This week we’re going to learn about some animals that have made their homes in cities alongside humans. Thanks to Corianne who suggested this amazing topic!
The urban fox has a favorite coffee shop and knows where to find parking downtown:
The urban raccoon’s apartment is really small but it’s in a great location:
The urban (rock) pigeon can walk to work in good weather:
Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.
This week we’re going to look at animals that live in cities. This is a great suggestion by Corianne, who especially suggested the pigeon. But pigeons aren’t the only animals that live in cities alongside people. In fact, in 2018 a large-scale camera trap study of animals in Washington DC and Raleigh, NC concluded that just as many mammal species live in cities as live in the countryside. That’s only mammals, though. There aren’t as many species of other animals in cities.
Different animals hang out in cities in different parts of the world. In parts of Africa and Asia, local monkeys have moved into cities and cause mischief by stealing food from markets and tourists. Gulls are also thieves of food, sometimes getting so bold as to snatch a sandwich from a person’s hands while they’re eating it, even in cities nowhere near the ocean. City parks attract squirrels and deer, decorative fountains and ponds attract geese and ducks as well as alligators, peregrine falcons move in to feast on pigeons, rats, and other small animals, and some cities have to deal with the occasional bear or leopard, wild boars, even penguins. But today we’re going to focus on three really common city dwellers, both because they’re interesting and because there are so many misconceptions out there about them.
We’ll start with urban foxes. We talked about foxes in episode 106, but while urban foxes are plain old red foxes and not a separate species or subspecies, they’ve adapted to city life easily since they’re omnivores and agile animals that can climb obstacles like fences.
Many cities throughout the world have urban foxes, but they’re especially common in the UK. They eat out of trash cans for some of their diet, but they also hunt rats and other small animals that live in cities too, along with earthworms, insects, and even plants. They especially like fruit and acorns. When a fox finds some food, it will often run off with it and bury it somewhere, then come back later to eat it.
Because an urban fox doesn’t have to worry about predators as much as ordinary countryside foxes do, it can grow larger on average than its country cousins. But it’s also in more danger of being hit by cars or infected with diseases common to dogs and other canids, like mange and distemper.
Urban foxes have a bad reputation for biting, attacking pets, and in general being a nuisance. But the fox is just being a fox and doing the best it can. In many parts of the world, the red fox’s natural habitat is fragmented more every year as cities grow larger and farmland and woodland is turned into houses. Besides, foxes have been reported in cities for a long time—over a century in London, England, where foxes are relatively common. They especially like areas with parks, or where people have gardens or lawns.
The biggest problem with urban foxes is people who treat them like they’re dogs. They’re wild animals, so while it’s okay to leave food out for them, don’t try to touch one or get too close to it. Foxes who get too used to people can become aggressive. Foxes usually don’t bother animals as large as cats, either, and they avoid dogs, but don’t leave small pets like guinea pigs or rabbits outside, especially at night, because that is just asking for trouble.
The urban fox doesn’t always live only in the city, though. One fox, nicknamed Fleet, was tagged by researchers in 2014 and tracked to see where he spent his time. To their surprise, Fleet lived up to his name and traveled from the city of Hove into the countryside across England. In 21 days he traveled 195 miles, or 314 km, and probably went farther but his GPS tracker stopped working so we don’t know how far.
This is what a fox sounds like:
In the UK, foxes are frequent city animals, but in North America it’s much more common for raccoons to fill the same ecological niche. The raccoon is native to North and Central America although it’s been introduced in parts of Europe as a fur animal and briefly to Japan as a pet. The raccoon makes a really bad pet, by the way. It’s not domesticated and will tear your house up.
The raccoon is mostly gray or gray-brown with some lighter areas of fur, black rings on its bushy tail, and black markings over its eyes. It grows a little over two feet long, or around 70 cm, not counting its tail. Its legs are relatively short and it scurries instead of really running, although it can swim well. The raccoon is a great climber and can even climb down trees headfirst by turning its hind feet so that they point backwards, which gives it a better grip. It has sharp claws too, and dexterous hands although they don’t have opposable thumbs. The raccoon’s front paws have as many sensory receptors as human hands, which means it can learn a lot by just touching something. Like, for instance, how to unlock a trash bin.
The raccoon is well-known for getting into trash no matter what kind of bin it’s in. This is because raccoons are remarkably intelligent. By now you probably know that intelligence and social complexity are linked, but raccoons have a much different society than other intelligent animals. Groups of related females generally occupy the same territory and come together to eat and rest, while males usually live in small groups that are mostly separate from females.
Like the fox, the raccoon is an omnivore. It eats insects and worms, fruit and nuts as well as other plant material, bird and reptile eggs, frogs, fish, crustaceans, and other small animals. Raccoons in captivity are known to wash their food by dipping it in water, but this behavior hasn’t actually been documented in wild raccoons. Some researchers think the raccoons aren’t actually trying to clean the food, but are mimicking the motion of catching food in water, while others suggest the raccoons are stimulating the nerve endings in their hands with water to learn more about the food they’re touching.
