Adaptable predators thrive across East Vancouver

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      When you are hiking a wilderness trail on Vancouver Island or in the Interior, you are probably alert to the possibility of encountering a bear, maybe even a cougar. It’s also a situation that can’t be dismissed on the North Shore or in some of Metro Vancouver’s eastern municipalities that are increasingly intruding on the animals’ habitat.

      But in East Vancouver? Your radar would likely never even be switched on.

      However, early morning encounters with black bears in East Van are exactly what happened last year to a city road crew and a woman walking her dog. Provincial conservation officers tranquillized a bear in the 2100 block of Franklin Street, about three blocks west of Nanaimo Street, after a car struck it near the PNE. A few months later, police helped contain a mother and cub for tranquillizing near Hastings and Cassiar streets. Years previous, when the Canucks still played in the Pacific Coliseum, concession workers preparing hot dogs for that night’s game discovered a hungry cougar roaming the mezzanine and sniffing the air. Earlier this year, an overwintering red-tailed hawk wreaked havoc on the pigeon population near Templeton Secondary School. Eagles are currently nesting on port lands and adjacent to the PNE. And just after the start of summer this year, residents of East Van’s Cedar Cottage neighbourhood found an adult deer trapped in a fenced-in construction site.

      These are all densely populated areas. Their inhabitants are used to regular visits by squirrels, skunks, and raccoons that raid garbage, gardens, bird feeders, and pet food left outside. Many residents of Vancouver are accustomed to these species as well, not to mention the roaming coyotes that own the streets late at night and are sometimes bold enough to hunt by day in residential neighbourhoods.

      Why such an abundance of species in East Vancouver, though? People who make day trips or weekend camping jaunts to some of our nearby wilderness provincial parks would probably consider themselves lucky to view even a few of these opportunistic urban critters.

      Robyn Worcester is the conservation-programs manager with the Stanley Park Ecology Society, an organization affiliated with the Vancouver park board, which supplies it with office and exhibition space in a building on the edge of Lost Lagoon. Among other things, the nonprofit group offers environmental-education opportunities for the public—on subjects such as how to coexist with coyotes—and conducts nature tours in Stanley Park. Worcester says that other than the relatively rare East Side encounters with bears, deer, and cougars, wildlife sightings are more a result of adaptability and simple observation and are probably fairly evenly scattered throughout the city.

      “Essentially, the city draws in these adaptable species with food sources,” Worcester, a biologist in training, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We are creating an environment with food sources for species that are food for other species.

      “I notice it [the large numbers] too. Urban wildlife is fascinating to me. The more species I learn, and the more I learn where to find them, the more I see. I work in an environment where I talk to people from all over the world”¦and they’re blown away by the abundance of wildlife in such close proximity to people.” She noted that our city is uniquely situated to be accessed by various creatures. “Between the Fraser Delta and Vancouver Island and the mountains, we’ve got a lot of places that animals can move around.”

      A biologist and director of the ecology society, John Gray is also the assistant manager of animal services for the City of Vancouver. He, too, thinks the brushes with bears were a bit of a blip. “Bears are a huge anomaly in Vancouver,” he said from his office in the Animal Control Services building bordering Strathcona Park. “We can go five or six years without them coming in. We get the odd cougar, too. We’ve had a couple over the years.” He noted that the Cedar Cottage deer managed to jump the fence but, like the Franklin Street bear, was hit by a car and bounded away. “That’s the last anyone saw of it.” He theorized, only half seriously, that it may have ended up as “someone’s dinner”.

      As far as some of the other species go, Gray said, he agrees with Worcester. “There has really been a growth in wildlife coming into Vancouver, a resurgence. It’s amazing what you can find in your community if you open your eyes.”

