The article comes from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which is in and of itself a puzzler. The Journal is primarily a financial magazine, though hard times for print media over the past six years may have inspired the WSJ to cast a bigger net for readers.
The topic – that wild animal populations have not only rebounded thanks to conservation programs, but that the recovery is pushing them inexorably into conflict with man – sounds like a left-handed compliment from the Mitt Romney side of the senatorial aisle (though Romney himself has never occupied any political office aside from governor of Massachusetts).
Environmentalists and animal lovers are overjoyed by the news. Some suburbanites, who like their putting-green grass and 2.5 fruit trees (plus a vegetable garden), are appalled at how messy and noisy nature is, especially when it’s engaged in feeding and mating behaviors literally right under bedroom windows at two o’clock in the morning.
Raccoons or bears raiding metal garbage cans or bins after dark is one example. Deer grazing on the bark of fruiting or landscape trees during the day are another. The deer are quiet enough, unless they are males in rut, but their appetites can kill a tree in as little as two seasons.
The arguments from humans are predictable. “They were here first,” argue nature lovers, referring to said wildlife.
“It cost me $2,000 and two days off work to lay that sod (or plant that tree, or till that garden and install retaining walls)!” Argue lawn lovers.
Have we been too helpful to wildlife? Not really, but the efforts to protect critical habitat, for the Greater American Prairie Chicken for example, have also helped the species less sensitive and more voracious relatives.
The reclusive Prairie Chicken for example – a species hunted to the edge of extinction by the 1930s and only recently recovering – will absolutely not nest near roads or highways, cell phone towers, electrical power lines or rural farms. The red-wing blackbird, which inhabits identical terrain (tall-grass prairies and wetlands), doesn’t mind farms, houses, power lines, cell phones or virtually anything else created by the hand of man. In fact, this blackbird is one of the numerous species that actually likes civilization, which provides interesting places to nest, shiny trinkets and unique materials for building that nest, and free food in the form of abundant and highly varied leftovers scattered in hundreds of public venues from shopping malls to amusement parks.
There are as few as 459,999 Greater Prairie Chickens left in North America. There are more than 225 million red-winged blackbirds. The lesson is clear. As the globe warms, testing species’ ability to adapt, and human populations rise, eliminating natural habitats, the survival of the fittest will depend on each species being able to live alongside humans.
Rats and cockroaches, called synanthropic species for their ability to share human ecosystems, have been doing so for hundreds of years. Other species are exhibiting similar adaptation skills. These include (but are not limited to) deer, raccoons, muskrats, groundhogs, bear, ducks and geese, coyotes, and birds, this last occupying a larger niche due to their increased intelligence – I’m sure you have read the articles about crows, blackbirds, ravens and jays using logic to solve problems. Some zoologists suspect that they may eventually prove even smarter than the great apes.
An even smarter bird may be the parrot. An African grey named Alex, whose vocabulary ran to more than 150 words, could count. He also exhibited some very human traits besides reasoning; he got bored with his human handlers, and he experienced irritation when being forced to cooperate in intelligence-estimating projects. (I’ve always speculated that some animals may be smarter than us, which is why they use telepathy rather than language to communicate!)
Some preservationists and zoologists are delighted by the ability of some species to synergistically coexist with humans. Surprisingly, most bird lovers are not. They don’t want a million crows and jays; they want the survival of Kirtland’s Warblers, or male and female Golden-winged warblers in sufficient numbers to insure a minimum viable population for wild breeding.
One of the major factors in introducing wildlife to suburban neighborhoods is the reforestation that began in the last century, bringing lawns and forests into direct contact. When it is only a matter of a few steps for a deer to leave natural forage and sample your garden instead, it will. The succulent tips of new tree growth are delectable but hard to find. A garden full of beets, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins is, to a deer, like a candy store is to children.
The bottom line is that we have succeeded admirably in making civilization the sort of thing that invites some species to make themselves at home. For example, our lawns and leftovers – not to mention our pools, raingardens, decorative ponds and bird feeders – provide a level of life support and even protection from the elements and from predators, most of which aren’t as comfortable with suburbia as the synanthropic species.
Personally, I’m enchanted by the muskrat, the porcupine and the chipmunks who thinkI built my yard and garden for their edification. Nor do I mind the occasional depredation: I didn’t put up no-trespassing signs and they can’t read anyway! But those who want their perfect lawn and a 2-car garage which doesn’t shelter mice or baby birds will apparently never be happy until every last trace of the wild world outside their neat little lives is eradicated.