Living In Harmony With Urban Wildlife
Published in Llewellyn's 2007 Moon Sign Book:
A Gardening Almanac & Guide to Conscious Living
Judy Carman, M.A.
It was late May when Mary brought six baby bluebirds into the local wildlife rehabilitation center and told this unforgettable story. Mary had been watching the mother and father bluebirds as they built their nest in the nesting box Mary had provided. She watched as they faithfully fed their growing babies. One day, however, Mary noticed that the mother bluebird was no longer coming to the nest. The father was left to feed the hungry youngsters. Then suddenly, he also disappeared. After waiting 24 hours just to make sure the parents were really gone, Mary approached the nesting box, fearing the worst. There she found the father bird fatally wounded, having been attacked by a predator who was trying to reach the babies. The father’s wings were stretched out fully over the nest, and when Mary lifted him, there beneath his body she found all six babies protected and alive. Thanks to their father’s courage and sacrifice all six little ones survived and were released when they were ready to fly and sing.
Above the noise of traffic, street repairs, sirens, televisions and cd players, there are bluebirds caring for their little ones. Just past the sights of cars, houses, buildings, and bridges, there are brilliant yellow butterflies sipping nectar. Indeed, there are whole nations of beings under our feet and over our heads sharing the urban environment we have created. How blessed we are that they have found ways to adapt to our urban world.
As Moon Sign Book readers, we seek to live consciously and harmoniously within the natural world. We feel our connection with the moon, the stars, the earth, and the elements of life and spirit. Yet those of us who live in urban areas often feel disconnected from nature and long for the simplicity and beauty that it brings into our lives. It is becoming clearer to us all that stress, depression, anxiety, and many other ailments are significantly reduced by having regular contact with animals and nature.
I believe we are witnessing a dramatic movement away from the centuries old paradigm that human beings are here to dominate and exploit nature. This movement, which we might call conscious living, is an exciting awakening. In these days of cultural transformation millions of people are waking up to and embracing a wisdom world-view that regards all life as sacred and interconnected.
Some years ago, Teilhard de Chardin predicted a “new humanity coming into new form.” Within that “new humanity” we find compassion being extended to all creatures and an awareness that animals and nature are not here for us to use however we wish.
Indeed, within such a paradigm, we find that true joy arrives when one lives in a state of awe and wonder at the mystery and magnificence of all living beings. When we leave behind our notion of human superiority and begin to feel our oneness with all life, there comes a great sigh and a deep sense of peace.
Knowing this, many of us long to live closer to the wild places, but for various reasons must content ourselves with living in the cities. So it is important for us to find ways to connect with the natural world right where we live. By doing so, we benefit ourselves, the natural world, and other people as well. By learning to connect with and live harmoniously with our wild neighbors, we return to the earth a sense of peace. In essence, we are building peace-by-peace the “peaceable kingdom” that may just be our ultimate destiny.
There are many elements involved in creating this harmony. One involves actively defending wildlife and their quickly disappearing ecosystems through education, legislation, and various forms of activism. There are hundreds of local and national groups to join and support in this effort. In addition, if you wish to help injured wildlife return to their homes, you may be able to find a wildlife rehabilitation center near you and volunteer to help.
In this chapter, we’ll touch on two other important elements. The first will include activities designed to attract wildlife to our yards, parks, and neighborhoods. The other covers the subject of dealing compassionately and peacefully with the conflicts that arise between human beings and wildlife. Deer in the garden, goose poop on the lawn, rats in the bird seed, squirrels in the attic, and many other “problems” have created an entire “pest control” industry designed, in most cases, to lethally eradicate these “problem” animals. Yet, as we know, it is we who have intruded into their territory. As it turns out, these non-human species are not pests at all but rather fellow travelers on this earthly journey with us. Fortunately, as we continue to create this new more compassionate culture, we are learning many non-lethal ways to deal with the conflicts.
