‘Feral Cities’ takes account of the wildlife right on our doorstep

Feral Cities_300x450Whether urbanization is good or bad for birds and other wildlife is an especially hot topic these days, and an important one, since the area of developed land in the United States is projected nearly to double between 2000 and 2025.

We reported in “Birding Briefs” in February about a study suggesting that robins, catbirds, cardinals, and Song Sparrows survive better in suburban and urban habitats than in rural areas. And in December, we reviewed a book in which a University of Washington professor described avian diversity in and around Seattle. He had expected it to increase as he moved from the city center through the suburbs to wild areas on the outskirts, but, surprisingly, the greatest diversity was in the suburbs.

In this book, journalist Tristan Donovan casts a wider net, reporting not only about birds but also about snakes in Tucson, red foxes and rats in London, wild boars in Berlin, and coyotes in Chicago and Los Angeles. “Cities,” he writes, “are possibly the most exciting, most surprising, and least understood ecosystems on the planet.”

They are mixes of good and bad — good, for a few birds at least, because of the nesting opportunities they provide, and because of the abundant food we make available via our feeders, plantings, and garbage; and bad because of their disorienting noise, lights, and glass, predatory cats, pollutants, and other hazards.

That cities also, by definition, fragment or obliterate natural habitats, displacing their original inhabitants, Donovan leaves unsaid. He looks at metropolises as they are today, not how they came to be, and describes great murmurations of European Starlings over Indianapolis, Monk Parakeets in stick nests in Brooklyn, more than 30 species of parrot thriving in Los Angeles, and House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons from coast to coast. That all these species are introduced, not native, doesn’t disprove his conclusion that “the city is alive,” but it certainly qualifies it.

Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle, by Tristan Donovan, Chicago Review Press, 256 pages, paperback, $16.95, $19.95 CAN.

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