Many people would like to see more wildlife – especially butterflies and songbirds, but maybe also chipmunks and deer and foxes – in their yards. Why are these animals so scarce in our neighborhoods?
One reason is that there are just far fewer animals on our planet than there used to be. Studies have found that animal populations – that is, the number of individuals of each species – have, on average, decreased by half since the 1970s. Buffalo used to roam North America in the tens of millions; now there are only a few hundred thousand. Passenger pigeons, it is said, used to blot out the sun as they flew overhead; now there have been none at all for over a hundred years. And in an anecdote of our own times, truckers are certain they used to pick up more bugs on their windshields as they drove cross-country.
A second reason is that as we destroy natural habitats to make more room for roads, houses, and lawns, the animals that used to live in our communities move elsewhere. As earlier posts have explained, few animals can make a living in turf grass. When that is all we offer in our yards, we won’t see much wildlife around our homes.
A third reason we don’t often observe animals in our yards is that animals are increasingly becoming nocturnal, exactly because they don’t want to be around people. A recent study found that mammals are shifting their activity to the nighttime hours, becoming on average a third more nocturnal than they used to be. That is, an animal that used to do 50% of its daily activities while the sun was up and 50% after dark is now splitting its time about 33% – 67%.
The researchers found that this shift is happening across species, continents, and habitat types. As an article on the study puts it, “antelope on the savanna of Zimbabwe, tapir in the Ecuadorian rainforests, [and] bobcats in the American southwest deserts” are all changing their schedules in an effort to avoid humans.
This turned out to be true when avoiding humans was a challenge for the animals – animals living in undisturbed areas aren’t changing their historical habitats. But the researchers found that animals went out of their way to avoid humans not only in places where humans are doing dangerous things, like hunting, but also in places where humans are doing innocuous things, like hiking and farming.
This shift in activity is a problem because animals that have adapted to being active during the day may not fare as well when they try to carry out their routines at night. In the dark, it may be more difficult for them to find food, evade predators, and communicate with other members of their species.
The changing patterns of animal activity also diminish our opportunities to see wildlife. If we want wild animals to thrive – and if we want the chance to encounter them as we go about our own daily routines – we must find a way to live much more lightly on our planet.