Living with Urban Wildlife

                Many people believe that it is necessary to have acreage, or at the least a large yard to attract and observe wildlife. The fact of the matter is, with urbanization of many formerly rural areas, wildlife has been pushed into closer contact with humans than we could ever have anticipated. It is now no longer a front-page news matter when a deer is spotted in a downtown area or a wild turkey shows up in someone’s back yard.

                While larger animals like deer can be a danger to themselves and others in a city, many other types of wildlife manage urban existence well. Small wildlife such as birds, chipmunks and squirrels are all urban denizens who can get along pretty well with humans, given the right conditions.

The Obvious Basics

                Wildlife is called wild for a reason. Although it is very enjoyable to observe urban animals living out their lives, it is inadvisable to attempt to “tame” or make a pet of the animals. These animals live close to humans, and over time they can lose their perspective of humans as predators. No matter how friendly, the animal has not become domesticated: the animal has ceased to think of you as a threat. At any time they could become startled or provoked into defensive measures. Wild animals communicate amongst themselves about territory, personal space, and threat behaviors: it is very easy for humans to make a mistake that the animal perceives as a threat, triggering aggression.

Attracting Urban Wildlife:

                Animals in their natural habitat select their living areas based on the same thing humans do: Is the area safe for their children? Does the area have good food? Are there nice homes in the neighborhood? If you are trying to attract urban wildlife, you have to make your neighborhood an attractive area to live.

                One easy way to help out the wildlife in your area is to provide water. In the concrete jungle, water is at a premium. You don’t need an entire creek. A sprinkler, bird bath, or small fountain is plenty. Running water is particularly attractive to birds and other urban wildlife.  Even a large shallow terra cotta dish, topped off daily, will announce that this is a reliable source for water. If you supply fresh water, you will be amazed at all the different types of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and other critters that will turn up at the local watering hole.


                Animals like to feel safe and somewhat hidden. Small birds such as finches and chickadees like to shelter in bushes and tall perennials. Other animals, like to make their home near or in mature trees. If you are an apartment dweller, you aren’t likely to have enough room to provide mature trees or bushes. What you can do is provide somewhere for the birds to perch when they visit your balcony. If you have a trellis in a container, a vertical pallet garden, or any other structure that allows for some greenery to grow up it, the birds will feel more secure.


                Animals, like people, appreciate grabbing a quick bite now and then on the way home. Most urban wildlife does not require human help to find food. Besides the many food opportunities available in even urban nature, humans have a habit of throwing out enough food to keep urban wildlife going. However, even wild animals have their preferred foodstuffs, and are happy to grab some fast food every now and then.

                One of the easiest ways to get started observing wildlife is to put out a bird feeder. A platform type feeder is the best at attracting different birds. If you don’t want to spend money on a feeder, you can always put birdseed out on the ground or on your balcony. The type of seed you put out depends on what you hope to attract. Almost any bird will happily accept sunflower seeds of any type. Finches and small birds often like thistle seed. Birds will also accept peanut butter, suet-type fees, and cracked corn.

Squirrels and Birdfeeders

                The battle between birdwatchers and squirrels has been a long and bitter engagement. The squirrels are nearly always the winners. Personally, I really enjoy watching the squirrel families that come to my balcony to eat. Squirrels have an interesting dynamic with others of their kind, and the treat of actually seeing a baby squirrel learn to jump from branch to balcony is payback enough for a little bird seed.

                That being said, squirrels can be a real nuisance. In some cases, they chase off the birds you are trying to watch. They are hoarders, and will keep coming to your feeder until all the food is gone. They can damage outdoor furniture and will steal your balcony edibles if given half a chance. In my case, I have a bird feeder that is enclosed in wire to let little birds in and keep squirrels out. I put birdseed and other food out for the squirrels and songbirds on a flat dish. So far my squirrels have behaved pretty well.

                If you really want to avoid squirrels while attracting birds, you can try using a squirrel proof birdfeeder, offer safflower seeds instead of sunflower seeds, or put cayenne pepper in your birdseed. Squirrels do not like safflower, and while the mammals can taste the hot pepper, birds do not and will not be bothered by it.

                Offering a little help to your local wildlife can enhance your enjoyment of your urban setting. With more and more focus on sustainability, urban gardening, and environmental stewardship, getting to know your non-human neighbors is a great way to live in sync with nature, even in the city.