The animals who’ve gone to town

August 12 1961

The animals who’ve gone to town

August 12 1961

The animals who’ve gone to town

When man put his garbage in cans, the raccoons soon found a way into them; when he planted trees along his boulevards, the starling hordes took over; when he built steel and concrete towers, the falcons used them as aeries. Here's ROBERT THOMAS ALLFJN'S report on the way animals live in the city

THE LIFE OF ANIMALS living in the city is in many ways less complex than man's. A city skunk may go through life without any mental image more complicated than that of a fresh pigeon's egg. Animals handle their population problem more efficiently and make quieter neighbors. People usually don't know they're there. Within ten feet of a stenographer's illusion heels, a little brown DeKay's snake comes out secretively in late afternoon to hunt slugs and earthworms between billboards in a patch of pigweed and burdock no wider than a burlesque runway. A house mouse, whose kind originally came from central Asia, is born, raises her family and grows old at the bottom of a filing cabinet so close to an advertising idea-man's elbow that he could hit it with an ashtray if he knew it was there. Three house sparrows (lutter unnoticed around the feet of a preoccupied crowd, maintaining their high rate of metabolism by picking tiny elm seeds from the sidewalk beside an insurance company's lawn. A barred owl perches on a department store, undetected by the shoppers, scanning the city hall for fat pigeons. In a downtown basement, ten feet below a young man in a continental jacket dining by candlelight with a bouffante blonde, a Norway rat. in the tradition of her race, which has outwitted man since before Agamemnon sacked Troy, glides around her familiar bolts and lead pipes, foraging for food for her ten naked children.

Some animals have lived with man ever since he began building houses. The Norway rat, which is among the smartest, toughest animals on earth and such an intense thinker that he bites his nails when frustrated, is an old city boy who rarely lives anywhere else, especially in northern latitudes, although rats have been seen living in a wild state on an island in Lake Superior. The house sparrow, or English sparrow (which isn't a sparrow at all. but an Old World weaver finch imported here in 1851), is a thoroughgoing city hooligan. So is the starling, a European bird that has multiplied in North America since a hundred and twenty were released in New York in 1890, until now it numbers around a hundred million. The starling even has a walk that looks as if he's pushing people oil' the sidewalk. Both the starling and the sparrow can outjab, outrush and outbluff most birds their weight, and they're rough on pets that get loose. A while ago a budgie was seen down near Toronto's grain elevators completely ringed by sparrows and starlings, all the fancy words it knew doing it no good.

Squirrels are among the most belligerent animals. The grey squirrel, a species that includes black individuals, will chase a cat, and it sometimes chases and even frightens people in city parks. One observer watched a grey squirrel molesting birds in Ottawa, making determined rushes at a group of evening grosbeaks for no apparent reason except to start a rumble. An inspector for the Toronto Humane Society, which often answers calls to get grey squirrels out of attics, air ducts and cupboards, said that the squirrel was the one animal he wasn't too happy about apprehending.

Grey squirrels were among the first North American animals to adopt the ways of such long-time city dwellers as the house mouse and the street pigeon, an originally wild European rock dove that has descended from intervening domesticated generations. Many other animals have become fullCONTINUED ON PAGE 30

A squirrel looks both ways before he crosses, but it doesn’t mean he’s adjusted to traffic

time city dwellers. Some live within the city in natural surroundings, in places like the Don Valley in Toronto. Rockcliffe Park in Ottawa, Mount Royal in Montreal and Stanley Park in Vancouver, from which they can penetrate the city for food. But skunks now live under warehouses and beneath houses on city streets; cottontail rabbits raise families in Toronto’s subway right-of-way, in a private world of shrubs and grassy slopes within the sound of ice cubes from the open windows of $3()()-amonth apartments. The same rabbits thrive in Government House grounds in Ottawa and in Queen’s Park in Toronto. The cottontail is a magician at concealing itself. Occasionally one will appear, as if from nowhere, hopping along Philosopher's Walk near Avenue Road and Bloor in Toronto. in an area well traveled not only by philosophers but also by thousands of schoolchildren, Sunday strollers, and prowling dogs on their way to Queen’s Park.

