Urban Wildlife 101

By Constance Taylor

There’s an admiration that many of us have when it comes to urban mammals. Where do they sleep? Where do they raise their families? How do they find enough food to eat? How do they avoid cars, dogs, rodenticides, and any other potentially lethal obstacle they face daily when living around thousands of humans?

Lila Talcott Travis. Photo: Lee Aurich

Lila Talcott-Travis. Photo: Lee Aurich

Lila Talcott-Travis from Yggdrasil Urban Wildlife Rescue came to talk about this (and more!) during our “Urban Wildlife Survival 101” event, with a focus on mammals. But first, what do we mean by urban? “Today we’re defining ‘urban’ as areas that have been heavily modified to suit the needs of humans above any other animal,” Lila defined. Challenges for wildlife can include those listed above as well as light & sound pollution, and separated open spaces.

Storm drain inlet. Photo: www.dot.ca.gov

Storm drain inlet. Photo: www.dot.ca.gov

“Some animals spend their entire lives in one park because it’s surrounded by roads that they don’t want to cross,” Lila explained. “Of course, some of them do cross the road, which can result in a grisly end.” Some species have, however, figured out ways to use city infrastructure to avoid many dangers. Raccoons, opossums, and skunks will often use storm drain inlets on the sides of roads as entrances to man-made underground tunnel systems to travel from place to place, and squirrels will use telephone and electrical wires to avoid things like dogs, cars, and people. Other animals, like coyotes, might not fit down a street-side storm drain opening but other aspects of the human-built environment work to their advantage. Food waste in garbage cans, sprinklers & leaky pipes providing convenient water sources, and a lack of predators or other competitors can provide easier living conditions for urban mammals. “Interestingly, coyote pups that live in cities have higher survival rates than in rural areas,” Lila mentioned.

Wildlife crossings are one aspect of urban living that might point to our willingness to give other species a leg-up in our built environment. Closing roads for wildlife during migrations, like at Tilden Park for the California newt breeding season, is certainly one solution. Other places have decided to create separate infrastructure for animals, such as the California tiger salamander tunnels in Sonoma County, vole bridges in London, or the multitude of wildlife crossings in Banff, Canada.

Two baby squirrels. Photo: Lee Aurich

Two baby squirrels. Photo: Lee Aurich

Lila had also brought some baby animals she’s currently rehabbing for release back into the wild. If you’ve come on one of Lila’s Wild Oakland walks before, you’ve probably seen the baby squirrels she brings! This time, however, in addition to the baby squirrels she also brought two baby opossums.

“Opossums are really amazing animals,” Lila told us as she held one up for us to see. They’re the only marsupial in North America, and research suggests they were around during the time of the dinosaurs! In fact, North America is thought to be the origin of all current-day marsupials. If you’re worried about getting rabies from an opossum, rest assured that it’s highly unlikely- the body temperature of opossums is too low for rabies to survive and replicate. People sometimes think that if an opossum is drooling it’s because it has rabies, but it’s really just a defense mechanism. When threatened they’ll open their mouth to show all 50 of their teeth, and start drooling. They might nip at whatever is frightening them, but they won’t start lunging and attacking- it’s just not how they’re wired! If that doesn’t work, then they play “possum”- they’ll collapse, their bodies will stiffen, and they’ll start oozing nasty-smelling secretions to smell like decaying meat. Playing dead is really quite effective against predators, but unfortunately, not so good when it comes to cars. Maybe Oakland should install some opossum corridors around the city…

Lila holds a Virginia opossum. Photo: Lee Aurich

Juvenile Virginia opossum. Photo: Lee Aurich

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