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Reveling in Urban Ecology

January 30, 2013

I’ve always lived in cities, and I’ve always loved nature, but for most of my life I took the concept of “wild animals” in cities for granted. Sure, there are some birds, and squirrels, but so what?

It wasn’t until I took an urban ecology class that my eyes were opened to how much you can learn just by watching wildlife in a city.

One of our major assignments for the class was simply to observe wildlife in two different types of urban locations every week for a semester, and write a paper about everything we learned.

I managed to spot about 40 species without any formal training or expertise, and since then the way I perceive urban wildlife has completely changed. If you want to give it a try, I’ve outlined a few tips to help you get started.

First pick two locations with different “habitat types” like an old residential neighborhood, a new residential neighborhood, a cemetery, an alley in a restaurant district (with dumpsters) or some nearby agricultural land (or even a community garden).

Ideally one of them can be your home (with you watching from a porch, balcony, or even just sitting outside), and the other one should be different so you can compare them later. I went with an old residential neighborhood and a cemetery.

Set a fixed day and time to observe each site so that you can see how the species change with the seasons independent of the time of day. Buy or borrow a bird identification book and a pair of binoculars, and be sure to pack a notebook and pen (and umbrella in case it rains).

When you arrive to your site, take note of the weather in your notebook (which will likely have a big impact on what you see in any given day) and find a comfortable place to sit (it should be the same spot facing the same direction every week, so choose carefully!). What sounds do you hear (both human and natural)? If you hear insects try and write down how they sound, or make a recording with your phone.

As you see each species, take your best guess as to what it is (a camera is great for being able to identify them later), but most importantly just watch them.

How do they look for food, and what do they eat? How do they respond to the sight or sound of other animals (predators, prey, competitors, etc.)? Where do they rest? You will eventually get a sense of how various elements of the urban landscape serve to provide habitat to different species. You’ll also start to notice different species and different behavior as the weather changes. It may take some time to get used to spotting and focusing on wildlife, but with practice it will get easier.

At the end of the season (or when the weather gets too unpleasant for you to persist), take a look at your observations and reflect on what you’ve learned.

You may be surprised by the diversity of species you can spot in a city without any special training, and how much you learn about the way that they behave.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

(Photo: An urban cedar waxwing feeds on berries, common behavior in winter. Credit: Matt Miller/TNC)


Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher is a senior conservation scientist for the Center for Sustainability Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is leading efforts to put rigorous science front and center in our sustainable agriculture work, and finding ways to improve sustainability through corporate practices and public policy. More from Jon

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  1. Jon,
    Thanks for your observation ideas. I do a lot of daily watching in my backyard. That’s how I found out that butterflies can be aggressive with each other over food sources. I always see something interesting if I’m alert. Your article reminded me of an elegant article written by David George Haskell, biology prof at Sewanee who observed the same small area in the Sewanee woods for one year. It was published in the Sewanee Magazine, summer 2012 issue. Hope you have time to check it out. If you can’t find it, I can send you a copy. One question: What is spatial analysis ?

    Keep up your good work.

    mj sutcliffe
    St Petersburg, FL