar as an opossum can scamper) away with her treasure, then using her icky-pointy nose to tuck the leaves into a rounded nest, either in a protected earthen corner or in a tree." (p. 101)

(The term "icky-pointy" was introduced in a quote by someone other than the author.) At the same time, she sympathizes with people who are repulsed by certain animals (like opossums) and looks for ways to coexist with the animals in our midst.

In the northeastern densely-populated megalopolis, almost all wildlife is urban wildlife to some extent. Few pockets of natural habitat have not been paved over or developed into houses or industrial parks. Even those natural patches are hemmed in on all sides and often are degraded by toxic chemicals or invasive plants and animals. The loss of habitat to development contributes to a biodiversity crisis.

As suburbia continues to expand into places that once were wild, encounters and conflict with wildlife are inevitable. And even as developed areas continue to expand, adaptable animals are also expanding their ranges, so that coyotes and white-tailed deer are a regular presence. Suburbia in particular creates habitats well-suited to certain animals. Robins now winter further north thanks to climate change and their liking for suburban habitats. Canada Geese love golf-course-like lawns and ponds of local parks and corporate developments. Gray squirrels forage at bird feeders and eat acorns on oak-lined streets (and then nest in the eaves of houses). White-tailed deer appreciate the abundant edge habitats where lawns back up against woodland buffers.

As developed areas continue to expand and wildlife finds a place in them, encounters between humans and wildlife will become more frequent. These encounters need not be negative if we learn to appreciate them and seek ways of reducing conflict. The Urban Bestiary is a good start towards such an understanding and should delight anyone interested in urban wildlife.