Cities, animals, and intelligence

Research regarding the effect of cities and urban areas on wildlife can be fascinating. See the discussion about how cities could affect the intelligence of different animals:

One of the great mysteries of urban adaptation is what, if anything, living in cities does to animal minds. Research on urban wildlife has already shown that cities can have jaw-dropping effects on animals’ behavior. Gehrt’s coyotes have not only learned where it’s safest to cross roads, but have also learned to avoid traffic based on its speed and volume. Do behavioral shifts like this reflect deeper changes in how urban animals think? In what urban animals are?

These questions vex the small subset of wildlife ecologists that is wading into the murky waters of urban-animal intelligence. In several metropolitan areas, researchers have devised simple puzzles—usually difficult-to-open boxes of food—in order to compare the problem-solving abilities of city-dwelling creatures with those of their wild relatives. The results have been tantalizing: Urban animals as varied as Canadian raccoons and Barbadian bullfinches can outperform their rural counterparts. While it pays to be cunning in almost any setting, some scientists propose that foreign, volatile environments like cities demand an especially broad range of cognitive abilities. Eventually, the thinking goes, cities may bend evolution enough to make whole populations of animals within them smarter—if, of course, the animals can survive city life in the first place.

This is a controversial theory. Even researchers who back it are quick to warn that intelligence is complicated. No one is suggesting that new situations are the only driver of animal smarts: The ways animals interact, how they learn from one another, and the nature of their physical surroundings are all thought to influence how individual animals behave and how their brains take shape over generations, no matter where they live…

But studying animals in new environments may help scientists develop a definition of intelligence that applies across species. Along with others in her field, Benson-Amram has zeroed in on flexibility, long considered an essential criterion for intelligence. “When the environment is changing, you’re able to change your behavioral response, and you don’t perseverate on old responses that used to work but no longer do,” Benson-Amram says. This way of defining intelligence—which researchers also call “behavioral plasticity”—is notably distinct from what could be considered an animal’s specific intelligence. A scrub jay that hides away thousands of seeds and remembers the location of each one certainly has a particular kind of acuity, Benson-Amram notes. But an animal needs a diverse, general set of mental skills—perceptiveness, resourcefulness, foresight, and so on—to tackle the foreign obstacles of cities, she posits.

A simplistic popular approach to these questions might say this: cities and urban development is simply bad for animals and nature. Because such development takes up land and subjects it to particularly harmful uses (pollution, poor water run-off, etc.), humans should limit their development and its effects.

On the other hand, this research and others suggests human-wildlife interaction can be quite complicated. And could it even possible lead to positive change for some animals? I’m also thinking of the book Subirdia which suggests some bird species do well in urban environment even if others do not.

Humans may have the upper hand here and have done some pretty destructive things regarding the environment in recent years. Yet, in the long run, both humans and wildlife adapt to each other.

Peregrine falcons take over Chicago apartment balcony

See what happens when peregrine falcons take over an city apartment balcony:

It all started four years ago, when the birds began dropping by the building’s balconies early each spring. In April 2014, the couple got pretty cozy on Dacey Arashiba’s terrace. Arashiba, an I.T. consultant, was delighted, but his neighbors, put off by the birds’ loud noises and poop, complained. “My building manager told me the birds had to go. Maintenance staff shooed them off the balcony,” Arashiba says. “And that was it. For a while.”

But in June, the birds came back. A week later, the pair had laid three eggs in Arashiba’s flowerbox (“I am an occasional, lazy gardener and hadn’t replenished the dirt in a few years,” he admits.)

Now on the offensive, Arashiba called Mary Hennen, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, who told him that falcons are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (and had previously been on the state and federal endangered species lists). It’s highly illegal to harass them (building management complied)…

Arashiba let Massey crash in his condo for a full month so the 23-year-old photographer could get close-up pictures of the birds as their chicks grew from tiny fluff balls to sleek (but spotted) youngsters. Massey’s assistant, Katie Stacey, was also there to help out with parts of the shoot, which required some precarious balancing of equipment to fully capture the birds’ vertigo-inducing existance.

