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Appreciating Detroit’s urban wildlife

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Many wild animals call Detroit home—here’s how we should interact with them

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Most people consider cities separate from nature. If us city-dwellers want to see wildlife, we should go to the nearest state park or zoo, right?

That’s definitely not the case, especially here in Detroit. In early April this year, for example, a coyote was spotted near Midtown, causing a bit of a stir. The fact that a predator found itself next to a school, hospital, and grocery store brought into focus that wild animals live amongst us.

Detroit is especially conducive to wildlife. It has large swaths of untended vacant land and the country’s largest city-owned island park, Belle Isle. All kinds of animals, from mammals and birds to snakes and pollinators, love these “wild” sections of the city that give them room to hunt and hide.

That also means Detroit has some unique species that live in closer proximity to people than in other similar cities. But don’t worry: there’s basically never any reason to fear and many ways to enjoy the animals we share space with.

In honor of Earth Day (April 22), we spoke with Amy Greene, director of Nature Centers for the Detroit Zoological Society, about the wild animals that call Detroit home.

Interacting with Detroit’s wildlife

Urban wildlife, by definition, involves sharing space with animals. How can we do that in the most responsible way possible? Here are some good rules to follow that will improve your relationship to the local wildlife and help it flourish.

Don’t engage

“The number one thing to do,” Greene says, “is to let it be and enjoy it from afar.”

It may sound obvious but, wild animals are, well, wild. They’re in general not friendly to humans, and while they might accept a piece of food you throw their way, it’s best to not disrupt their natural behavior.

Be proactive

Not everyone is crazy about raccoons, pigeons, rats, and other animals that might get into your garbage, property, or personal space. Similarly, many despise the opossum, but it’s actually great for pest control.

Instead of trying to capture or harm them, mitigate the problem by locking garbage cans and picking up fruit that’s fallen from trees.

Another note about being proactive: keep your cat indoors as much as possible, especially during bird migration season. By some estimates, cats kill over 3 billion birds per year in the United States.

Be a good environmental steward

This can take a number of forms, from planting native species to letting wild plants grow, which are especially conducive to pollinators and birds.

Greene also urges against the perfectly green lawn, which is a “food desert to animals.” Moreover, lawns often require the application of fertilizer and chemicals that get into the watershed and are harmful to animals.

Advocate

Get involved in a local environmental or animal advocacy group. They are many right here working at conservation like growing the number and quality of parks, protecting habitats, and cleaning waterways.

Some potential groups to support would be EcoWorks, Detroit Audubon, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. There’s obviously many more so shout out the ones we missed in the comments section.

A pheasant mural in North Corktown
Michelle Gerard

Notable Detroit wildlife

Here’s info about some of Detroit’s wild animals. You can find them in the Detroit River, on Belle Isle, your backyard, or, as we saw recently, near Midtown.

Coyote

Yes, it’s a predator, but the coyote is a shy creature that mostly comes out at night and will avoid confrontation unless provoked. They live in family units and mostly hunt rats, raccoons, and opossum. Though they might eat a stray chicken or rabbit that’s not kept safe.

Pheasant

This colorful bird, which you don’t find in many other major cities, is strongly associated with Detroit—there are murals around town commemorating it.

WDET looked into why, after coming here from China, the pheasant has made Detroit a habitat:

Pheasants have been around in Detroit since the early 1900s. Today, they find food and nest safely in the tall grasses of the many vacant lots throughout the city. The increase in these habitats and a lack of real predators make Detroit a surprisingly pleasant home for the wild game birds.

Peregrine Falcon

One of the world’s fastest birds, the peregrine falcon hunts from incredibly high heights.

In other places, they’ll nest on cliff edges. In Detroit and some other cities, they nest in tall buildings. The bird has been making a comeback in Michigan in recent years, in part thanks to man-made nesting boxes. There’s currently two peregrine falcons in the Detroit Zoo’s water tower and some downtown.

Bald Eagle

According to Greene, the first bald eagle in recorded history was spotted on Belle Isle. The bird of prey and national animal of the United States was once an endangered species, but in 2007 was even removed from the list of threatened species.

Beaver

This animal was hunted almost to extinction but has once again been spotted on the Detroit River. “It’s been fascinating to watch the health of the river improving and see animals coming back,” Greene says.

The return of the beaver, however, may be not be as great for the health of trees on Belle Isle.

Mudpuppy

This salamander, which lives an entirely aquatic life at the bottom of rivers, isn’t really seen by anybody except fisherman who may accidentally net one. The Belle Isle Nature Center has some on site if you’d like to get a look at them up close.

Greene has an affection for the slimy, brown creatures because they’re an “indicator species,” meaning their population levels say a lot about the health of a body of water. The Detroit Zoological Society has been undertaking a 10-year survey of the salamanders and, good news, their population has been growing.

Snakes

There are several kinds of snakes you can find in Detroit: little brown snake, eastern fox snake, northern water snake, and garter snake. Few rarely venture beyond Belle Isle and none are venomous.

Bats

Many consider bats a pest. And while it’s not great if one gets in your house, they’re incredible at mosquito mitigation. Greene says they can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes per hour! So install those bat boxes if you want to combat the mosquito growth in your backyard caused by all the native plants you’ve grown (see, now you’ve got a whole ecosystem).

There are nine species of bat in Michigan, but the most common is the little brown bat. This and other species have been devastated nationally by white-nose syndrome, a fungal growth that’s estimated to have killed 6 million bats. So do your part to keep these incredible creatures alive.