Monday, April 03, 2006

Wild America: Coming to a City Near You

Turkeys Aren't Just for Thanksgiving Anymore

My wife said to me the other day "We saw a bunch of wild turkeys on the railroad tracks over by Century Ave." Me, I barely lifted my head from the newspaper to acknowledge her proclamation. Wild turkey sightings, having become a common fixture in rural Minnesota are now considered a hum drum event even in the big city.

This was not always the case. Having grown up in the outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities my brothers and I spent a lot of time in the woods and prairies in and around the Mississippi backwaters. Frankly, I see a whole lot more wildlife nowadays driving around in my car within the boundaries of the second largest city in Minnesota. St Paul is part of the 15th or 16th largest metropolitan area in the country, and it is not unusual to hear of black bear and cougar sightings or even to hear the howls of coyotes on clear, windless nights.

When I was a kid it was a huge event if you saw a bald eagle. Now, we have a resident bald eagle that is so young he doesn't even have his tell-tale white head yet. I see him regularly passing over the house. I read in the paper about the nesting pair that were prepping their nest for their third season over by Keller Lake. I thought "wow, it would be cool to get a look at the nest and maybe even see the eagles." As it happened a few weeks later I was mindlessly driving east along Highway 36 when I spotted a huge nest in a grove of trees 60 yards off the freeway. And there, standing on the nest proud and majestic, was the eagle. It was hardly a challenge to get up close to catch a glimpse of the wily and elusive bald eagle - I didn't even have to slow down!

So, you may ask why is it that we see deer and fox and canada geese with such regularity that it hardly elicits an ooh or an aah anymore? Some would use that tired platitude that wildlife is not moving into the city but rather the city is moving out to the wildlife. I don't buy it. I live in a part of the city that has been urban for 40 or 50 years. This is a static environment in the sense that it has not undergone major changes from a more rural setting to a more urban setting. In fact, the maturity of the area has probably more to do with the increase in wildlife sightings than the so-called disruption of the natural habitat. In other words the animals are adapting - and thriving!

Like I said, when I was a kid I spent a helluva lot more time in the wild than I do now and it was a rarity to see foxes and eagles. I never once saw a wild turkey as a kid. In fact the most exotic thing I ever saw as a youngster (besides the badger my older brothers trapped and killed) was a rare timber rattlesnake near the bluffs of the Mississippi.

A few years ago I had entered the bathroom in my house to use the facilities and as I stood there taking care of business I glanced out the window and there staring back at me from the bush outside the window was a Coopers hawk. My God it was cool. I was able to sneak out and get the whole family in for a look before it flew away. We would see the hawk now and again chasing sparrows in and out of the shrubs and bushes in the neighborhood.

Then there was the story of the drunken raccoon that was stumbling down the sidewalk and falling out of the trees. Apparently raccoons routinely dined on fermented fruit that grew on the neighborhood trees and became intoxicated. Eventually (sometimes after a few days) they would sober up and climb down out of the trees in the dark of night. It was very, very funny.

We live by an old Chicago-Northwestern railroad line (now owned by Union Pacific) and have come to realize that the railroad tracks and the land surrounding them is essentially a wildlife highway that literally passes by our backyard. It may account for some of the neat things we have seen over the years - but still contend that wild animals are adapting to our cities and in some cases doing amazingly well. One day my son and I were walking along the tracks and, in fact, had seen a white-tailed deer buck with his harem that very day. Still pumped up by the buck sighting as we walked along we spotted something crossing the tracks up about a hundred yards ahead of us. I couldn't believe what my eyes were telling me! I broke into a run and covered 20 or 30 yards before the creature and it's cubs disappeared into the woods again. I was convinced I had just seen a mother cougar and her cubs. I had never seen a cougar in the wild so seeing this thing within a mile of my house was simply mind boggling.

When I told my story to my wife and friends they thought I had been smoking something illegal. Bottom line, no one really believed me. Several weeks later my wife handed me the newspaper which had a story of several sightings of a cougar in the different parts of the metro area - all since the time I had my encounter. I felt vindicated. Since then we have had many more confirmed sightings of cougars. One was even caught on a motion sensing camera set up by an Xcel Energy company employee who had also been called crazy. He baited it with deer meat right behind the building where he worked near the Minnesota River Valley wildlife refuge.

I think there is a lesson in this that shows us that we can and do share the land with the animals. And just as our ancestors had to learn to live and thrive in the wilderness the animals are learning to live and thrive in our urban jungles. It only seems fair...