Unfortunately, people living in cities are often unaware of their natural neighbors, says Michael O'Donnell, an urban wildlife biologist at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. "Most people don't see urban wildlife," he says. "When I tell people I study urban wildlife, they usually laugh and say, 'Oh, you mean pigeons.' But there is a lot more to it."
Indeed, O'Donnell and others point out, a few hardy species have become well-known urban pests because they have adapted so well to the smoggy, built-up habitat that humans have built. Brown-banded cockroaches, for instance, view crumb-laden kitchens and cozy wall crevices as luxury accomodations, perfect for raising a passel of babies. THE WILD SIDE OF NEW YORK humorously highlights how one Big Apple apartment is slowly taken over by the insects. It's a bug-hater's worst nightmare, but one rooted in reality: entomologists estimate there are up to seven cockroaches for every one of New York's 14 million human residents. Sometimes, however, the insects don't have to outnumber their hosts to pose a problem. A single paper-eating spider beetle, for instance, can gnaw its way through a stack of library books in the time it takes to read WAR AND PEACE. Often, librarians and readers learn of the beetle's existence only when they find the hole it has carefully bored through a volume of literature.
Another common city pest, the pigeon, or rock dove, originally found the city inviting because food was plentiful and predators scarce. In addition, building ledges provided plenty of fine nesting spots, much to the chagrin of window cleaners and dropping-wary pedestrians below. Ironically, however, the city pigeon's success has put some of the plump birds in jeopardy, as predatory falcons and hawks flock back to the city to take advantage of the easy dining. Near Central Park, for instance, pigeon-eating Red-tailed hawks have set up housekeeping, their nest a magnet for gawking crowds.
In THE WILD SIDE OF NEW YORK, you can also see fierce-looking Peregrine falcons perched atop the highest bridge spires, intently waiting for a meal to fly by. These falcons, which can dive at more than 100 miles an hour, use their talons to whack prey from the sky in a puff of feathers. In New York, the deadly dogfights have startled more than one office worker enjoying an outdoor lunch. "To see a peregrine dive and knock a pigeon out of the sky is amazing," muses O'Donnell. "We are used to seeing wild creatures in zoos, not doing their thing right in front of us."
Such understanding should get a major boost over the next decade, as researchers embark on two major urban ecosystem studies, one of Baltimore, MD, and one of Phoenix, AZ. In the meantime, however, O'Donnell hopes urban schools and families will take more time to teach children about the city's hidden wildlife. "The most important thing is education," he says. "Urban wildlife is a great way to introduce kids to the natural world and teach them about how it works."