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July 29, 2011
Ongoing Drought Affecting Urban Wildlife
Texans are seeing more wildlife in the city because of the ongoing drought, but it’s something of an urban myth that wild animals are coming to the city from the country in search of food and water.
“Actually, the animals people are seeing already live in the city,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist John Davis. “No question, the drought is stressing wildlife, but a field mouse or rabbit that lives out in the country has no concept of cities or that they will find food or water if they go there. That’s a common thought process, but it’s more anthropomorphic than people realize.”
Still, the lack of water is definitely affecting the behavior of resident urban wildlife from deer and coyotes to raccoons and opossums. Even snakes and insects are affected. All are in search of scarce water and food.
“Animals that are normally nocturnal are being seen more during the day because they’re out looking for water or something to eat,” Davis says.
In considering the impact of an extended drought on wildlife, Davis says, the key is the overall population of a particular species.
“It’s easy to get caught up on individual animals and have a heart-felt desire to help them, but since it’s the weak who don’t survive, in the long run a drought strengthens a species’ population,” he says.
While most wildlife species will come out of the drought OK, Davis said he is worried about short-lived species that require rain to breed.
“The endangered Houston toad lives 2-3 years and only breeds after sufficient rain,” Davis says. “If a population of these toads doesn’t get rain at the right time, an entire year’s worth of breeding opportunity could be lost. This could drastically reduce the population.”
The drought also is affecting Texas’ birdlife, since summer is when birds are raising their young. The drought tends to drop insect numbers, which is not good for birds.
“In the summer,” Davis explains, “even seed-eaters feed their young insects for protein. When insects are harder to find, it’s hard on the birds. If you put out water and feed for birds, be aware that could attract other animals.”
Of course, many homeowners are finding insects from ants to scorpions, in their homes this summer. They’re looking for water, but again, they’re not coming from the country. “A scorpion, for instance, stays in the same local area all its life,” Davis says.
Snakes, including venomous varieties like the western diamond rattlesnake and copperheads, may be moving more in search of water or food, but they are not migrating to the city from rural areas.
“But people don’t need to panic,” Davis says. “If people watch where they put their hands and feet when they’re gardening or hiking, they can safely live alongside snakes of all kinds.”
One other impact the drought is having in some urban areas is suppressing a fungus that helps keep grasshoppers in check.
“Right now, Texas has a lot of grasshoppers,” Davis said. “And since food is hard to find, that’s a real treat for lizards, birds and mammals.”
If you do encounter a wild animal in the city, Davis went on, it’s best to just leave it alone, even if it appears distressed.
“It’s tough out there right now, especially if you’re a critter having to deal with a lack of water and food, but in the long run most populations will be stronger and tougher than before,” Davis says.
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