Suburban Wilderness

All of my field sites are in suburban areas, which makes sense because Southern California is filled with suburbs.  Suburbs are residential and mixed use areas that have a lower density of people than the center of a city or town but not as much agricultural land and wildlife as rural areas.  But suburbs still have some wildlife, and that is important.  Many endangered species in California live in suburbs, close to development and human altered land, including kangaroo rats and pocket mice (which I study).  Kangaroo rats and pocket mice need open space and native plants but as developments are built on their historic range and their habitat decreases, they end up living closer to human habitation. 

Living close to humans can be harmful to wildlife for various reasons.  Their houses and food might be crushed and built on.  They are vulnerable to direct killing by people or their pets, such as house cats.  Crossing roads can be incredibly dangerous.  Invasive plants can push out and eliminate native plants that they need for survival.  As a result some areas that might appear to support wildlife are altered ecosystems that are not able to support a rich diversity of native fauna and flora.  If wildlife can’t move to another available habitat close by, due to a fragmented landscape, the species might be much more vulnerable to extinction. 

But we do live near urban and suburban wildlife and some of these places are the only habitat for native endangered species such as San Bernardino kangaroo rats and Pacific pocket mice.  So it is critical that we find a way to be able to coexist with suburban wildlife and change our behavior to do things that will help them live sustainably in the area.  First of all, preserving remaining good habitat is important.  But in order to do so, there must be community involvement in this conservation effort.  If suburban residents find an appreciation for nature in their neighborhoods and beyond maybe they will be more inclined to preserve open space instead of building another strip mall.  After all, open spaces have value to humans living near them by providing services that help people too.  These services are things such as cleaning the air, soil and water (through processes such as photosynthesis and decomposition) and creating aesthetic healthy areas for recreation and community enhancement.  Physical activity and recreation in open spaces has been shown to improve public health, by reducing stress and increasing immunity. Ultimately if the appreciation of wildlife can lead the protection of species and also improved quality of life it’s a win-win situation. 

Most people are in favor of song birds visiting their backyards or properties.  But suburban wildlife can cause problems when they are overabundant. People object to predators such as coyotes eating pets or ants and spiders invading houses.  So there is a balance that needs to be maintained.  There are precautions that people living with wildlife who want to be able to live more sustainably and in concert with wildlife can take and do.  With an awareness of the basic biology of the wildlife there are things that can reduce negative impacts.  For example changing landscaping practices to including more native plants in plantings around buildings can lead to beneficial effects.  Native plants attract beautiful species such as birds and butterflies and also native insect predators that feast of pest species.  It is important to highlight the value of the wildlife that lives close to us in Southern Californian suburban areas not just in foreign and faraway places.  Wild creatures have the potential to enrich the lives of suburban dwellers and vice versa.