D.C.-Area Wildlife Is Thriving While Humans Are Stuck Inside
While we humans are — for the most part — staying at home, local wildlife seems to have the run of the region. Foxes are chasing cats, bears are popping up in busy Tysons Corner, raccoons are chilling on porches and rats (yes, rats) are appearing in home toilets.
This wellspring of animal activity may not be nature healing, but D.C. fauna experts say it isn't just our collective imagination that's behind many of us hearing and seeing more wildlife during the coronavirus pandemic than usual. "Less ambient noise, less traffic, less interference ... right now, life is better for them," says Bill McShea, a wildlife ecologist with the Smithsonian's National Zoo. "If there's an upside to COVID, it's on the wildlife."
Over the last several decades, as the District and its suburbs have grown, the area has seen a vast reduction in forests. That's led to a decrease in wildlife across the region, especially among birds. By one estimation, more than 3 billion birds have disappeared in the U.S. since 1970.
McShea has tracked and studied local wildlife for the last 25 years, specializing in deer and coyotes in Rock Creek Park. (He also helped lead D.C.'s feral cat census in 2018.) While he says the pandemic won't increase the area's bird population dramatically, birds' relative reprieve from humans is benefitting them in other ways. "Their songs are clearer and they are probably being heard longer distances," McShea notes. "They're being more effective with their signaling."
Spring is breeding season for many birds, but McShea doesn't foresee more chicks being born this year than there were before COVID-19. According to him, it will just be relatively easier for birds like the wood thrush and the warbler to survive with less human commotion. "There are a lot of stresses in their life and this will be one less stress for them to worry about," he says.
Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist with the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, says he's heard reports of more rare birds appearing than normal. A bird watcher recently told him that they detected an eastern whip-poor-will in Glover Archbold Park, which would be the first time this kind of bird has been recorded there since 1969. Rauch also mentions a contemporary sighting of a sora, a secretive marshland bird, near Fort Lincol n. Heavy traffic usually chases them off, he writes in an email to DCist.
Birds aren't the only type of animal apparently being noticed more during the pandemic, though. McShea says he's anecdotally heard about an increase in coyote sightings in the area. While coyotes are no stranger to D.C., they're often very hard to spot. McShea thinks the rise in coyote reports isn't because there are suddenly more coyotes, but rather because they're coming into the open more frequently with fewer people outside.
Fewer people driving also means less roadkill. Ken Mack, a water-quality specialist with Montgomery County who studies fish, bugs and amphibians in the county's bodies of water, says he's personally hearing more frogs and toads than before the pandemic, but isn't sure if there are more of them or he can just hear them better with less car noise in the air. He also suspects they're not getting run over as often as in previous years.
"Toads will travel great distances to breed ... and they cross roads, largely on rainy nights," says Mack. "A lot of toads ... and salamanders ... get run over." He thinks a reduction in roadkill could lead to a population boom for these slippery green species.
The downturn in traffic volume is potentially benefitting fish too. Mack says toxins in rubber car tires can seep into fish bodies via runoff and also that better air quality from fewer car emissions is a net positive for area fish.
He's observed that litter is down as well, which could mean aquatic life is more easily able to thrive. Although there's been an uptick in reports about mask and glove debris in recent weeks, Mack says plastic water bottles and bags are far more detrimental to wildlife than such equipment, usually made of cotton and latex. And he's noticed much less discarded plastic amid the COVID-19 crisis than in the past.
In another upside involving nature, humans remaining inside is helping them pause and appreciate the world around them, according to McShea. "I know I'm spending a lot more time looking out my window," he says. "I'm seeing a lot more stuff out there that probably was there quite often, but [before] I was too busy to pay attention."
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