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Wildlife in the city: Tips for urbanites

What to do when you see wildlife on urban trails this summer
Tips on how to handle encounters with wildlife on urban trails this summer. Photo supplied.

Wildlife encounters are now common in cities, with urban populations of coyotes, skunks and Canada geese increasing throughout North America. For example, Calgary’s complement of Canada geese exploded from 1,406 in 1987 to 11,145 in 2017. The bird boom is due to climate change and the recent overwintering practices of the geese, author of Birds of Alberta Chris Fisher told the CBC. 

University of Alberta behavioural ecologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair offers four tips on making wildlife encounters safe and enjoyable for all parties involved.

1: Don’t feed ’em anywhere, any way, any how

This is the Golden Rule of wildlife interaction, St. Clair said. 

“Feeding wildlife is a really bad idea. The animals become ‘food conditioned,’ a term we use when they associate people with food and become very aggressive. Usually that behaviour can’t be reversed and food conditioned carnivores are often destroyed to protect public safety.”

St. Clair says a surprising amount of “food conditioning” happens unintentionally. Urban coyotes, for example, will eat compost, bird seed, garbage and fallen fruit if they can get their paws on it.

This can be bad news, St. Clair says. For example, feeding wild deer has been shown to spread chronic wasting disease, which is a neurological disorder similar to mad cow disease that has spread rapidly in North America. A new-to-Alberta tapeworm strain that infects coyotes can also infect dogs and, alarmingly, humans. St. Clair estimates about 60 per cent of coyotes in the Edmonton area have it, and 21 people in Alberta have been diagnosed.

St. Clair cautions against bird feeders too, as they are often inadvertent boosts to the house sparrow, which is invasive and hyper-abundant in North America. They can also attract concentrations of mice, squirrels, voles and rabbits.

2: Respect their space

“Don’t get too close,” said St. Clair. “If you’ve done it inadvertently, try to back up slowly. Don’t turn and run, as that will invite some animals to chase, especially if they are a predator. Speak to the animal in a firm voice while backing away.” We can coexist with urban coyotes by intimidating them so they keep their distance from people by shouting, throwing things, even charging at them, she says of this particular species. “People shouldn’t use intimidation with most predators, but I do recommend it for coyotes.”

So how far is far enough? Safe distance guidelines vary by species and by time of year. However, most animals will be more aggressive when young animals are around. 

“Moms get very aggressive around their babies, and not only predators, she said.  “More people are injured each year by elk and moose than bears for this reason, so extra care around wildlife is warranted in spring and early summer.”

3: Pause to enjoy it. 

St. Clair is one of North America’s foremost experts on wild animal behaviour and observation. She’s probably best known to the public for her work with the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project, but she has studied everything from bears to mice to elk to wolves. She got started in the world of behavioural ecology by closely watching penguins on the west coast of New Zealand.

Looking at a wild animal, she says, is one of the most enjoyable things you can possibly do with your time.

“The first thing I recommend when you see a wild animal is to pause and enjoy the moment,” she said. “Almost everyone is fascinated by wild animals. Psychologists have shown that a person watching an animal gets a huge dopamine hit just from seeing it in a natural setting.” 

4: Put it on the ’gram (and beyond)

“Digital tools like smartphones have created so many ways for people to record their wildlife observations. The power of having so many people watching wildlife and sharing what they see is changing how we do research.”

St. Clair is a particularly big fan of iNaturalist, which is an open wildlife identification platform. Any user can submit a photo for expert analysis of species present. The photo may also contribute to global biodiversity research and St. Clair’s team will use it for a new project on elk.

Article courtesy of University of Alberta's New Trail