Zoologists are dubious about whether animals “adapt” themselves to the city, in the sense of changing their habits. The grey squirrel will look both ways before crossing a busy street, if he can’t find an aerial route via branches or telephone wires, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s adjusted to traffic. A squirrel is always on the lookout for moving objects. But animals have found that man provides food, cover and conveniences and have made use of his facilities. Rats and mice used to have to hurry from log to log to dodge predators. Now they can live their entire lives inside buildings. Electric signs provide warm roosting sites for starlings, on cold winter nights. Starlings, incidentally, commute from town to country in reverse. leaving the city when the human commuters are coming in. to spend the day feeding in surrounding farmlands, and returning at dusk. Flocks of starlings have been seen passing up Toronto’s Avenue Road in the morning flying just above the cars that are coming into town from the opposite direction. TV antennas make good perches for many birds. The nighthawk. whose cry is as much a part of the summer streets as the sound of peanut wagons, has found built-up gravel roofs a handy place for laying eggs. Chimney sw ifts, which originally nested in caves and hollow trees, now use chimneys, which provide the conveniences of both and are easier to find. Raccoons also like chimneys for dens. A Toronto raccoon crawled down a chimney of a private home and had five babies in the fireplace. A cottontail was recently seen in Toronto living amid the weeds and metal castings behind a factory on Davenport Road, in an “old briar patch” that would have withstood a blitz.

Qne of the big inducements of city life is the ready supply of food. Pigeons haunt the platforms of the Bay and Dundas bus terminal in Toronto, picking up bits of chocolate bars and peanuts dropped by fidgety passengers. At the same station, flocks of sparrows meet incoming buses to pick the insects off. Seagulls, which usually hang out around the waterfront, often move uptown to perch on buildings and when the coast is clear make raids on exposed garbage. Sparrows pick at the bindweeds that grow on city paths conveniently packed hard by people's feet. Picnic grounds, and the spots where construction crews have their lunch, usually have a few' sparrows and starlings dining unnoticed in the background. Zoo cages are regular smorgasbords of leftovers. One of the great killers of rats at the Riverdale Zoo, in the days before it was cleaned up. was a chimpanzee, who would peer at a rustling patch of straw, lean

over studiously and, with a casual, deceptive sweep of its arm, backhand a rat into oblivion, never missing. Birds that live in the city because it's easy pickings attract birds of prey, who find them easy pickings. Whenever there’s a roundup of pigeons at Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, two or three barred owls are caught in the nets along with them. Tall buildings are used as aeries by sparrow hawks. The spire of St. James Cathedral at King and Church Streets in Toronto was for a long time the home of a red-tailed hawk. A peregrine falcon, a bird with a 42-inch wingspread that prefers to strike at airborne prey, nested on the Sun Life Building in Montreal from 1936 to 1952, preying on pigeons and starlings in Dominion Square. She mated successively with three males during the seventeen years and reared twenty-two young. Insects attracted by street lamps and by the searchlights that promote man’s various projects provide rich banquet areas for bats, of which two species — the big brown bat and the little brown bat — seem to like living in town. The big brown bat, which hibernates in the city, often in the attics of private homes, occasionally wakes up on a warm day and crawls into the living quarters. Museum people get more frantic calls about bats than about any other animals. An elderly lady with guilt feelings about stunning a bat with a broom brought it to an official of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in a quart sealer. She had provided it with a hamburger and some French fries. "A more forlorn bat you’ve never seen,” said the official, who rather likes bats.

