EcoMyths: Do wildlife need our help in winter?

February 11, 2014

Kate Sackman

(AP Photo/Washington state Department of Fish & Wildlife)
Pygmy rabbit in Washington state. Pygmy rabbits are hopping along toward recovery in the wildlands of Douglas County. Winter surveys reveal a survival rate far greater than that of healthier pygmy rabbit populations in surrounding states.

With the extra-frigid winter we've slogged through, it boggles my mind that any wildlife can survive so many sub-zero days outdoors. It has been hard enough for humans. So at EcoMyths we wondered: how do animals survive this challenge within our vast urban landscape? For our regular segment on Worldview, Jerome McDonnell and I explored this topic with wildlife expert Bill Ziegler, Senior Vice President of Collections and Animal Programs at the Brookfield Zoo.

Can Wild Animals Be Homeless?

Bill explained that "many of our native animals are, in fact, homeless because their habitats have been disappeared or dwindled, not just in Illinois, but also further afield.  In a well-intentioned effort to beautify our cities and neighborhoods, we have gradually almost completely replaced native habitats that once provided both food and shelter for thousands of species of birds, animals, and insects."

Bill continues, "Based on positive motivations, we have planted beautiful exotic flowers, bushes, and trees from other parts of the world. We have cleared oak forests and drained wetlands to build safe, dry homes. And we have replaced our messy native tall grass prairies with pristine lawns so that our kids can play soccer and baseball in the yard."

Some Fixes Are As Simple as Falling Off A Log

Whether inadvertent or not, in many places only small pockets of habitat remain for native creatures such as red fox, white tailed deer, opossum, frogs, salamanders, and songbirds. But even with forest preserves and parks, Bill encouraged us to take steps to help wildlife find food and shelter in residential areas. In our own yards and parks, it can be as simple as keeping a pile of leaves or old hollow logs in the yard over the winter to provide homes for small animals.

In the summer we can prepare friendly year-round habitat by planting groupings of bushes to provide “micro-habitat” sanctuaries with seeds and berries for food.

Bill also emphasized the importance of providing connections between wild spaces. In some parts of Illinois we are fortunate to have many natural greenways due to the efforts of the County Forest Preserves and other conservation organizations. Preserving corridors and providing new connections between separate open areas are essential to the health of the animals, so that they can move easily from place to place to find additional food, shelter, and breeding grounds.

Where Palm Trees Sway

Not only did Bill enlighten us on wildlife habitat in Illinois, we also discussed the recovery of panther populations in Florida and vast habitat losses and restoration efforts in Southeast Asia. Development in Florida has drastically reduced the cypress swamps and pinelands which the panther inhabits. Now living in only 5% of its former habitat, the panther is more likely to venture out into human territory. Efforts are underway to expand the Florida Panther habitat so they can live and breed in the large interconnected spaces they need. In much of Southeast Asia, such as Sumatra and Borneo, where rainforests are being clear-cut to make way for profitable palm oil plantations, thousands of plant and animal species have been displaced.Much of the land has become a monoculture – home to a single species of plant. Orangutans and tigers are being driven out, as are the indigenous people who depend on these forests. In spite of agreements to make these plantations more sustainable, habitats continues to be lost and damaged.

Healthy Wildlife Habitat is Healthier for Humans Too

Although the protection of any particular single species may seem unimportant, it turns out that the restoration of native habitats is actually important to the human species as well. Why? Because native plantings absorb rainwater to prevent flooding and refill our groundwater wells; forests absorb excess CO2 from the atmosphere moderating the rate of global warming; native plants attract and support the insects that depend on them; the native insects support the diets of the birds and mammals which in turn help the local plants to thrive by pollinating and spreading their seeds. There is no need to take extreme measures, like throwing out all our exotic plants and flowers from other areas of the world. These help make the landscape beautiful. But non-natives can also co-exist with healthy populations of native plants. Including native plants as part of your landscape can complement your colorful garden and also provide important habitat for local creatures. ;

One Green Thing You Can Do: Incorporate Native Plants

Bill recommended consulting your local nurseries for advice on incorporating native plants into your yard. Not only will you be helping the wildlife, but your plants will be easier to care for!

Listen to today’s EcoMyths Worldview podcast (link this) to hear the whole interview on the value of snow! To learn more about this myth, listen to the podcast of today’s show or go to the EcoMyths Alliance website to read further about the how we can help wildlife in winter and all year long.