[These are my reflections on urban wildlife after participating as a guest commentator in a wildlife photography contest on Facebook last week. A version of this was also posted in that group’s notes.]
For most people, the terms wildlife or nature will rarely conjure up images of animals in cities. And if people like us (i.e., those concerned about how we share this planet with other species, us conservationists and naturalists) do think of urban wildlife, the thought comes with many a dark foreboding. Cities, we tend to think, are bad places that any creature (except, of course, us) would want to shy away from. Species that remain there are likely to be stuck there, with few other choices, survivors of human onslaught on them and on their habitats, living off the crumbs we leave for them in the interstices of our ever-sprawling urban jungles. And a handful that are not stuck there, that are perhaps more numerous in cities, bumping into us all the time, are often dismissed as nuisances or resented for collaborating with us in driving out other, better species. Urban landscapes are not often discussed in terms of their natural beauty either. Nature and City are, in our minds, quite mutually exclusive conceptual categories. And this dark, dystopian vision of the city as a sort of purgatory for wildlife, with the artificial (i.e., human-made) elements driving out the last vestiges of nature, is prevalent not only among the lay public, but often among my ecologist and conservationist colleagues. The scientific literature in these fields, that small (but growing) fraction of it which addresses urban habitats, is quite rich with papers looking for, and often finding and documenting, the bad things that happen to good species in the city: habitat fragmentation, ecological traps, competition from urban generalists, loss of nesting sites, habitat disturbance, air pollution, water pollution, weeds, invasive species,… the list goes on. Oh, and don’t forget the cats! The villainy of cats has been written about at great lengths – especially on the internets – and comes second only to our own selves among things that many a conservationist would like to rid this good planet of, for the greater good of biodiversity!
Why is it that we fear/loathe/resent/mourn/lament the place where most of our own species now prefers to live? By most accountings, humanity has passed the tipping point on that, with more than 50% of us now living in what we call urban areas worldwide. This is, then, shaping up to be the urban century, when cities are our primary habitat, with their effects cascading through the surrounding countryside into the very (few, dwindling) wildernesses of Earth. And I think it is fair to say that most of us involved in ecology and biodiversity conservation, be that within or outside academia, likely grew up ourselves as kids of the city; but took the first opportunity to run away from it, chasing after the diminishing frontier of real nature, where we could catalog biodiversity, study how it worked, photograph it, protect it, keep it safe from all that pesky human interference. And we continue to nurture the dystopian vision of the city, of human habitats, as sterile places devoid of any meaningful biodiversity. The city that nurtured and sheltered us, gave us the museums and universities that prepared us to appreciate nature; the city that provides better refuge to the poorest and most dispossessed among us than any other habitat; that very city, our birthplace, has become a symbol of everything that destroys what we now love – nature! Ah bittersweet cognitive dissonance… but lets leave the psychoanalysis for another day, shall we?
And let us also leave aside the other side of this metaphoric coin of the city: the many million more humans who may not quite share our apprehensions; who love the city for all its wonderful human artifacts and culture; who hate that pigeon for crapping on their cars, and resent that tidal flat and mangrove swamp for harboring mosquitoes and holding back human progress; who would rather pave over most of that pesky real nature and replace it with carefully manicured lawns and golf courses, dotted with hand-picked swans that can hold a pose for our cameras, and clean multi-colored pigeons we can feed; and in some parts of the world, a troop or two of well-behaved monkeys and an occasional snake we can worship during the appropriate holy season. Those people vastly outnumber us, but I’d argue that they too share the basic dichotomy of our vision, separating the city from nature; in that they remain our kin, even if we work at cross purposes,
The real trouble is: we are at a point where we can’t keep nature separate from us, what we do, not really. Not when we know that the smoke from California’s raging summer fires colors the dawn/dusk skies hundreds of miles away, and the burnt particles in that smoke may be deposited in snows atop mountains or in the arctic; not when the plastic garbage we throw out – whether in Baja or Alaska, Hawaii or Japan – ends up floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean, endlessly circling some hidden drain; and most definitely not when the fossil fuel we burn is changing the entire planet’s very climate! So we begin to turn around, and take a good look at our own habitats, especially that city we love to hate, to try and see if we can find any nature still lurking in there, and perhaps to devise ways to bring nature back. And this too is happening, among amateur naturalists, conservationists, and even academic biologists like me who are turning the tools of our trades to focus on studying urban wildlife and habitats.
It is high time (perhaps even a bit late) for us to re-imagine the city, not as a metaphor for all that is bad in us, but for the possibility for good that also still resides in us. Instead of running away from the advancing city, trying to save the remaining wildernesses with our backs to the wall, it is time to advance, to charge back into the city and start reworking it in ways that make it a better place for more of us, and also more of other species, perhaps finding more common ground to work with the rest of the human horde that loves cities. And, most exciting for biologists like me: let’s look at the city itself as a wonderful laboratory, with many different replicates, where we have set a number of evolutionary experiments in motion, altering behaviors and genetics in strange and exciting new directions! If you know my recent research, and my capacity to ramble on (exhibit A stretches back all the way from here to the top of this very page!), you know that I could go on (and on) about urban evolutionary ecology for quite a while – but I’ll stop now!