Just about every species of insect finds its way into the city, including some startling species such as the praying mantis. One recently rode up Bay Street on the shoulder of a Toronto streetcar passenger until a helpful drunk leaned over and said, “Mister, you got the biggest damn grasshopper on your shoulder I've ever seen." Dr. Frank Lutz, a former head of the Department of Entomology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, found 1.402 species of insects behind his house in Ramsey, New Jersey, twenty miles from Times Square. The 250.000,000-year-old cockroach is à specialist in city living. Although it also lives in a wild state in warm latitudes, it thrives chiefly in man’s kitchens, which are kept at humid subtropical temperatures all year round. It looks as if it will be around for a long time yet, as it has found perfect concealment from birds and is one of the insects that have developed a resistance to insecticides. Mosquitoes find the little vases for flowers in cemeteries ideal places for laying their eggs. The museum beetle, Dermestid. dines on the insects in showcases, and the bookworm, Psocid, makes better use of the city libraries than a lot of people do.

The territory of one city animal can

coincide with that of and • „ »par-

row and a rat working the same beat. But an animal will sometimes wage relentless war on another closely related variety. When the Norway rat came to North America by boat in the 1770s it brought with it its European feud with its near relative the black rat, which had arrived ahead of it. The black rat, a much more dangerous animal when it enters the house of man because it likes to live upstairs, appears in Canada only on the shores of both coasts.

Within a species, populations appear to be fixed by some form of social organization. In Baltimore, a known rat population was isolated ‘n a 10,000-square-foot enclosed area and provided with an unlimited central supply of food. Eventually a pattern of domination over food was set up, one that forced some rats to get along on a limited supply. They had to work harder, fight harder. Their reproduction rate decreased. They neglected their young. Their mortality rate rose. Statistically, the original number of rats could have increased to 50,000 in the twoyear study period, but the population reached an uncrowded 200 and stayed there. In another experiment, 112 strange rats were introduced to an existing rat community with unlimited territory. Only 16 percent of the newcomers survived, because of what animal psychologists call social disorganization. It’s now believed possible that under crowded conditions animals become so excited that they die. Crowded mice are known to develop enlarged adrenal glands, characteristic of stress.

The life of a city animal isn’t as haphazard as it may appear to any human who happens to notice one moving around apparently without design. A bird, such as a cardinal, living off food put out for it by kindly householders, tends to turn up at the same feeding station at roughly the same time every day. As a rule, animals don’t roam very far. A sparrow living in a gable of an old downtown house will spend the day patrolling the eavestroughs for seeds washed down into them by rain, visit a stunted sumac in a patch of grass behind a Chop Suey house, look for insects in a mountain of used tires and steel cuttings in a nearby scrap yard. It will move around a lot and cover a lot of miles, but stay within a block or two of home. Individual animals do get in places they didn’t intend to get into. In West Toronto a garter snake came up through a bathtub drain. A few years ago a skunk was seen sitting in the doorway of the Bank of Montreal at King and Bay Streets, just off dead centre of Toronto’s business section. Another walked into the Regent Theatre in Collingwood, Ontario, during a movie. Skunks frequently get their heads stuck in tin cans and jam jars and wander around town looking like visitors from outer space. A squirrel fell into a toilet in a beauty salon on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, establishing some sort of record by taking the women’s minds off their permanents. An employee of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests looked up from his desk to see a raccoon peering in at him through the window, as if watching to see where the taxpayers’ money went.