ATTRACTING WILDLIFE: Animals, like us, need food and shelter. Piles of branches create homes for rabbits and other small mammals and birds. Dead branches, fallen trees, and stumps provide a gold mine of food for birds, squirrels, and raccoons. Tall grasses, wildflowers, bushes, and trees all provide cover, shelter, flowers, nuts, seeds, and berries for animals. Your local nursery can advise you on the ones that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other critters as well as which ones are suited for your climate.
Birdfeeders, birdbaths, and small ponds are a welcome sight for hungry and thirsty critters. However, if you fill your feeders regularly, your visitors will become dependent on them. If you cannot guarantee that you or a neighbor can fill the feeders every day, especially through the cold months, it is better not to have them. An option is to put only one/half cup of birdseed a day in several feeders. That way when you are gone, the food won’t be missed. Another option, if you can be consistent throughout the winter is to feed them in the cold months when they need it so much and then cut back to a small amount in the warm months, thus encouraging the animals to find natural sources of food that are available in the neighborhood. Remember to periodically clean the feeders and the ground beneath them to prevent disease.
If you have a birdbath or small pond, be sure to keep sticks, rocks, or some device by which small insects and other little guys can escape from the water. That goes for window wells also, as many animals can become trapped in them.
Providing nesting boxes and housing for birds, bats, squirrels, etc. is another way to invite wildlife into your area. Be prepared, though, to clean these each year.
If a tree is in danger of falling on your home and needs to be cut down, it should be done when you are sure no one is nesting in it. Pesticides and herbicides must be avoided entirely, not just for the animal visitors but for your own pets and children as well.
Several more tips for protecting wildlife include using only nontoxic antifreeze and cutting up six pack holders and containers in which animals’ heads could get stuck. Clean out and smash tin cans before recycling. Keep trash cans securely covered. Animals can drown or starve in dumpsters and uncovered trash cans, so make sure there is a branch or other means of escape for them.
Also be sure to cap your chimney so that animals and birds do not take up residence in it. If it happens that one day you hear the chirping or murmuring of babies in your chimney, close the damper and wait, if at all possible, until they are grown and gone and then cap the chimney so that it can’t happen again. If you cannot wait, however, and if they are mammals, you can prompt the mother to move her babies to another nest if you place a radio on a talk show station in the fireplace and shine a light down into the chimney. It may be necessary also to hang a rope down the chimney to help Mom get a foothold while carrying her babies. If the babies are birds, however, there is not much Mom can do, but it won’t be long before her little ones are ready to fly.
To learn more about living in harmony with urban wildlife, see Audubon.org, nwf.org (National Wildlife Federation), hsus.org (Humane Society of the U.S.), Api4animals.org (Animal Protection Institute), peta.org (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—click on fact sheets) and wildneighbors.org.
CONFLICTS WITH WILDLIFE: There are many ways to deal with wildlife conflicts. For example, here is the story of Paula and a little mouse. Paula had inadvertently left an open box of crackers in her cupboard, and Mr. Mouse had located it and was noisily chewing away. It happened that Paula had a cat who was very good at catching mice, and as she was very tired, she went to bed thinking the cat would take care of the situation. But as she lay there, she began to think about that tiny mouse and how vulnerable he was. So Paula got up and went to the cupboard with a shoe. She told the mouse that if he would climb into the shoe, she would take him outside away from the cat. Amazingly, the mouse went right into the shoe and stayed there until she laid the shoe down in the yard. Now this could all be explained away as a weird coincidence except that Paula forgot to remove the crackers, and the next night Mr. Mouse was back in the cupboard.. Believe it or not, she talked him back into the shoe and rescued him once again. (For similar stories of communication with flies, dogs, snakes, and many others, read Kinship with All life by J. Allen Boone. You will love it.)
And then there are those of us who, try as we may, are not able to coax an animal out of the house or garden with flowery words alone. For situations such as these, there are many solutions available. Here are a few tips and resources to help us all live in harmony with our wild brothers and sisters who share the city with us.
Mice: Mice will often leave on their own if you seal all food in chew proof containers and place cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil in drawers and cabinets and plug up holes with steel wool. That failing, most hardware stores sell ultrasonic high frequency emitters which annoy mice enough to make them want to go elsewhere. There are also humane mousetraps available, but be very careful with these. If they are not checked every several hours, the mice could die in them. Never use glue traps or poison as the suffering they cause is severe for these innocent creatures and, of course, the poisons can also harm children and pets.