There are some great pictures here. I wonder how many city apartment dwellers would have had a similar reaction to the Arashiba’s as their balcony became a lot more difficult to use. Would many have sided with the neighbors who complained? And if the birds had been chased away, could they have easily found a nesting site elsewhere in the city?

See an earlier post regarding a book about the birds of suburbia (“suburdia”).

“Suburdia”: a wide variety of wildlife in cities and suburbs

A professor of wildlife science finds a surprising amount of wildlife in urban areas:

John Marzluff, the scientist, is well known for his research on, among other topics, the intelligence of crows and ravens. In his new book, Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods With Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife (Yale University Press), Marzluff examines the effects of urbanization on a variety of birds…In more than a decade of research in and around Seattle, where he is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, Marzluff and a small army of graduate students discovered a consistent pattern: Bird diversity grew from the city center, peaked in the suburbs, and dropped again in the forested areas between Seattle and the Cascades.

“We had discovered subirdia,” Marzluff writes. “Now I was really perplexed.”…

For many birds, the suburbs, as Marzluff explains, afford a wide variety of habitats. The trees, flowers, shrubs, ponds, and bird feeders that dot our neighborhoods make them attractive to many species. Add the golf courses, office parks, and retention ponds that are hallmarks of many suburban landscapes, and subirdia becomes downright appealing.

The suburbs are often criticized for their environmental faults including sprawl that chews up land and destroys natural habitats. Yet, these findings offer some evidence that the suburbs may not be all bad. It also leads me to two other questions:

1. Does this apply beyond birds? It sounds like it took a lot of work to establish these findings for birds. Yet, I assume some of the ideas would work for other animals as well as some would adapt and thrive to the suburban setting and others would not.

2. Such findings shouldn’t be used as evidence that suburbia is a positive for the natural environment. But, we shouldn’t continue to think in terms of pristine nature versus dirty cities. All of the environments in the United States, whether rural or urban, have been heavily affected by human activity.

Biologist estimates 2,000 adult coyotes living in Chicago

A biologist says there are at least a few thousand coyotes living in Chicago:

Stanley Gehrt, a biologist from Ohio State University has been studying and tracking coyotes in Chicago for over 14 years and has estimated that there are roughly 2,000 adult coyotes living right here in the Windy City. If pups are included, this estimate could double to roughly 4,000 coyotes in Chicago. Gehrt has tracked over 800 coyotes in Chicago since 2000 using GPS collars and found that coyotes live everywhere in the city – including the densely populated downtown area. According to researchers, more coyotes are moving into dense urban areas because they’ve become adaptive over the years. They’re resourceful animals and can thrive in different types of climates.

If the numbers are growing, we expect more contact with humans. If I had to guess, city dwellers – just like suburbanites in recent years – will often be quite surprised by such encounters.

It’s too bad this short blurb doesn’t add any more information about the City of Chicago plans to respond to coyotes. Would politicians gain or lose points by limiting the population of coyotes or allowing them to grow? You don’t want to cross a lot of owners of small dogs…

Going sewer fishing in Katy, Texas

You may not be able to find alligators in the New York City sewers but one teenager has caught numerous fish in the storm sewer in Katy, Texas:

A teenager in Katy, Texas, has one of the most unique—and oddest—fishing holes you’ll ever see and it’s located just off the sidewalk near his house. Kyle Naegeli, 16, goes sewer fishing through the holes of the storm drain manhole cover. Certainly it’s the craziest-type fishing we’ve ever encountered.

Naegeli baits a hook, puts it through a hole in the manhole cover, and drops it down into the water of the storm sewer below. A cork attacked to the line above prevents losing the line. Then he waits…

“In the past four years I’ve caught hundreds of fish in the sewer with the biggest being a 3-pound bullhead. Only three bass have been caught because I’m using hotdogs and not live bait (which I will do sometime).”

So, where do fish come from? The storm drain empties into a nearby pond and the fish swim up the sewer system, providing one very unusual fishing hole.

