Cities are growing at a faster rate than any other habitat on Earth. They may seem an unlikely place for animals to thrive, but they can be a world of surprising opportunity. Leopards prowl the streets of Mumbai, peregrine falcons hunt amongst New York’s skyscrapers, and a million starlings perform spectacular aerial dances over Rome. In Jodhpur, langurs are revered as religious deities, and in Harar locals live in harmony with wild hyenas.*
And in Vancouver it’s raccoons, bears, squirrels, coyotes, turtles, ducks, geese, herons, rabbits, skunks, otters, and more. It’s a zoo. Without the cages.
My first ever encounter with a raccoon happened many years ago at a concession stand in Stanley Park. I’d recently arrived from Australia and a raccoon seemed pretty exotic, and people were feeding them – a piece of burger bun here, a fry there – so of course they would hang around. I guess the authorities learned the hard way how dangerous it can be to feed wildlife, not to mention bad for the animals, so now it’s not just discouraged, its illegal. Good thing too. Raccoons may look cute but those claws are mighty sharp.
I had a cat called Dirian. In mid 1995 I decided to move back up north and my friend Astrid took over my apartment. I asked another friend, who I believed to be a pretty accurate psychic, if she thought I should take Dirian up north with me. Her reply was that if I did he’d be attacked by a wild animal. Was she thinking of a bear perhaps? Or a cougar? Anyway it was enough to convince me, so Astrid agreed to also inherit the cat. Two weeks after I left, Dirian was attacked by a raccoon right in his own backyard. He was mauled pretty bad but survived and was never again let out after dark. Like I said those claws are mighty sharp, and a cat, even a big one, is no match for a raccoon.
Just recently Don and I saw five of them up a tree screaming and fighting. They’re very tribal and very territorial.
Anyway back to Stanley Park. In 2016 we were housesitting in the West End, which is near the park. For all that I’ve lived in Vancouver for the better part of 30 years I’ve not spent a lot of time in Stanley Park, once hailed by Trip Advisor as the best urban park in the world. So this was my chance to get to know it a little. Many years after that first raccoon sighting at the concession stand I saw another near Lost Lagoon.
A few years later my friend Bex, who was new to Vancouver, tells me she loves raccoons, so we agree to meet for a walk in Stanley Park. I tell her that the only reason we’re walking around Lost Lagoon is that I saw one raccoon there, once, years ago. We’re walking and chatting, enjoying the day, but after an hour still no raccoons. I say out loud Come on Universe! We want raccoons! Where are the raccoons? Bex is thinking much the same thing when suddenly there they are. Not one but four, coming across a log bridge from the beaver dam at the end of the lagoon.
They cross to the shallow water near us. As they move slowly along four more appear from the other direction and immediately all hell breaks loose. Suddenly we have front row seats to the Raccoon Wars. Two opposing tribes are screeching and screaming and attacking each other. It’s epic!
I don’t really get a lot of photos of the fight. I’m too busy trying to stay out of their way. The four that crossed from the beaver dam had come ashore for the battle.
Eventually they return to the water,
and the other lot slink away back where they came from.
You want raccoons?! I’ll give you raccoons!
They’re known as masked bandits, and dumpster divers, always on the lookout for an easy meal. Be careful wandering the streets of the West End after dark . . . . .
And as if the raccoons aren’t enough there’ll likely be skunks there too. Speaking of skunks, I’ve seen a couple over the years in different parts of the city, including one on our front lawn a few weeks back. It’s always been too dark to photograph them, and besides no one wants to mess with a skunk; I’m happy to just let them waddle away.
Apart from the raccoons, Lost Lagoon, on the southern edge of Stanley Park, is a tranquil place, and back in the 60’s it was home to about 70 swans. The numbers dwindled until there were only two pairs left. Recently one was killed by a river otter so the Vancouver Parks Board moved the remaining three to an animal sanctuary. Anyway long before this, back during that time we were housesitting in the West End there were still swans on Lost Lagoon.
Another housesitting gig, this time in a big suburban house. The boundary of the back garden of the house is formed by the deep presence of tall strong trees, abiding silent custodians of the land, and home for countless birds. Following the habit of the homeowners we keep the hummingbird feeder filled with sweet liquid and are rewarded with visitors,
and daily put out a handful of peanuts on the deck for the blue jays. The jays swoop in
stuffing their gullets with peanuts, frequently snatching up as many as three at a time
before they fly off again. The hummers, of course, are fast as lightening, rarely still, and extremely territorial.
We see blue jays in our own neighbourhood, and close to home deep in the forest, on what I call the Inside Passage, a tiny narrow hidden trail that almost no one uses, I see a ruby throated hummingbird. It dances from branch to branch sipping nectar from flowers so tiny, so insignificant as to hardly be noticed at all. But I sure notice the hummer. And on another day I see one on a wider trail and get to watch it for a minute or more as it dances in space in front of me.