Raccoons prefer open forests near water, since they like to catch fish and frogs. But they will eat pretty much anything, which means they raid trash bins. For years, the city of Toronto in Canada had trouble with raccoons getting into people’s trash bins. The bins were designed to be picked up and emptied by city trucks, but the raccoons had learned to break the locks. In 2015 the city redesigned the bins to be raccoon resistant, and in 2016 after extensive testing the new bins were distributed to residents. Before long the raccoons had figured out how to open them.
Researchers think that the daily puzzles urban raccoons solve to find food actually make them smarter. Since they’re pretty smart to start with, that’s kind of scary.
Like urban foxes, urban raccoons can get too used to humans. They’re rarely dangerous to people or pets, but they can cause a real mess if they get into your house and will bite if they feel threatened.
This is what a raccoon sounds like:
We’ll finish with the ubiquitous city bird, the pigeon. It’s properly called the rock pigeon or rock dove and is native to parts of Eurasia and Africa. But these days it’s spread throughout much of the world, especially in cities.
Most people are familiar with the pigeon. It’s usually gray or brownish-gray with a white patch on its rump and two broad stripes of black on its wings. Both males and females have iridescent feathers on the neck that shine green and purple in sunlight, but the iridescence in males is much more pronounced. Pigeons with other markings are either feral domesticated pigeons or have feral domesticated pigeons in their ancestry. The domesticated pigeon was actually developed from the rock pigeon and it’s probable that most city pigeons are actually mostly feral domesticated pigeons.
The pigeon is a fairly large bird, up to 15 inches long, or 37 cm, with a wingspan over two feet, or 72 cm. It mostly eats seeds and other plant material, but will also eat small insects. City pigeons will eat bread and other foods too, but they would be happier with whole grains. Like many other birds, the pigeon stores food in its crop after swallowing it, which allows it to eat more food than it would otherwise be able to hold. The crop is a chamber at the bottom of the esophagus.
Not only do pigeons have a crop, which not all birds have, pigeon parents produce a food called crop milk or pigeon milk that they feed to babies. It’s not milk at all, of course, but the nutrient-rich lining of the crop that it sheds and regurgitates to feed its babies, which are called squabs. Both parents produce crop milk, which sort of looks like cottage cheese. The babies can’t digest anything except crop milk for the first week of life, so the parents may actually not eat anything during the first days after the eggs hatch to make sure there aren’t any seeds mixed in with the crop milk. After a few days the parents mix in food that’s been softened in the crop.
Pigeons and doves are almost the only birds that produce crop milk. The flamingo and the male emperor penguin do too, even though they aren’t related to pigeons. But that’s it, as far as we know. So if anyone asks you what the flamingo, the emperor penguin, and the pigeon have in common, now you know. Also, they’re all birds.
Pigeons live in flocks, although the flock may break up into smaller groups or pairs during part of the day. At night the birds usually roost together except for pairs who have eggs or babies in a nest. Pigeons mate for life and both parents take care of the eggs and squabs. Flock leaders find food and lead the rest of the birds to it, whether the food comes from plants growing in a park or from a person scattering birdseed.
Pigeons are actually clean animals when they have access to water. They like to bathe and preen to keep their feathers clean. If you’ve ever watched a typical bird drink water, maybe at a puddle or a birdbath, you might have noticed that the bird dips some water into its beak, then tilts its head back so the water runs down its throat. This is because most birds can’t actually swallow water the way most mammals can. I mean, if you had to you could drink water while you were upside down, although you might choke or get it in your sinuses. But some of the water at least would get into your stomach. Birds couldn’t. Except for the pigeon, which can actually drink like a mammal, keeping its head down as it swallows. The pigeon and its close relatives are the only birds known who can do this.
No one thinks of pigeons as especially smart birds, but guess what. They’re actually pretty bright. Pigeons can easily memorize images, even hundreds of them, and retain those memories for years. They not only recognize individual humans, they can learn to understand what human expressions mean. They also have keen vision and can differentiate between very similar items or pictures, which leads to pigeons being trained to do something unexpected. Wait for it. You’re not going to believe this. Pigeons can learn to identify malignant breast tissue in mammograms at least as well as humans can. Researchers train birds to identify the differences in mammogram slides, then use four birds in a team. The team can be 99% accurate in identifying malignancies that need to be treated. So pigeons can save human lives!
Not only that, but researchers can find sources of lead pollution by taking blood samples from sick or dead pigeons found in cities. Since city pigeons generally have small territories that only encompass a few blocks, researchers can measure the level of lead found in birds and know roughly where the lead exposure occurred. That helps the city find and clean up sources of lead pollution.
Pigeons are actually quite healthy birds, despite their reputation as diseased. They’re surprisingly resistant to a lot of bird diseases, including bird flu. Many people think of pigeons as dirty scavengers, but like other urban animals, they’re just living out their lives in an environment humans made. And if they’re scavengers, just think about where that food is coming from. People are dropping it on the ground, that’s where. Maybe people are the dirty ones, throwing food around. Pigeons are just cleaning it up for us.
This is what a pigeon sounds like:
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Thanks for listening!