      Mike Mackintosh was manager of wildlife services for West Side parks, including Queen Elizabeth Park and Stanley Park, for 37 years until his retirement this past April. He said there has been an increase in urban wildlife in recent years, and one species has really caught his attention. “It’s true—many of these species have habituated to human activity. Bald eagles are a classic example. They’ve learned that they have nothing to fear from people. Birds of prey are incredibly adaptable and resourceful. It’s quite exciting that they’re there.”

      Mackintosh said that in the 1960s, there were only one or two eagle nests within city limits; now, he said, there are well over a dozen, including one near Malkin Bowl. “The eagles get to hear Blue Rodeo, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

      As another example of adaptability, he said that pelagic cormorants have moved from their Stanley Park seaside cliffs to places such as under the Granville Street Bridge for protection from eagle attacks, and he pointed out the great blue heron colony in the park. “It’s one of the most significant colonies in the world, literally.”

      But Mackintosh said the wildlife success stories mask a painful truth. “We’re looking at species that are highly adaptable. Other species aren’t. That’s the result of human development. I’m the first to appreciate that you are able to see some species that you weren’t able to see a decade or two ago, but it’s an illusion.”¦The city has densified dramatically, and vacant spaces have disappeared, so that’s not a plus for wildlife.”

      Worcester agrees with that view. “The diversity of species is in trouble, whereas the abundance is not,” she said.

      Being headquartered in Stanley Park affords Worcester a unique opportunity to study birds, with an emphasis on raptors. Because the Lower Mainland is located on a major West Coast flyway, vast numbers of migrating birds representing a multitude of species pass through. Add that to the resident birds, the ones who overwinter and breed, and the summer visitors, she said, and you can see why Stanley Park observers have recorded an amazing 230 species. These range from the common loon to the relatively rare black-crowned night heron to the exceedingly uncommon (for here) Philadelphia vireo and northern shrike.

      The raptors, though, engage her the most. “We have at least 10 species or more, and that’s not counting owls and other species. We are exceptional for that.” She said there are 20 known eagle nests in Vancouver, with 17 nesting pairs known and, this breeding season, 16 confirmed eaglets. “You can’t beat our [B.C.’s] number of eagles, unless you go to Alaska.”

      One raptor in particular has captured her admiration. “I think peregrine falcons are my favourite. They are definitely an urban-wildlife creature. They’re just a cool bird, and they’re the fastest animal out of water on Earth.”

      It would probably astonish most denizens of the Drive if they knew what Worcester regularly sees in their neighbourhood. “I live on 3rd and Commercial, and I see Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and turkey vultures. Once I saw a Cooper’s hawk, a red-tailed hawk, and a bald eagle on the same thermal [updraft]!”

      It’s the coyote, though, the urban trickster, that has generated the most attention. Several years ago, mainstream-media outlets shrieked hysterically for months as a result of a few highly publicized coyote-human interactions—none of which resulted in serious injury. A nip on the buttock of a girl who was playing near a human-habituated coyote in Vanier Park resulted in the shooting death of the animal. A few other nips and approaches and the disappearance of small pets that owners unwisely allowed outside unsupervised resulted in calls for the crafty animals’ extermination, even though this has never been successfully accomplished in an urban setting in North America.

      Surprisingly, although the creatures seem ubiquitous—as evidenced by the disparate locations called in to the Stanley Park Ecology Society’s coyote-sightings number (which received 116 calls in the first five months of 2009)—their numbers are thought to be relatively small in Vancouver.

      “There is an estimated 200 in Vancouver and 2,000 in the Lower Mainland,” Worcester said. This despite the fact that sightings have ranged from West Point Grey Academy to Yaletown to Beach Avenue to Kamloops Street to Chinatown. “They have territories,” she said, “with territorial pairs. And then there are transients who get kicked out of established territories.”

      Gray, who worked with Mackintosh for 17 years, said physical and geographic features aid the coyotes’ penetration of all parts of Vancouver. “They were using the Grandview Cut until we developed it [with the SkyTrain], and they use the beaches to get from place to place.” He said old rail yards and tracks are also lures, and golf courses are popular places to hole up. “I think, though, there has been a general move in their population eastward for the past few years.”

