It’s Time to Live with the Birds

Jack DeLap
A great horned owl, nearly two feet tall, whose presence in John Marzluff’s Seattle suburb ‘directly benefits our garden by keeping the nonnative eastern cottontail rabbits on edge’

In March 2013 John Marzluff, a veteran ecology professor, spent a few days in Yellowstone National Park. As he always does when out of doors, Marzluff counted the birds he found there: twenty-four species. Traveling to New York City afterward, he spent several hours over two days in Manhattan’s green space, Central Park. There he checked off thirty-one species. Central Park was “birdier” than Yellowstone!

Marzluff was not entirely surprised. Over the last thirteen years he and his graduate students at the University of Washington have studied what happens to birds, mammals, and other wildlife when forests around Seattle and other cities are transformed into residential neighborhoods. This engaging book tells what Marzluff and his students found out about suburbia and its surprisingly rich wildlife, and how we should respond to this abundance.

Marzluff and other urban ecologists find a gradient in bird life. A few tough survivors hang on in the urban core; the open country outside has many birds. In between—in leafy, variegated suburbia—there is the richest mixture of bird species of all. This finding is counterintuitive. One would have imagined that what he calls the “urban tsunami,” the global shift of populations into cities, would result in homogenized biological deserts with only a few starlings, house sparrows, and pigeons for bird life. That fails to take into account many wild animals’ elemental will to survive, and their capacity to adapt rapidly to new opportunities. Marzluff cautions that about 30 percent of a suburban landscape needs to be planted in natural vegetation for rich bird life to be present. But if birds can find food, shelter, and a place to rear young in and around cities, they will do so. Just ask ConEd about the monk parakeets, introduced from Argentina, that find power poles with transformers just right for their enormous colonial stick nests.

Marzluff is onto something more systematic than such anecdotal details. He is interested in suburbia as a definable form of natural habitat, just as specific in its biological features and inhabitants as a salt marsh or an alpine meadow. One major ecological characteristic of suburbs is variety. While unbroken forest can be poor in variety, the mosaic of lawns, parks, gardens, shade trees, streams, and ponds found in suburbia offers abundant opportunity for creatures able to adapt to it. This has become a matter of major ecological significance, and the subject of a new branch of study. A million new acres become urban in the United States each year, and 40 percent of Americans live in suburbs.

Another characteristic of the suburbs as wildlife habitat is its relative novelty. Cities are ancient; open country is primeval. Suburbs—extensive residential neighborhoods with low population densities and…

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