Ants: As with mice, we have invaded their homes, and it seems only fair that they would enter ours to search for food and water. The first step is to eliminate all sources of food, such as sticky juice on the floor or sugar on the counter. Then, place near their entrances to your home any of the following: cinnamon sticks, cayenne pepper, lavender, garlic, peppermint, or lemon juice.
Rabbits: As precious and adorable as rabbits are, there are some plants and flowers that humans don’t want them to touch. There are many lethal methods which are used routinely and are extremely cruel. Many poisons can cause rabbits severe pain and suffering for days before they die. When they are then eaten by a predator or a family dog or cat, then those animals also die from the poisons. Lethal traps likewise cause terrible suffering and often catch other animals and pets instead. Live trapping and removal may separate mothers from babies or cause so much stress that the rabbits die from fright.
Here are some ways to share your space with the bunnies in the neighborhood and protect your plantings at the same time. One inch wire mesh fencing can be placed around gardens and trees. The fence needs to be at least three feet high. The bottom of the fence must be buried in the ground at least six inches so that they will be discouraged from digging into the garden.
As with most other animals, reflective tape, flapping flags, bird shaped kites, balloons, and other scary items can be placed around the garden. Also there are repellent pepper and capsicum sprays that can be used on plants that you’re not going to eat. You can also make a spray with mashed garlic and water to apply to any of your plants.
Rabbits are very vulnerable little guys. They need the protection of thick brush, bushes or tall grass. If you grow your garden out in an open space, a good distance from their cover, they will be less likely to visit your garden. If you let a portion of your yard grow and only mow it once a year after the babies have grown, that will provide them with cover and food. You could even plant some bushes in among the grasses and make a brush pile for extra protection. This will give them a safe haven and they will be less tempted to brave the open space between them and your garden.
Gophers and Moles: As with all animals, these two have important work to do within a healthy ecosystem. Because they burrow in the ground, they help to aerate it. While underground, gophers eat some roots, and moles eat insect larvae. Nevertheless, some homeowners would rather not have the mounds of dirt appearing in their yards and gardens. Once again, poisons, traps, and other lethal methods are often used to kill them. And again, many non-target animals, including pets, often perish along with them. As with all the others, these animals are innocently carrying on the same activity that their ancestors did prior to suburbs and cities taking over their territory.
Non-lethal, more peaceful methods include the same wire mesh fencing as for rabbits. Also they do not like wet soil, so keeping your soil moist discourages them. In addition, there are commercial sound emitters that repel gophers and moles as well as other animals and insects. Some can be found in the Harmony catalog at gaiam.com.
Geese: Geese love short grass, open water, and no predators. Many suburban housing developments, golf courses, and business areas, surround lakes of various sizes. The lawns are neatly clipped, and predators are few. Many communities are finding that geese have taken up year-round residence on their lakes and ponds. As the goose populations grow, some residents complain about the excrement problem and the noise, as geese are full of personality and very talkative. Sadly many lake communities have killed the geese, but there are many non-lethal and very effective alternatives. The organization known as Geesepeace (geesepeace.org) has saved the lives of many geese by educating and helping people with the issues.
Some of their strategies include destroying eggs and nests in order to prevent overpopulation of the geese. However, this can only be done by an expert with a permit. According to the Animal Protection Institute (Api4animals.org) this is a last resort effort, but it is certainly preferable to killing the adult birds. If the birds are not permanent residents and have travel plans, this is definitely not an option.
Border collies are very effective at encouraging the birds to leave a certain area, and there are individuals who can bring their trained collies to the location to help with the goose problems. However, if the birds are molting, i.e., have lost their flight feathers, border collies should not be used until the birds can fly again after 6 to 8 weeks. Border collies should also not be used to frighten the geese between November and mid-May. During that time, geese should not be disturbed.
Feeding geese, of course, encourages them to stay, and if the quality of the food is poor, such as white bread, it will negatively impact their health. Feeding geese, therefore, is a big no-no.