      Mackintosh, for his part, seems to admire the coyote, although he said there are occasions when they need to be controlled.

      “We’ve had a few that were reasonably aggressive toward humans—showing no fear—and have attacked pets [five of the 116 calls were about pet attacks; at least three involved illegal leashing]. You have to take care of such situations.

      “It’s a species that has basically moved its range across the North American continent. They will take and eat anything. They are smart, very cautious, and very social. They don’t pose any kind of a threat.”

      It’s too bad the same can’t be said about us.



      Peter Carson

      Jul 2, 2009 at 6:58pm

      For aprox the last 35 years, a great deal of my pleasure has been derived from feeding urbanized animals, birds of any description, except pigeon's and starlings. When I bought a house in N. Delta (1978), I inherited a small group of raccoon's living in my garage, who regularly targeted the neighborhood garbage cans as a source of food. The raccoon's garbage raiding parties had been a messy problem for years. Most people wanted them trapped and relocated, but nobody wanted to pay for a trapper. After a few weeks of raccoon raids, I came up with an alternate strategy to deal with the problem, as a common sense experiment. It seemed the real problem was the raccoon's needed something to eat, because urban growth had displaced natural food sources as more roads, houses and shopping malls were developed. The experiment was to co-habitate with the raccoon's, by putting out dog-food cibble in the evenings. Once the raccoon's had food, they stopped raiding garbage cans overnight. My 95 pound female Roti-shepherd cross and "the cat" eventually learned to calm-down and keep a respectful distance if they were free in the yard while the raccoon's were feeding, because it was not the dogs or cats food bowls the raccoon's were eating from.

      Peter Carson
      Peter Carson
      Vancouver BC

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      Carolyn Knight

      Jul 2, 2009 at 9:14pm

      Urban nature, though a post-modern marvel, is indicative of some of our out of balance attitudes.
      What is a black bear to do when its home is obliterated by massive development that sends it packing? Brentwood Bay, a suburb of Victoria, situated as it is within the Agricultural Land Reserve, had a black bear visit this past winter smack dab in the middle of that town's main drag; out in WestShore, otherwise known as Langford, a highly-developed area in only the past 10 years, has contributed to this displacement by handing out zoning to developers who promise to carve out "master-planned communities", obliterating huge parcels of once forested lands ringing the Capital city. Langfordians have had their bear in the yard activities increase of late. No surprise that these displaced forest creatures make their way into the downtown core. Isn't this what most displaced "migrants" do to fulfill their requirements for food and homes? Are we surprised by this? I just about hit a young buck crossing a major thoroughfare today as I drove to an appointment. Now the nouveau hillbillies have driven their Humvees into Paradise and the "locals" (ie, bears, cougar, deer, predator birds) have been driven out and taken to camping in Downtown, BC. Things are wacky for our animal friends. And us too.

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      Michelle Nelson

      Jul 3, 2009 at 10:28am

      Martin Dunphy’s article on urban wildlife in the last issue of the Straight I think reflects an evolving view of city dwellers - wildlife are not encroaching on us, but rather the other way around. Humans live in ecosystems that belong to all species using them, and right now we’re monopolizing these spaces. Adaptable and intelligent wildlife that are able to survive in environments that must be almost unrecognizable should be respected and admired. Let’s applaud the fact that these species are thriving, and endeavor to figure out how we can co-exist and help them succeed. And as Dunphy points out, we mustn’t forget about all the species whose numbers are declining because of urban development and human activity – amphibians and migratory birds are especially in trouble. But there’s a lot us city dwellers can do! It’s easy to create environments, even in small urban lots, that provide food, water and shelter for resident and migrant wildlife. Little dishes of standing water (protected from marauding felines) are great for birds and butterflies. Nutritious seed and sugar water feed migrant birds on their way to breed or overwinter. Overturned plant pots and small piles of woody yard debris house frogs and small wild mammals. If you have a pond, decide against predatory gold fish and perhaps you’ll entice frogs and even salamanders to lay eggs. Co-existing with wildlife is not impossible. Urban spaces are only enhanced by the presence of creatures that make our city as beautiful as it is.

