Wild Game Populations Are Thriving in Big Cities
Deer, coyotes, and other species are making urban centers their homes
I was walking across campus one morning when I got a text from my dad. It was an image of a dead woodcock lying on the street in New York City. The message read, “Found another one on my way to work today.” This wasn’t the first time my father had come across a timberdoodle that met its fate by flying into an NYC skyscraper.
As someone who grew up 30 minutes outside the city, I never thought wild game would inhabit any part of the Five Boroughs. Seeing deer, coyotes, ducks, and other kinds of critters was common here in the wilderness areas and waters near my home in Long Island, but on the streets of New York? Our city centers continue to expand with development and urban sprawl, which means human infringement on animal habitat continues. So it’s not surprising that humans are encountering these animals within city limits more and more.
Residents of Houston’s suburbs are now capturing videos of coyotes on home security cameras. Some videos show coyotes walking through driveways, right under basketball hoops. In the summer of 2020, in West Milford, New Jersey, an 82 year-old man was attacked by a black bear in his garage. Ronald Jelinek received more than 30 stitches to his face after the bear took a swipe at him. The bear was later captured and euthanized by the state.
Woodcock and other migratory birds are flying into the windows of tall buildings, deer are well-established in the suburbs, coyotes roam city streets, and mallards are spending their days on man-made ponds within neighborhoods and apartment complexes. So how are these wild animals adapting—and thriving—in such places? Is it good for them? And what does it mean for the folks living in those communities? I talked to the experts to find out.
The Big Cats of L.A.
Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Mountains are home to a healthy population of mountain lions. The National Park Service has studied lions since 2002 in the L.A. and Santa Monicas, and has monitored nearly a hundred individual lions in region. The latest captured and released lion is P-95, whose name indicates it’s the 95th puma captured in the study. You can find interactive maps of L.A.’s cougars and other urban wildlife here.
“Our project goal has been trying to understand how mountain lions are surviving in such an urban fragmented landscape,” says Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service. “In the beginning, we had to answer basic questions like, what are mountain lions eating? Are they crossing roads and freeways? What habitats do they prefer? We capture and GPS radio collar individual lions. With this high-tech equipment, we can better understand what these mountain lions are doing in urban areas.”
The summer of 2020 was one of the most successful reproductive seasons for cougars in the western L.A. area. NPS discovered 13 newborn kittens across five different dens. For the most part, these mountain lions are staying elusive and sticking to eating their natural prey.
“We’ve hiked in on over 700 kill sites,” says Sikich. “Roughly 88 percent of their diet is deer followed by coyote, raccoon, and smaller prey items. They’re staying elusive and out of sight among all these people and homes.”
One of the most dangerous factors facing cougars is habitat fragmentation, according to the NPS. Vehicle collisions and inbreeding are also significant concerns.
“The main issue with these mountain lions is that they’re trapped in the Santa Monica region,” says Sikich. “They have some of the lowest genetic diversity ever recorded.”
Habitat fragmentation—caused by urban sprawl, roads, and freeways—plays a significant role in genetic diversity as mountain lions are limited to where they can travel. But even with all the challenges lions face in the L.A. area (including death by rat poison), they are still finding ways to survive and stay hidden from humans.
It’s not often that people are able to snap a picture of an urban cougar, but no mountain lion photo may be more iconic than the 2013 image of a male cougar, prowling at night with the Hollywood sign in the background.
“Around here, most of the public supports having lions around,” says Sikich. “A lot of that has been through education from the National Park Service and other organizations.”
Over the two decades he’s spent studying mountain lions in southern California, Sikich and his team have not yet documented a single human conflict with an individual lion.
“If lions looked at people as prey, we wouldn’t have mountain lions anymore. Because any lion that attacks someone is taken out,” he says. “I tell people that lions see us every day—we just don’t see them.”
Living with Whitetails
Found in almost every state in the U.S., whitetail deer are one of the most common species you’ll see in urban areas. With the continued expansion of cities, deer have increasingly overlapped with humans.
“Suburban, and urban landscapes, to some degree, provide high-quality food sources for deer because people plant nutritious vegetation around their homes and green spaces,” says Jeremy Hurst, a big game biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “One deer that was handled on Staten Island a couple of years ago was a buck that weighed more than 300 pounds. It’s clear deer in [most] suburban areas aren’t nutritionally limited.”
Suburban whitetails don’t need much to survive, and as long as their nutritional and safety needs are met, they can live almost anywhere. Whitetails are browsers and will feed on herbaceous plants, acorns, berries, and other shrubs. Some of their most favorable plants are narrowed-leafed evergreen, like arborvitae and fir. According to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, hostas, daylilies, and tulips are a few of the preferred food plants frequently damaged by deer.
In Syracuse—a major urban center in New York state—Hurst’s colleagues tracked deer in the snow to study their movement patterns.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see the spaces deer are using,” Hurst says. “In many cases, they are traveling at night by using small habitat patches like wooded backyards and strips of suburbia wood lines to link up to larger green spaces like cemeteries, golf courses, and parks.”
Controlling these deer herds can be challenging. A cull hunt is often ruled out of the question due to human population densities, so game managers have employed many different tactics with varying degrees of success. In 2016, New York City launched a non-lethal deer management plan that focused on male deer sterilization, public education, and natural resource protection. As of 2020, 93 percent of the antlered males on Staten Island had been sterilized, according to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
“Urban deer management works in a completely different frame of reference and context than deer management in general,” says Hurst. “Hunting in many cases is not achievable in these areas either because the lands aren’t open to hunting or the housing is such that firearms and bows aren’t allowed to be discharged.”
Often, the removal of deer may be necessary to prevent starvation, disease, and human conflicts, but the methodology in which it occurs differs from typical deer management practices.