The record of calls at the Toronto Humane Society office sounds like a list of charges at morning court. A raccoon was found ripping the shingles off the Evangelical Temple at the corner of Bond and Dundas. Another was picked up for scaring guests in the parking lot of the Royal York Hotel. When one Humane Society worker tried to catch a raccoon on King Street, it bit him on the back of the leg, charged an old man who happened to be passing by, tore the stockings of a woman who came along, ran up on a porch, tipped over a bottle of milk and sat there lapping it up as if drinking toasts. One rainy morning, Chief Inspector Robert Johnstone of the Toronto Humane Society, a gentle, greying man with a faint Scots accent, went after a raccoon on a fire escape in the lane near the Salvation Army building on Albert Street. Johnstone went up the fire escape with a cat box under one arm, and holding a dog stick, a device with a lambs’-wool-lined noose at the end, which is now used instead of a net for catching dogs and getting cats down off trees and telephone poles. Every time he got the noose over the raccoon’s head, the coon lifted it off with its front paws. The salesgirls in Eaton’s piece-goods department gathered at the windows to cheer him on, or cheer the raccoon on. Johnstone wasn’t sure which. “I was never so embarrassed in my life,” he says softly. The raccoon got up on a piece of tin over a window, the tin began to yield and the coon jumped on Johnstone’s shoulder, with a grunt. Then it took off along the side of the building holding onto a pipe that ran along the brick wall. It lost its hold, dropped four stories to the pavement, got up, and headed up the lane toward Trinity Church. Johnstone cornered it among the Eaton’s delivery trucks parked in Trinity Square, and got the stick over its head. The raccoon seemed in good health. “I said to myself, ‘You poor devil, after falling four stories, you deserve the best,’ ” Johnstone says. He put it into his car, let it recuperate at the Humane Society for a couple of days, and then had one of his men drive it to the Don Valley and release it.

Raccoons are remarkably durable. Another one, confronted at the top of the

Victory Mills grain elevator in Toronto by Senior Inspector Roy Greer of the Humane Society, leaped at him, missed, and dropped two hundred and ten feet. It was unhurt. Greer took it to the Riverdale Zoo, where it immediately beat up three other coons and settled down to its new life. Raccoons go out on the town at night, wandering far from their nests, get caught downtown by daybreak and just curl up on the ledge of a building or on a fire escape to sleep it off. If they were left alone, they’d stay there till nighttime and then go home. But people always report animals.

City ravines and streams and waterfronts also provide concealed routes for non-citified animals to infiltrate the city. One of the worst jobs ever tackled by the Toronto Humane Society was catching a deer in a junkyard at the foot of Spadina Avenue, an area surrounded by railway yards and warehouses. A Humane Society inspector chased a muskrat around Eaton’s College Street store in Toronto, in a completely landlocked part of town, until it

eluded him under a row of parked cars. A coyote was caught in Metropolitan Toronto, and a wolf jumped through a cellar in an old residential section on Pape Avenue. In June, two taxi drivers in Victoria chased a cougar and held it at bay in a downtown doorway. In 1944 a wild buck jumped the fence at Toronto’s High Park Zoo into a paddock with two female Virginia deer and an Indian water buffalo and didn’t come out again. “He was very shy at first,” says Robert V. Lindsay, the zoo attendant who discovered him. “I took it easy, not to startle him. He quieted down after a few weeks.” The deer was there for about tw’o months. One day the zoo’s bull elk, during the rutting season, jumped into the pen and frightened the deer so badly that it bolted against the fence and killed itself.

Among the more exotic animals that turn up in the city are snakes that arrive from the tropics, coiled in bunches of bananas, where they like to hunt insects. The warehouse workers for a Toronto supermarket, removing the plastic covering in which bunches of bananas are shipped, unveiled, coiled on top of one bunch, a beautiful black and yellow seven-foot Cribo from South America, a mildly poisonous species related to the garter snakes. On occasions like this the warehouse crews usually call the Royal Ontario Museum, whose staff appreciates getting the snakes. On one call the museum people found the warehousemen, with more kindness than logic, trying to feed bananas to a little two-foot boa constrictor from Guatemala, as if it hadn’t had enough trouble traveling a couple of thousand miles in a chilly railway car. A frequent arrival in town from the south, also, is the tarantula, a spider of frightening dimensions that can give a very painful bite.

One exotic arrival in the fringes of southern Canadian cities that looks as if it’s going to stay is the ring-necked pheasant, which was introduced to North America in 1881, when birds from China were liberated in Oregon. It’s a beautiful bird that gives an Oriental touch to suburbia. as if a satrap of Persia lived just around the corner from the shopping plaza, and it seems to have made the grade in the city. But it will have to hustle to hold its own with city animals that have not only learned to live with man but also how to outsmart him.

