Snow falls soft and fast as I speed down Highway 36. It’s 7:20 in the morning and I’m on my way to work, driving my Subaru from Denver to Boulder like so many other commuting Coloradans.
On the crest of hill overlooking the city, two cow pastures break the monotony of shopping plazas and housing developments that line the highway for miles. A dark shape trots across one of them, silhouetted against the white snow. I coast past it, not bothering to sneak a better look as I monitor the blur of traffic around me.
It’s just another coyote.
I wasn’t always so quick to dismiss urban wildlife. I spent my childhood in central Florida kayaking past alligators, peeling sticky green tree frogs off the windows, and watching baby barred owls vomit up pellets onto our lawn. Mom would yell “Otters!” up the stairwell, and my brother and I would come bounding down to watch them cavort around the dock, time after time. We never got tired of watching the backyard menagerie.
But I always thought of my childhood as an exception: we lived in an old neighborhood bordering a lake and my father lovingly filled our large backyard with as many native species as possible. It was suburbia, but there was still a wildness lurking around the edges, if you knew where to look. (Or maybe it was just Florida.)
Since then I’ve lived my entire adult life in much more urban spaces. Subway rats passed for wildlife in Manhattan and Washington DC, while in Denver the only backyard wildlife I ever saw, aside from the highway coyotes, were feral cats and the occasional crow. There were exceptions, notably spring bird migration in city parks, but then again a passing migration twice a year didn’t seem to count.
And so urban wildlife became less of a reality and more of a buzzword. Something that conservationists talk about, but not something that I valued or sought out.
But that all changed when I moved across the world to Australia five months ago, where a terrifying possum helped me rediscover my wild backyard once again.
Marsupial Night Terrors
My first night in Oz was not a restful one. After weeks of frantic moving logistics, 17 hours in the air, and a day setting up a new cell phone and bank accounts… I was absolutely exhausted. I collapsed into bed, grateful that a co-worker had let me house-sit for the week, and fell asleep instantly.
But just an hour later I awoke to a deafening crash directly over my head. Then another crash, this time from the other side of the house. And then a blood-curdling shriek, followed by a series of loud bangs running across the length of the tin roof.
Convinced that the house was being robbed or I was experiencing an Ambien-induced hallucination — or quite possibly both — I grabbed a mini bottle of pepper spray from my purse and staggered into the living room. Silence. And then another crash, this time from the porch. Creeping up to the glass door, I flicked on the light switch. Staring back at me from the picnic table — equally startled — was a fat, fuzzy possum.
Well, I certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The nighttime possum terrors continued all week: crashes, thumps, scratches, and a chorus of growls, grunts, screeches, hissing, and chattering. The culprit was the common brushtail possum, an impossibly adorable little marsupial with big brown eyes, a wet pink nose, perky ears, and a coat fluffier than a golden retriever puppy.
I soon learned that brushtails love to den in walls, roofs, or ceilings of urban structures, even preferring these man-made structures over tree hollows.
When I regaled my coworker with the story of my night of possum terrors, he simply laughed and said: “Oh, that must have been Bitey.” When I stared at him blankly, he explained that his house is actually inhabited by no fewer than three possums — nicknamed Bitey, Scratchy, and Shrieky — who have frequent raucous brawls on the roof.
Thanks for the warning, mate.
Avian Alarm Clocks and Brazen Brushturkeys
As the weeks went on and I settled into my new life in Brisbane, I started to notice all sorts of furred, feathered, and scaled neighbors creeping about the city.
Living in an apartment spares me from more nighttime possum wrestling, but my sleep is still subject to the whims of wildlife. Every single morning I wake up well before dawn to an ear-splitting assemblage of Aussie birds.
Some days it’s the garrulous howling of the blue-winged kookaburra punctuated by shrieks from the sulphur-crested cockatoos. Other days it’s a wardling chorus of Australian magpies and pied currawongs.