      Good for you, Peter, for thinking against the mainstream and finding a great solution for your neighborhood and the animals!

      Michelle Nelson
      Vancouver (Southlands)

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      Sandra Streifel

      Jul 3, 2009 at 10:31am

      The rail line which is now used for the West Coast Express has been a conduit for wildlife into East Vancouver, as far as the Port Area, for at least 40 years as far as I know. It has been a regular, though not frequent occurance, to find deer lost around our neighborhood--last summer, Skeena and Adanac--and my Dad has often told us of deer wandering down to the railyards in the 1960's.

      Even though Vancouver has not had many large areas of bush converted to suburban tracts, lots have been redeveloped to minimize wasteful yard and tree space in favour of dwelling space. Introduced squirrel species also have contributed to a severe decrease in the diversity and number of the small bird population in our area. Crows are a native species which have adapted extremely well to urban living, to the detriment of smaller birds.

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      Jul 3, 2009 at 11:31am

      Feeding wild animals may bring Mr. Carson pleasure, but it could be harmful to both the animals and people in the long term. Once fed, wild animals have a tendency to lose their fear of people and can become a hazard if people mistakenly view their approach as friendly. Bites, attacks on pets and the resulting destruction of the animal become more likely. The coyote that recently attacked a toddler in Port Coquitlam is a good example - conservation officers say that it became habituated to humans because it was being fed. People who feed wild animals may intend to be helpful, but instead put the animals and people in danger. Incidentally, feeding wild animals is an offence under the provincial Wildlife Act.

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      Jul 3, 2009 at 4:20pm

      I completely agree with Terry. Although many people carry the misconception that they are helping by feeding animals, wild animals should not ever be spreads disease when animals who would not ordinarly socialize come together to feed on hand outs. Not only that, as Terry mentioned, feeding encourages animals to become habituated to humans which is not only dangerous to them, but to us. Whenever you feel tempted to feed a wild animal, please remember the adage: 'A fed animal is a dead animal'.

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      Reader via e-mail

      Jul 14, 2009 at 5:19pm

      I wish to correct two things in Martin Dunphy’s article [“Adaptable predators thrive across the city”, July 2-9]. The first is an error of fact in a statement attributed to Mike Mackintosh: the pelagic cormorant colony on the cliffs at Prospect Point—a colony I had been monitoring for several years—was evicted by Stanley Park management’s decision to spend several weeks each early spring to blast loose rock from the cliffs precisely during the period when the cormorants would normally be selecting their nesting ledges and begin nesting. After several years of scaling at precisely the wrong time of the birds’ calendar to do it, and in spite of repeated requests to Vancouver Park Board from concerned observers to pick a less harmful time of the year for scaling, the cormorants gave up and relocated to the bridges over False Creek.

      The second is a glossing over of the actual reason the great blue heron colony relocated from the aquarium area to its present location. One April afternoon several years ago, I witnessed a massed panic flight of all the herons away from the aquarium nesting colony. When I went to see the cause, I found a construction team operating a heavy-duty air compressor and jack-hammering right below the just-abandoned heron colony at precisely the time of year that the herons would be nesting and were most sensitive to any disruptive or harassing activity.

      In both instances, Stanley Park management and associated agencies officially blamed neighboring eagles for each species’ abandonment. In spite of the fact that both pelagic cormorant and great blue heron populations are considered under threat, neither Stanley Park management nor its senior department, the Vancouver Park Board, has suffered any consequences for these two gross environmental abuses. The fact that, instead of giving up, the herons have now re-established their colony next to the Vancouver Park Board offices is nothing if not poetic justice, though it is the only justice they’re likely to receive.

      Michael Price

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