Urban Wildlife

How do we design cities that are integrated into the environment, rather than just adding a few parks after the cities are built? How do we design for, educate for, and live with wild animals? These are important questions in our rapidly urbanizing world, and they are questions that University of Saskatchewan PhD student Katie Harris is helping to address.

Katie explains that she began her research journey “with the goal of working to conserve our native species and to help ensure the preservation of our environment and its resources.” As she told me over coffee recently, “My research goals involve developing the baseline understanding of the distribution and movement of local urban wildlife, creating Saskatoon’s first urban wildlife databank for examining ecological trends and changes over long periods of time, and exploring the myriad of ways that cities and urban growth are changing the ecology and behaviors of wildlife species.”

Her long-term goal is “to contribute to the development of sustainable, biodiversity-friendly urban planning strategies to help ensure the conservation of our natural resources.”

Katie’s research supports Saskatoon in its membership in the Urban Wildlife Information Network. Several cities in Canada (Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Toronto) and over 30 cities in the United States, are sharing strategies to monitor their urban wildlife. Thank you to Katie for taking on this important work on behalf of Saskatoon!

My own street is a natural corridor from the river to a large natural area. At times, when the full moon wakes me up, I have looked out my window and seen a fox, and once a coyote, walking down the centre of the street. Early in the morning, I have seen mule deer, who like to stop at my bird feeder and help themselves to sunflower seeds. And, of course, most of us have seen the white-tailed jackrabbit, a species that was recently portrayed in a NatureCity Adventure.

Katie noted that she has about 30 000 photos taken by her network of wildlife cameras. Altogether, she has records of approximately 20 species of mammals. The four most commonly photographed species are white-tailed jackrabbits (is anyone surprised?), red foxes, mule deer, and coyotes.

It is important to note that the placement of the cameras affects whose photo will be taken. This means that the number of photos does not necessarily indicate population numbers. The cameras are a few feet off the ground, so the very common Richardson ground squirrels and various species of mice, voles, and shrews are less likely to trigger the motion detector on the camera (these do show up in the photos, though). Of course, those less photographed but very prevalent species, such as mice and ground squirrels, provide much of the diet for the photogenic foxes and coyotes.

Another reason that actual population size cannot be assumed is that some animals move through large areas – and the cameras are placed in what could be considered wildlife corridors. Thus, one individual might have photos taken of it from many different cameras, making it seem as if there are many of that species

Research in other cities has shown that urban wildlife adjust their behavior to fit with human habits. For example, many species that were mostly active during the day in wild lands have shifted to evening or night activity in cities. In other words, traits that were already present in the species but not common are becoming common, while once common traits are disappearing.

In this Nature City Adventure, we invite you to get out and about. Look for signs that some of the wildlife Katie’s cameras have photographed are near you or perhaps commuting through your neighbourhood. Look for rabbit droppings or check to see if a bird feeder has been raided by a large animal. Watch for tracks in the snow. Can you tell cat tracks from fox tracks? How do coyote prints differ from those left by dogs? For more information on the different tracks, check out this page here. For more information on all these species, and how to get along with them, visit the City of Saskatoon information site here. On the links of the right hand side of this information site, you will find links to brochures about some of Saskatoon’s wild mammal species.

Remember always that the animals were here first! We should respect them. We are privileged to live in a city where we can see indicators of wildlife all around us, working with us to preserve healthy ecosystems.-

– Janet McVittie with Katie Harris


A fox in the fall

White-tailed jack rabbit

You might not see an animal, but you can still tell if it has been there, due to the “signs” it leaves. Mammal signs include: tracks, hair, scat, and scents, among others. To help you explore for wild mammals in your neighbourhood, especially at this time of year when there is plenty of snow, visit this site here.

    Moose on the edge of the city

    Mule deer