The Wildlife in Our Backyards

Many species of wildlife have taken up residence in densely populated areas. What happens when human and animal worlds collide?

illustration of wild animalsin a yard

You’d think it would take a pretty exotic ecosystem to surprise Chris Whittier, V97. He has, after all, treated wild gorillas in six national parks in central Africa.

But when Whittier, now director of the master’s in conservation medicine program at Cummings School, used motion-sensing infrared cameras from his ongoing Africa work to figure out what was digging up the dirt around his lamppost at home, he was stunned. Over just a few evenings, red and gray foxes, a fisher, opossums, coyotes, deer, raccoons, a wild turkey, a woodchuck and a skunk (the actual culprit) all passed through his suburban yard in Grafton, Mass.

“Of course, I knew logically that these animals are around,” he says, “but I never expected to see them all here.”

In just a few decades, many species of wildlife have relocated to some of the most densely populated regions of the country. Because of development sprawl and the successful restoration of species and forest habitats damaged by human activity, we now routinely encounter wild birds and animals that our parents and grandparents rarely saw. Today, the eastern third of the country has the largest forest in the contiguous U.S. as well as two-thirds of its people, reports Jim Sterba in his 2013 book Nature Wars.

Many wild animals don’t simply adapt to—but actually thrive in—the artificial habitats we create. Canada geese, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, opossums and deer all seem to prefer the suburbs to more rural areas, says Allen Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Cummings School.

“We fertilize and water our yards, creating a super-productive environment for anything that eats plants or eats living things that eat plants,” he says. Birdfeeders, pet food, unsecured trash and other features of suburban backyards attract raccoons, skunks, bears, coyotes and other wild visitors.

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