The first morning this chorus filled me with a deep, welling sense of joy. I was finally here, a place I had so long dreamed of living. By the second morning I was swearing. And by the third morning — when the currawong chose to sit directly outside of my window — I was convinced that they were deliberately torturing me.
Other birdlife is less irritating, but considerably more ugly. Often I’ll look out the window to see a brushturkey trundling amid the landscaping outside of my building. These massive, turkey-like birds are megapodes, a family of birds that incubate their eggs in a pile of vegetation, just like alligators and crocodiles. (You can read more about brushturkeys here.) With featherless, scarlet heads, knobbly yellow wattles, and massive clawed feet, they look like they accidentally wandered off the set of Jurassic Park.
I’d seen first brushturkeys on earlier trip to Queensland, shuffling about in the fantastic, primordial rainforests that line Australia’s eastern coastline. But now I spot them waddling brazenly down the sidewalk, sending the neighborhood cats running. I’ve seen them stop traffic on streets busy streets, forage in the shadow of downtown’s skyscrapers, raid community garden compost piles, and perch nonchalantly in the trees over a backyard pool.
Like the honey badger, brushturkeys just don’t care.
A New Perspective
In a new setting, it seems like wildlife lurks everywhere. If I walk outside at dusk and shine a flashlight up onto the telephone poles, chances are I’ll see a second possum species — a ringtail possum — scampering along the power lines. Or I’ll spot the silhouette of a massive flying fox cruising over the supermarket.
On my daily commute to work along the Brisbane river, two-foot-long eastern water dragons scuttle beneath the city landscaping, while warning signs stapled to the telephone poles warn of dangerous swooping magpies defending their nest nearby.
At first, this assemblage of urban wildlife was just a delightful, strange novelty. Like putting beets on a burger or greeting people with “G’day, mate!”, it was just one part of the adventure that is living in Australia.
But something more significant was at work. It wasn’t just novelty, it was a new perspective. Without the familiar flora and fauna of the first 30 years of my life, I was looking at the city with a fresh set of eyes. I could see that same wildness I found in Florida, so many years ago.
Perhaps it was easy for me to write off the disappearance of urban wildlife in my life because the experience so is common. Witnessing the wild nature of one’s childhood disappear to urban sprawl is the archetypal conservation story… an experience so universal amongst conservationists that our grief acts as a common language.
But in our grief, I think we fail to appreciate the wildlife that does remain, right beneath our feet or above our heads.
Conservationists talk about the value of “regreening” and “urban wildlife” and then spend our vacations seeking out “real” wildlife in decidedly more pristine areas. I’m no exception: in the last two years I’ve spent my vacations seeking out puma in Patagonia and fawning over toucans and sloths in Costa Rica.
When it comes to wildlife, it seems that familiarity breeds contempt — or at least boredom. Charismatic megafauna derive much of their charisma by being rare, exotic, and difficult to see. (No one would boast about seeing a tiger if they were often seen rummaging through suburban garbage like raccoons.)
But really I’d just forgotten that raccoons are pretty darn cool. It’s downright astounding that brushturkeys are just as comfortable scratching for food amid the meager urban landscaping as they are in the rich rainforest. That coyotes can co-exist with highways, or that there could be a possum lurking under every roof.
I should note that not all Australian wildlife is faring so well. We should celebrate urban wildlife, but also recognize that many species simply can’t adapt to cities and the new habitats created by humanity. Invasive cats and foxes are eating their way through the outback, causing catastrophic declines (and even extinctions) of native marsupials. My home state of Queensland is one of the world’s greatest deforestation hotspots, mowing down forests at rates that rival the Brazilian Amazon or Indonesia and killing an estimated 34 million native animals every year.
All of which makes it even more remarkable that a few species — the brushtails and brush turkeys, cockatoos and currawongs — are thriving alongside us. Remnants of the wild are still there, lurking under our roofs or in our backyards. But only if we remember to look for them.