A reasonable explanation for this oddity. Some of the American suburban sprawl of recent decades likely includes large storm sewers, especially in areas that get heavy rains. Yet, I would guess this could be done in other places as well though it requires someone to try to go fishing in the sewer before we would find out. Not too surprising a teenager figured this out…

Who knows what lurks in sewer and storm sewers? I’ve always been intrigued by such settings, particularly in large cities. TV shows and films regularly make use of large sewer tunnels as scenes for chases and shootouts. But, there are older roots than that. Victor Hugo devotes a long section toward the end of Les Miserables discussing the Paris sewers and then describing the action of the main characters under the streets. Alas, Snopes did find stories of alligators in the New York City region over the decades but only one involving an alligator in the sewer.

New study: “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States”

Continuing the discussion of nature and urban areas, read about a new study of the urban patterns of the Eastern Gray Squirrel:

Benson explains that though many people may think that squirrels have simply persisted in urban landscapes since Europeans arrived in the U.S., their presence is actually the result of intentional introductions.

“By the mid-19th century, squirrels had been eradicated from cities,” he said. “In order to end up with squirrels in the middle of cities, you had to transform the urban landscape by planting trees and building parks and changing the way that people behave. People had to stop shooting squirrels and start feeding them.”

In researching the history of squirrels in American cities, Benson found the first documented introduction occurred in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square in 1847. Other introductions followed in Boston and New Haven in the 1850s. These early releases were small in scale, and intended to “beautify and add interest to the parks,” Benson says…

Benson also found signs in his research that squirrels played another important role for city residents, particularly children: as moral educators.

“Feeding squirrels becomes adopted as a way of encouraging humane behavior,” Benson said…

By the time the environmental movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, Benson argued, squirrels in the urban environment were no longer widely seen as morally significant members of the community and instead began to be viewed with a more ecological mindset. Ideas of letting them live out life “as nature intended” took a stronger hold.

In other words, Americans have been influencing the habitats and behaviors of squirrels for over a century and a half. It is interesting to see the progression from wanting to have more squirrels and nature (within a particular urban vision of parks), to feeding squirrels, to taking a more hands-off approach. What how will humans interact with squirrels in a few decades?

One of the stranger places for human-squirrel interactions is the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Squirrels are regularly seen outside the dining halls with large pieces of food, like muffins or cookies. Some of these squirrels were also quite large which appeared to hamper their running abilities. I have no doubt that students or visitors occasionally fed the squirrels. See some examples at the Squirrels of Notre Dame Facebook page or this 2011 column from the student newspaper on how the squirrels are viewed (hint: the title is “Reasons we love squirrels”).

More than hunting needed in considering having too much nature in the suburbs, city

A recent Time cover story called for hunting to thin out the wildlife that is now flourishing in many American suburbs and cities. While the story focuses more on the resurgent populations of deer, Canadian geese, and other animals that have thrived because humans have changed the setting (often removing the predators, providing easy food sources, etc.), the story presents a chance to have a larger conversation about the intersection of nature and suburbs.

The formation of the first suburbs, in England in the late 1700s and in the United States in the mid-1800s, was driven in part by a desire to be closer to nature. The growing cities of the Industrial Revolution, places like London and New York City, were home to an increasing number of polluting factories and more disease. Interestingly, the nature in the early suburbs was often still quite curated: building around central parks or building winding streets to take advantage of natural ridges and groves. As suburbs expanded, lots were generally smaller and nature was reduced to smaller lawns. Of course, these lawns today can’t be “natural” – most places have regulations about the height of the grass as the appearance of a well-manicured lawn. Similarly, suburban critic James Howard Kuntsler makes fun of some of the “natural” features of today’s suburbs, like the trees in the middle of big parking lots outside big box stores.

The best book I’ve read on the subject is The Bulldozer in the Countryside by historian Adam Rome. Many suburbs and cities today are plagued by the consequences of running roughshod over nature in matters like dealing with stormwater or residents hoping to save open space or Forest Preserves now trying to acquire land.