Let me instead ask you to join me in celebrating one specific small shared enterprise: an exercise in reimagining the city by imaging some of the wildlife we do find in cities, and sharing them through the Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Photography Contest on Facebook. As I wrote last week, I was invited to participate in this social networking experiment as a guest commentator, or a friendly native guide of the urban jungle if you will – for the week’s theme was “Creatures in the City”! I had a lot of fun viewing and discussing the 90-odd images that were shared in the group this week – so much so that I think it is rather a shame that most of the images and their attendant comment threads had to be deleted at the end of the week under the rules of the competition, leaving only a handful of “winners” and “special mentions” in the group’s gallery! Rather a shame, and something the moderators of this wonderful social experiment might want to think about changing (perhaps by using Flickr or other social networking site with better options for managing networks around images).
For what a lovely array of images of diverse creatures were shared by this growing group of nature enthusiasts! We had vertebrates and invertebrates (“creatures” I suppose, precluding any plant life); the former group was well represented by birds (most frequent and diverse, not surprisingly), mammals (squirrels, bats, cows, macaques, langurs, an elephant, sea lions, and a moose), and reptiles (a couple of lizards and several snakes; but no amphibians?); and among the latter: spiders, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, bees, ants, a dragonfly, a millepede, a crab, and even a cockroach (half eaten) and a fly shot up close! While the diversity of species was (hopefully) eye-opening for anyone who may consider cities depauperate of living things, even more interesting were images capturing interesting behaviors and novel ecological contexts that had me scratching my head spinning hypotheses and calling up expert colleagues to shed further light upon! I’m sure I will keep thinking about many of these pictures, and some may even spark a research project or two. (Which is another selfish reason why I wish the pictures and attendant discussion could remain archived somewhere!) The winners will, of course, be archived and remain available, even if the discussion generated around them disappears (really?!), so let me recap pictures and themes that particularly struck me:
- Birds were the most common and diverse group – not surprising given how conspicuous they are and how many people they recruit into nature watching. Lovely images of crows, pigeons and starlings (of course), a sunbird, kingfishers, parrots, gulls, pelicans, grackles, munias, a swallow and a bee-eater. But, surprise, surprise (and alarm?): no House Sparrow! Are we so used to this commensal, so inured to its charms, that no one thought to share an image? Even though this species is declining throughout most of its Old World urban range? We can’t let it disappear from our collective imagination too! So let’s hope it makes a come-back and rebuilds its numbers if we can lend it a hand – all it may need is the right habitat being left alone/rebuilt. May they come back like the Flamingoes have, to Mumbai’s creeks, lending that dash of bright pink to the dark mangroves (recovering nicely in some parts despite urban growth) and grey concrete.
- An amazing image of ordinary looking high-tension power lines near the hills of Mumbai – but with hundreds of Amur Falcons perched all along the wires! These migrants from Siberia and Mongolia pass through the city en route to winter quarters in southern Africa, and make landfall – or wire-fall in this case – on November mornings like this one when Shashank Dalvi captured this image.
Click on for larger version of this image
- Two other avian images stand out for interesting behaviors and contexts: a White-throated Kingfisher perched on a water pipe in front of a train compartment, with no “natural” habitat in the frame! What does it feed on, I wonder – fried fish from the vendor on the railway station?! And a group of Indian House Crows, in their smart two-toned suits, commuting atop a speeding bus in Mumbai! Notice how they remained dapper and cool on the roof while the humans were probably sweating it out in the crush within the bus? And we think we are the smart urbanites…
- Given that the Facebook group comes from the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, with most members from that region, most pictures were from also from there. Which, of course, means monkeys! Cute and mischievous, juxtaposed with their mythological counterparts, and being fed by women at temples – macaques and langurs made their presence felt. And there were cows, squirrels, a donkey and an elephant; but there were also a couple of bat pictures, and the surprise mammal was probably the moose outside a trailer in Alaska! So even some large mammals can manage to persist in cities then. I’d have liked a few more carnivores too (I don’t think a skin of one on someone’s wall counts!).
- Urban snakes are always interesting (if not frightening), and the winner (or special mention) among them, a cobra, was even caught performing an ecosystem service – eating a rodent! And it was surrounded by a gaping mob of people too!! Then there was a flowerpot snake, a rat snake or two, and several lizards – but no gecko, oddly enough!
- Among the invertebrates, the most interesting image (special mention, ergo in permanent gallery) was of a bee sucking nectar off of another dead/dying bee that had been fogged out of its urban nest by intolerant humans! A poignant image of what man had wrought – but one that also had us marveling at the remarkable behavior of the bee that had survived. Another striking image was of a dragonfly perched on a high-rise balcony overlooking an urban tableau of more high-rises with patches of greenery.
Many of the descriptions and comments were interesting too – but what got me thinking (and rambling on in the first half of this post) was that the majority of people were down on the city as habitat, despite the lovely evidence to the contrary seen in the very image they were commenting on! Yes, the city is sprawling, trampling over habitats everywhere, dirtying the air and water, and depriving most of us from meaningful contact with nature – but look at this natural beauty you have captured within cities? Surely not all these species are suffering! If anything (as my own research suggests) many actually like cities, and are thriving amid our enterprise! So the trick really is understand how they do it, what works for them, and figuring out ways to offer the same urban (or non-urban) life choices to other species too – and working on reducing our urban footprints on this planet too.
Can we, therefore and at last, really begin re-imagining, rebuilding, and reorganizing our cities in ways that let in more of nature’s beauty and complexity while improving our own urban existence? For that is really at the heart of reconciliation ecology!