Is there any coastal city in the world that doesn’t have seagulls? For most animals cities are a disaster, completely destroying any chance of a real habitat, but for a minority of creatures, cities are a godsend. Rats, seagulls, roaches, and pigeons seem to thrive in every big city on the planet. Well I’m not going to delve into roaches and rats, though I’ve seen rats scurrying off into the bush on our daily forest walk, and one walked right by us one evening as we sat down by the river. But seagulls I don’t mind.
They generally don’t dive-bomb you the way the crows do, and they’re pretty entertaining the way they screech and squawk, and eyeball you eating, just waiting for a crumb, and then squabble amongst themselves for the spoils.
Most ponds and small lakes in the city have both native Western Painted Turtles, and introduced Slider Turtles. I’ve frequently seen them sunning themselves on logs and rocks at the edge of the pond on Granville Island, and at the pond in Queen Elizabeth Park.
Sadly the Western Painted Turtles are now endangered. The same can definitely not be said about the Canada Geese (Branta Canadensis).
My first memory of Canada Geese is in London, probably in Hyde Park, though I must have seen them in Canada first. What grand splendid birds they are. They own the space they occupy, they are not shy, they are big and bold and seem to have no fear. And they are everywhere. I love them though many people don’t.
You really don’t want to mess with them. They hiss at you if you get too close to their young, and who can blame them for that. Pretty much every species, down to the tiniest hummingbird, protects their young, but the thing with the geese is that they are big! And ornery. They will fiercely defend their nests and young from any interlopers into their territory.
Every spring you see them – the goslings, like these little ones still with their eyes closed,
and these older ones.
Like rats, seagulls, and roaches, Canada Geese have had no trouble adapting to an urban environment. I know there are people here who consider them pests. They poop a lot. There isn’t a park in Vancouver that is free of it, and you really don’t want to step in it. And they’re aggressive, but oh it’s an amazing sight to see them flying in V-formation overhead,
and to hear their honking cries as they change locations or arrive in the spring or leave in the fall. Beyond their aggression and crap and ubiquitousness they have a sovereignty that can’t be questioned. Just ask them – Canada Geese rule!
You’re better off going to Reifel Bird Sanctuary in the winter. It’s an over-winter stop for migrating birds, but one of my strongest memories of many visits to Reifel is a visit in mid-summer. Walking along one of the shaded paths, turning a corner and coming face-to-face with a pair of Sandhill Cranes. That was a moment! We froze. We knew they could be aggressive if you get too close so we just stood still and watched them. It is such a majestic bird! Since then I’ve seen one at Burnaby Lake Park, though more often I’ve seen the pair at Reifel who own the territory.
These tall wading birds have a wingspan of two metres, that’s over six feet to you Americans. They remind me of the Brolga, a native Australian crane that’s just as big, and just as elegant.
Down by the Fraser River, close to home I see a Great Blue Heron preening on a log boom, grooming itself with calm presence and meticulous attention. Each feather is addressed; the heron’s long neck reaching this way and that to make sure it gets them all. Every now and then it lifts its head, looks around, then goes back to its task. On another evening I see one on one of the pylons next to the pier at the bottom of our street.
You’ll see them in or near just about every body of water in the Vancouver area – the river, False Creek, Lost Lagoon, on the beaches, and in the harbour.
Vancouver has a nesting colony of Great Blue Herons, one of the largest colonies in North America. Situated at the edge of Stanley Park, they’ve been nesting there since 2001, though the first recording of them in the park was 100 years ago. Since 2004 there’s been a management plan for the heron colony that includes monitoring them. There are ten or more trees that the birds use and each tree is home to about ten nests.
It’s noisy enough when the parents are building and repairing the nests, but when the chicks arrive it gets even noisier. I should mention that this breeding colony is right next to one of the most densely populated places on the planet, Vancouver’s West End, a forest of high-rise apartment buildings that butt up against the boundary of Stanley Park. Apparently people with windows that overlook the nests complain of the smell. And the herons complain of the eagles. We were sitting on the patio of a nearby pub last week and an eagle was diving on the nests. The entire colony started screaming. It was like the sound of dozens of high-pitched hotrods warming up. Loud! We couldn’t tell if the eagle was successful or not, but what was more interesting was that a group of crows chased it away.
From big birds to bunnies. In Jericho Park there’s a huge bramble bush, and I do mean huge, and it’s home to hundreds of rabbits safe in their thorny home. You can see them pretty much any time of day when they come out to graze, but especially at dusk. They come in all colours and sizes, and yes, they are endearingly cute. If you’re out exploring in Jericho Park they’re hard to miss.
It’s no secret that Vancouver has one wild backyard. The city is swarming with wildlife. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Nobody wants a skunk nesting in their shed or a raccoon mauling their cat, but they make my heart dance. I love being surrounded by wildlife even as I live in a city. It’s not quite the best of both worlds, it’s not quite the same as seeing wildlife truly in the wild, but it’s still pretty magical.
Next post: I’ll do a second post about Vancouver’s urban wildlife – coyotes, beavers, ducks, squirrels, eagles and more. Like the post on remarkable buildings I discovered I had too much for one post. But next I’m going to change it up a bit and do a post of portraits from China.
*David Attenborough’s introduction to Planet Earth II, episode 6 which deals with urban wildlife.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.