“You have to explore the alternatives, and what’s acceptable in a rural landscape may not be logistically feasible or socially acceptable in an urban context.”
Hurst explains that there needs to be ownership and partnership with the municipality for effective management in urban centers. This requires participation from leadership and the public within that community. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to urban deer management.
Maryland’s Howard County, which lies just outside Baltimore, has experienced similar problems with urban deer conflict. The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks worked diligently with the public to develop a comprehensive deer management plan. Leadership worked with citizens, business owners, and resource professionals to create a plan to benefit everyone in the area. The plan outlined goals, conservation strategies, roles, management methods, and more. It is a good example of an effective partnership between community leaders and the public to do what’s best for humans and deer herds.
Chicago’s Song Dogs
The Urban Coyote Project focuses on coyote populations in greater Chicago. The research initiative began in 2000 due to increased sightings and a growing fear of conflicts with humans. What was supposed to be a one-year study has lasted two decades, spearheaded by wildlife ecologist and Ohio State University professor, Stan Gehrt.
“People are living with coyotes whether they know it or not,” says Gehrt, who also works with the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation to study Chicago’s coyotes. “The public perception sometimes is that there is a belief that there is a greater risk than there really is for conflict between coyotes and humans. We’ve found that the number of coyotes that come into conflict with humans is a very small percentage, and that hasn’t changed over time.”
The misconception that coyotes are out to hurt humans is a common one. While occasional conflicts do arise between coyotes and pets, it’s rare for there to be an issue with humans.
“The majority of the coyotes maintain their fear of people, even after years and years of living among them,” Gehrt says. “That’s the most important thing. Not only [is that true of the overall coyote] population, but even at the individual level. The public doesn’t see that because those coyotes are staying hidden, and they aren’t doing anything to draw attention to themselves. There is a small percentage that does come into conflict with people, and that’s often the only exposure the public has to coyotes.”
Coyotes living in Chicago’s most urban areas are continuing their role as a predator of other animals. In many cases, this serves as a benefit to humans. Rodents, which can harbor various diseases transmittable to humans, make up the majority of a coyote’s diet, so they control these pests to a degree in cities. Rodents make up 42 percent of coyote diets in Chicago, 40 percent in Los Angeles, and 28 percent in Tucson, Arizona, according to Gehrt’s Ecology of Coyotes in Urban Landscapes study.
It is also documented that coyotes are a primary predator of urban Canada goose nests. This study conducted by Justin Brown determined that during the 2004 to 2005 nesting season in suburbia Chicago, coyotes were responsible for 75 to 78 percent of Canada goose nest depredation. Canada geese have become overpopulated in many urban areas due to a lack of predation, and the reestablishment of coyotes, although small, is helping manage urban geese numbers. The only other predator found was raccoons, which made up for 22 to 28 percent of nest depredation.
Coyote predation of urban whitetails is something Gehrt and his team are also studying. They found coyotes are also helping regulate urban deer populations by preying on fawns.
Coyotes look for available green space in urban areas just as deer do, including cemeteries, golf courses, and parks, and especially ones that might have an undeveloped part where most people won’t venture. These areas usually offer enough habitat to begin establishing a territory. Interestingly, railroad lines often provide not only habitat, but also linear travel corridors that connect open green spaces. Many people may not even realize they’re walking around prime urban coyote habitat, and that’s because coyotes don’t need much to establish themselves.
The largest threat facing the 4,000 coyotes in the Chicago metro area is vehicle collisions. Traffic represents about 62 percent of all forms of urban coyote mortality.
The debate as to whether or not urban coyotes are positive or negative for the local communities continues. But it’s clear their presence in cities is benefiting us, at least to some extent.
“Like all wildlife-related issues, public education is the most important management strategy,” Gehrt says. “Having a better understanding of coyotes and how they play a role in our cities will lead to a safer and healthier urban ecosystem.”
Urban Goose Sprawl
Canada geese rival whitetails as one of the most successful urbanized wild game species. Populations of resident honkers have become so dense in some areas that they’ve created safety issues for humans and wildlife, from sidewalks chalk full of gander feces to dangerous plane strikes. The latter phenomenon was made famous in Miracle on the Hudson, the film starring Tom Hanks that recounted pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s emergency landing on the Hudson River.
The United States Department of Agriculture branch of wildlife services specifically deals with human-wildlife conflict on a broad scale. Former USDA wildlife specialist Joe Albanese worked at the JFK Airport, which sits just outside New York City on Long Island. While working at JFK, Albanese participated in bird strike mitigation programs to deal with migratory waterfowl, resident geese, gulls, and some predatory birds. He used a variety of techniques that included non-lethal strategies such as habitat modification and hazing.
“One of the new frontiers in management is habitat modification,” Albanese says. “You try to eliminate the things that make an area attractive for a species. One of the problems they had at JFK was an overpopulation of gulls. Gulls loved to feed on grasshoppers, and JFK had a good grasshopper hatch. We would control the height of the grass so it wouldn’t promote bug growth and in turn, hopefully, turn away large numbers of gulls.”
Although habitat modification is an essential tool for wildlife control in urban areas, it is not the end all be all. Albanese says, the most effective method for mitigating bird strikes was shooting birds that presented an immediate danger to aircraft. And overpopulation of geese and other species isn’t only impacting humans, but also wildlife.
It’s common to see dozens upon dozens of geese nesting on the side of parkways on Long Island. This isn’t because these geese chose to go there, but rather because they’re forced to occupy these areas, thanks to a lack of habitat and booming human populations.
“The 64-thousand dollar question is, how do we get these populations to fit into their carrying capacity?” Albanese says. ”We make it more and more difficult all the time by urban sprawl. It’s never the animal’s fault. It’s the humans that cause the problem.”