The persistence and wall to succeed shown by some animals in making a living would do credit to a Fuller Brush man. Raccoons will shove weights off the lids of garbage pails; if the lid is wired on. they’ll roll the whole pail down a flight of steps to loosen things up. A Toronto man watched with fascination while a group of grey squirrels negotiated a clothesline, hand over hand, to reach a birdhouse. When the man covered the birdhouse with a sharply pitched metal roof, the squirrels all practised leaping on it from a nearby tree, until one of them managed to hold on.

City animals like the squirrel are still wild animals. It’s only as a species that

they’ve lost their fear of man, to the extent of living near him. As individuals — unlike, say, the dog — they keep their distance from people. On the other hand, some animals that have been domesticated since before the written history of man will revert to a wild state. Many cats are born, live and die wild within the city. I here are kittens that Humane Society people can’t catch, living in and around and under factories — completely wild, battle-scarred and crafty. An occasional dog will revert to a woltlike life. A silvercolored female shepherd was seen in the part of Toronto’s Don Valley between Genard Street and Pottery Road, living off the garbage that was being dumped into the valley to raise the level of Riverdale Park. Inspector Greer of the Humane Society tracked it in the snow up the valley for fifteen miles. It stayed about a hundred yards ahead of him, using such tricks as going into a culvert and coming out in terrain where Greer couldn’t follow. Finally, he had to give up. But he studied the dog's habits and one day posted himself on one of its trails watching it through binoculars as another man drove it up the valley. When it was within range he shot it with a tranquilizer gun, hitting it with four barbs, each of which carried I dec of nicotine. But the dog kept on. It was savage and dangerous, and the next time Greer had it in range, he was forced to kill it.

I he case of domestic animals going wild is a well-known one, but the big trend is in the opposite direction — wild animals moving toward a softer life. During the past twenty-five years many animals that originally retreated from man in North America have started to come back. Deer now seem to prefer to live in cultivated areas. It has been estimated that there are as many around Toronto and Montreal now as there were in pioneer days. Many birds that arc not city dwellers in the

independent way that the sparrow is nevertheless do live in the city, making full use of man’s pleasure in feeding them. On Sundays in the winter, crowds gather on Toronto's waterfront to feed a flock of black ducks and mallards that has grown to about 3,000 from a few pinioned birds released from Fligh Park thirty years ago. Considering that the Humane Society also treats them to forty or fifty 100-pound bags of bird feed every winter, along with bread and cakes donated by bakeries, it's a credit to the ducks that they still bother to go up the Humber Valley to breed. Few people, on the other hand, think of putting out water for the sparrows when all the water outside has turned to ice. T his is one of the greatest hazards of one of our most cheerful birds.

But man is beginning to encourage his new neighbors, in spite of his tendency to ruin all natural habitats in the city by tidying them up. cutting down the growth, and solidifying the marshes with nice clean fill. Animals like natural, messy ponds and tangled hushes, and it would he a good idea to leave some of them around if we are going to get along with our city animals. And we should try very hard. They require no upkeep, they’re quiet, unobtrusive, don’t use power mowers, and don’t keep noisy pots like dogs. (Although in the case of the wily flea, they let dogs keep them.) Their houses are individual anil interesting. They have no motorboats, transistor radios. Jaguars without mufflers, or motorcycles. They’re thrifty and live on what man wastes, and never give up the fight for survival. They sometimes show more sense-^d spirit than man. and the chirp of a °^uise sparrow on a dull winter day, the'iqnely cry of a nighthawk far above the poise from a gin mill, the song of a ro^ n on a spring morning, the coo of a p¡,lu>n on the window ledge of a downto\aci hotel are all things we should try to kei*5* around us. ir