Of course, fencing is effective at keeping geese off certain areas. It must be at least 30 inches high. In addition there are some scare devices that work to deter geese, such as strobe lights; shiny, reflective streamers on poles; scarecrows; kites or flags shaped like eagles; firecrackers; horns; and radios.
Geese are beautiful, fascinating, intelligent birds. To be in the presence of a pair of devoted parents and their goslings is a rare privilege indeed. I wish for you that happy experience and peace with geese.
Beavers: Beavers create valuable habitat for fish, mammals, birds, and amphibians. Because of their importance to the web of life, Native Americans called them the “sacred center.” Their dams help purify water before it goes into our ponds and lakes, and the beauty they create with their wetland creations is a source of amazement and serenity for us. Nevertheless, Europeans have killed so many beavers since arriving in the U.S. that they number only 5% of their original population. In urban areas, residents worry about beavers causing flooding and the loss of trees, and often neighborhoods and governments opt to destroy the dams and the beavers.
Fortunately, trees can be protected from beavers with wire fencing or by painting a sand/paint mixture up the first three feet of the tree trunk. Flooding can be completely prevented by installing wire enclosures around culvert openings and other places where beavers tend to plug up flowing water. A wealth of information can be found at beaversww.org or write to Beavers Wetlands and Wildlife at 146 Van Dyke Rd., Dolgeville, NY 13329.
Deer: Deer populations have grown over the last century from about half a million to around 15 million. There are several reasons for this. Many of their main predators have been killed by people. Ironically, though, their top predator, the American “sport” hunter, is the primary cause of their population expansion. In order to insure what the hunters call a good “crop,” state wildlife agencies and hunting groups clear-cut forests and plant food to encourage population growth.
The Humane Society of the U.S. (hsus.org) and other groups are working to perfect a deer contraceptive which shows great promise in limiting deer populations. As individuals, we can protect our gardens and shrubs from deer with fencing and many of the scare devices mentioned above. Keeping a radio on a talk show station and placing it in the garden does a good job also. The Fund for Animals at fund.org and 212-246-2096 has a wealth of information about the suffering that hunting inflicts on animals as well as ways to live in harmony with wildlife
Squirrels and other critters running around the attic: The basic rule of thumb in this situation is to wait until babies are grown. If they are animals who are active during the day, wait until the entire family leaves, and then cover their entrances so they cannot re-enter your house If a baby is left inside, parents can do a lot of damage trying to get to their little one so it is best for all concerned to wait for the whole family to vacate. If the animals are nocturnal, such as raccoons, then one must cover their entrance at night while they are out of the house. Live trapping is an absolute last resort because it separates animals from their loved ones and places them into unknown territory.
A cup and a piece of cardboard: I keep these simple tools handy so that any time I see a spider, wasp, fly, or other tiny one, I can catch them (yes, even flies if you sneak up behind them) and release them outside unharmed and happy. If you use a transparent cup to trap the little guy and then slide the cardboard in under the cup, it works like a charm, and it’s a great way to give children an up-close look at their tiny neighbors as well as at your compassionate and respectful treatment of them.
John Muir once said, “When we tug on a single thing in nature, we find it attached to everything else.” Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Einstein, and many others expressed the wisdom that we will not and cannot have world peace among human beings until we stop killing, eating, and causing suffering to our fellow beings. Gandhi challenged us all to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Living in harmony with urban wildlife is just one of the radical notions, along with veganism, environmental protection, feminism, peace and justice, and many others that is bringing about this transformation of humanity from the most violent species on earth into a species of kindness, compassion, and peace. May we grow in numbers and in wisdom, and may we bring peace to all beings.
© Judy Carman, 2007
Judy Carman, M.A. is an activist for animal rights, peace and justice, and environmental protection. She is the author of Born to Be Blessed: Seven Keys to Joyful Living, and her new book Peace to All Beings won the Spirituality and Health award as one of the best spiritual books of 2003. She is co-founder of Animal Outreach of Kansas and of the Universal Prayer Circle for Animals.