Anne Murray: Taking a long look at wildlife in our changing landscape
Imagine looking up into the sky and seeing a giant bird, half again as big as a bald eagle, swooping over the mountains and down to the beach. With a beat or two of its 1.5-metre wings, it stoops low over the shallows, pulls the huge carcass of a beached porpoise from the water, and rises in a shower of spray.
Step back in time to the early 1800s, and this was not an imaginary scene but the last sightings of California condors on the B.C. coast. Once this vulture roamed the length of the Pacific Northwest coast, perhaps inspiring the First Nations’ stories of Thunderbird, with wings that made thunder and flashing eyes that struck lightning, as it carried off whales in its talons. Andean condors in South America descend from the mountains to the coast at sea lion calving time, in a similar quest for marine mammal prey, but the mighty California condor is now restricted to a very limited range in the U.S., supported by captive breeding programs.
A century and a half has passed since naturalist John Keast Lord recorded a condor at the mouth of the Fraser River, and in that time many other wildlife species have come and gone. Thousands of bald eagles gather in the Lower Mainland every winter and many stay to nest. They have made an exceptional comeback from the ’50s and ’60s, when the cumulative effects of bounty hunting and pesticide-caused egg-shell thinning had severely impacted their numbers. Similarly, trumpeter swans were down to just a few birds in the 1930s, being hunted out along their migration routes. The largest of the swan family, these large white birds are now a common sight on winter farm fields, and it is their slightly smaller cousin, the tundra swan, that is becoming scarce. Feral Canada geese populations have exploded, while migrant races, white-fronted geese, and brant have all struggled to survive.
Black bears are common on the North Shore, yet used to also roam across the bog lands south of the Fraser. The last wild bear in Richmond was shot on No. 6 Road around 1948, and very few are now seen in Surrey and North Delta. As settlers spread across the Lower Mainland, Roosevelt elk were hunted out; cougars, wolves, and bears disappeared along with their dense forest habitat; and snowshoe hares were replaced with the ubiquitous eastern cottontail. Coyotes moved into farmland, while raccoons and Virginia opossums adapted easily to urban life.
Eastern grey squirrels are a relatively new phenomenon. For years, they were only found in Stanley Park, where a feral population was introduced some time before 1914. Elsewhere, the native brown Douglas squirrel lived in the forest. Between 1970 and 1995, grey squirrels started to disperse. Biologist Emily Gonzales, then a master’s student, tracked their movement, finding that they spread at a rate of 3.64 kilometres a year, arriving in Surrey in 1989, Tsawwassen in 1993, and Langley in the late 1990s. Since black morphs were more common in the Stanley Park population, there are now more black squirrels than grey ones.
A lot of changes have occurred among songbirds too. All the insect eaters have declined, as human tolerance for bugs is very low. The prevalence of pesticides has meant the disappearance of once-common birds, like the swift, nighthawk, and many species of flycatchers. Meanwhile, the practice of bird feeding has encouraged grain-eating finches and chickadees, as well as hummingbirds. Wintering Anna’s hummingbirds are now more widespread, either because of a milder climate or the provision of feeders. The collared dove is another curious arrival. Originally from Asia, it spread across Europe through the ’70s and ’80s, and small, restricted populations were found on the American continent. In the last few years, these doves have multiplied unexpectedly and briskly across the Lower Mainland.
Amidst our changing landscape, wildlife populations come and go, often as a response to human changes in the environment. What effects we have on biological diversity are very difficult to predict, although this does not stop attempts at wildlife “management”. In the International Year of Biodiversity, we would do well to take a long and informed view of natural history, coupled with a large dose of humility, remembering to leave room in the landscape for nature to survive and thrive.
Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.