Urban Nightlife Turns Wild
Raleigh stands poised to welcome two food halls by the end of summer.
by Don Vaughan
My wife and I bought our house in Raleigh’s Starmount neighborhood primarily because it contained a sitting room large enough to turn into a satisfactory library. The towering oaks in front and spacious, grassy backyard were also selling points. A bonus we hadn’t counted on, however, was the remarkably diverse wildlife that also would call our property home.
Over the nearly 20 years we have lived in Raleigh, we have been visited and sometimes adopted by enough wildlife to fill Noah’s ark. There was the possum that climbed into my gas grill and proceeded to lick the grease pan clean. The wayward guinea fowl we nicknamed Bert, who desperately craved attention but ran off whenever we tried to be friendly. The family of deer casually noshing on the azaleas in our front yard at four o’clock in the morning. The fox lazing in the sun in my backyard, happy and content until I approached it, thinking it was dead. The red-shouldered hawks that keep the neighborhood squirrels under control. The list goes on and on.
We’re from Florida, so we know animals. After all, Florida is the state where catfish literally walk across the street, wild parrots populate municipal golf courses, and giant toads eat your dog’s dinner with the aplomb of a New York Times food critic. We were used to wildlife, but didn’t expect so much of it when we moved to North Carolina, especially because of our close proximity to the bustling downtown.
But it’s that proximity of greenways to the heart of the city that attracts a lot of wildlife to downtown, explains Falyn Owens, extension wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. A wide diversity of animals, from deer to foxes to coyotes, live in the wooded areas, golf courses, backyards, and grassy fields that surround and infiltrate downtown Raleigh. Some never leave their wooded homesteads, while others make occasional forays into downtown looking for food. Many, liking what downtown has to offer, decide to make it their permanent residence.
“Urban wildlife professionals think of it in terms of wildlife being present where there is suitable habitat,” Owens explains. “Urban greenspace, especially, provides excellent wildlife habitat. It’s sort of that ‘if you build it, they will come’ perspective. In most cases, wildlife freely moves through the matrix of people’s yards as well. Fencing often is a fairly permeable barrier for them.”
According to Owens, humans often unintentionally extend an invitation that wildlife simply cannot refuse. We leave food out for birds and sometimes for our own pets, providing an easy and nutritious meal. Seldom-visited sheds, crawlspaces, and attics, when accessible to wildlife, make wonderful locations for nests during mating season, as well as general protection from the elements. And hunting is not allowed within the city limits, removing one of nature’s most efficient predators: man.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Wildlife Helpline (866.318.2401) received approximately 2,000 calls from Wake County residents in 2017, Owens reports. Of that number, a handful were what are known as observation calls—people merely noting that they spotted a certain species on their property. The remaining calls tended to be requests to render aid to an injured or seemingly orphaned animal, or to have an animal removed, ostensibly because it wasn’t supposed to be where it was seen. But as Owens notes, many species of wildlife, such as foxes, bats, and snakes, are beneficial in that they eat insects, rodents, and other pests.
“We have a lot of species that people think shouldn’t exist in urban spaces, but they help keep other wildlife in our urban spaces in balance,” Owens reports. “Whether we choose to think of it this way or not, cities and suburbs are functioning ecosystems that are interconnected to the surrounding landscape. They have their own—and are part of larger—food webs, and are not nearly as isolated from neighboring ‘wild’ areas as some people assume.”
The one species that people are most surprised to learn has established itself in downtown Raleigh is coyotes. Once located only in the American Southwest and Midwest, coyotes are now found throughout the contiguous United States, as well as Canada. In North Carolina, coyotes (and other wildlife) will make their home in any vegetated area with little human visitation, even if it’s just an overgrown eighth of an acre. But coyotes are also known to settle in even the most extreme of urban environments. Downtown Chicago, for example, has become a coyote haven, with their numbers now estimated by researchers at more than 2,000.
Some people are fine sharing their yard with roaming wildlife, while others are not. If you spot a fox, coyote, or other large animal on your property, you have two choices, Owens says: Give it a wide berth and let it be, or haze it. “From a safe distance, make a lot of noise and scare it away,” Owens advises. “Be assertive and let the animal know you will not tolerate its presence. Wild animals don’t want to get into risky situations; they will look for a place that is safer if they have the option. If you haze an animal, make sure you give it ample time and space to escape.”
If a wild animal does not move, or appears sick, do not approach it, Owens adds. “Wildlife that are sick, injured, or defending their young may not be able to escape,” she notes. “Call the Wildlife Helpline for advice. Animals showing signs of rabies should be reported to Wake County Animal Control, which is 919.831.6311 for Raleigh residents. There may be additional options if the animal is inside a building or causing property damage.”
Build A Sanctuary for Creatures
It behooves Wake County homeowners to attract certain native species to their yards because of the good work these creatures do, such as eating insects and pollinating plants. Here are a few suggestions on how to become your neighborhood’s Dr. Doolittle.
Bat houses: In addition to pollinating plants, bats eat a tremendous number of mosquitos and other insects, so they are extremely beneficial. Attract them to your yard with a bat house, which provides a place for the flying mammals to sleep. Materials, design, placement, and height are all very important, so visit the Bat Conservation International website (Batcon.org) for construction plans and tips. Dead trees, safely away from structures, also make good bat homes.
Birdhouses: Songbirds and others make great neighbors. Invite them to your property with a home-built birdhouse, a great project to do with young children. Different species have different requirements regarding size, location, etc., so visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Nestwatch.org) to learn which type of birdhouse best suits your needs. There are also instructions on how to install a nest box camera, so you can unobtrusively watch your feathered neighbors via your computer.
Toad homes: Like bats, toads eat a lot of pesky insects, so the more toads (and frogs) you have on your property, the better. You can attract them to your yard by placing a toad abode—usually a clay or ceramic container with an opening that acts as a door—in your garden. For best results, place the home in a damp, shady spot on dirt or mulch, so the toad can burrow down. The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center has instructions on how to make a simple yet functional toad abode from a clay pot: HoustonArboretum.org.
Butterfly garden: Butterflies are awesome pollinators, and an asset to any garden. Flowering plants known to attract butterflies include alyssum, bee balm, delphinium, goldenrod, lavender, marigold, phlox, Queen Anne’s lace, verbena, and zinnia. “Plants native to North Carolina provide invaluable food for butterfly caterpillars, which cannot digest exotic plants,” says Owens. “A good butterfly garden should include host plants that feed caterpillars as well as nectar-producers that attract adults.” Consider placing a birdbath in the middle of your garden to provide your butterflies and other visiting critters with water.