Camera thefts threaten innovative deer project

Camera thefts threaten innovative deer project

A series of thefts of vital research equipment in Oak Bay threatens the ground-breaking urban deer management project. Since early December, 13 specialized wildlife cameras out of the 39 associated with the project have been stolen from locations around the municipality. The cameras play an important role in the project that is aimed at managing the indigenous urban deer population in Oak Bay by collecting data that attests, over time, to the density, movement patterns, population size and habits of Oak Bay deer. 

The three-year initiative, a partnership between the District of Oak Bay and the Greater Victoria-based Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society (UWSS), is using an immunocontraceptive (IC) to trial the humane and effective reduction of the municipality’s indigenous Columbian black-tailed deer population. It is funded by Oak Bay and the Province of BC’s Provincial Urban Deer Cost-Share Program. The project is currently at the halfway mark.

The immunocontraception approach reduces the number of fawn births each year in a way that does not open up territory for new deer to move in and replace them the way population culls do. If successful, the project will make available a new community-based approach to urban deer management to communities throughout North America.  The project is endorsed by the BC SPCA. 

Preliminary results indicate that the application of IC to 60 does in the Fall of 2019 has significantly reduced the deer birth rate in Oak Bay in its first year.  Data from the cameras is critical to proving, up to scientific research standards, the success of the project. 

The 13 cameras, Bushnell Model 119876C [See photo below], are owned jointly by Oak Bay and the UWSS. The 13, stolen mainly from public property, are valued at a total of approximately $4,000. Nine were stolen in the first half of December and another four since then. The scale, breadth and timing of the thefts, along with the specific locations chosen, suggests a targeted campaign rather than a series of random acts.

Oak Bay Police are investigating. Residents who have observed individuals removing tree-mounted cameras from property or associated activity from early December to present, particularly on public property, or who may have security camera footage, are asked to contact OBPD at (250) 592-2424. Anyone who has come across the sale or donation of Bushnell wildlife cameras since December or in the future should also contact Oak Bay Police. 

About the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society (UWSS):

Chief scientist for the project is Dr. Jason Fisher, one of Canada’s leading wildlife ecologists. The project manager is Sandra Frey, MSc, an expert in evaluating the impacts of human-wildlife interactions. Project veterinarian is Dr. Adam Hering.

The UWSS is a non-profit society with the long-term goal of conflict reduction between humans and free-living urban animals through science-based and humane population management through research and education.

Media Contact: 

Kristy Kilpatrick, President, UWSS, 250-213-8733

Lyme Disease and the Black-Tailed Deer on southern Vancouver Island

Lyme Disease and the Black-Tailed Deer on southern Vancouver Island

By Lynette Browne, DVM

Do you want to know about Lyme disease and the risk of getting this disease from ticks?  For many of us that migrate here from Eastern Canada, we hear a lot more about Lyme disease as it is much more prevalent there, and actually on the increase.  However, here in B.C., the rate of Lyme disease in humans remains consistently very low at less than 1% in adults (<0.5/100,000 population).

The ticks that transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, fall into two main categories, Ixodes pacificus (Western Black-Legged Tick) on the West Coast of North America, and Ixodes scapularis (Black-Legged Tick) in the Northeastern U.S.A. and Canada. Unlike in Eastern Canada, the rate of Lyme disease remains low in B.C. for several main reasons:

  1. The prevalence of B. burgdorferi in ticks in B.C. has remained consistently low over time, with less than 1% of ticks tested carrying the bacteria. This is different than the Eastern portion of N. America where Lyme disease rates in both ticks and humans have increased over time along with climate change.
  2. The Western Black-Legged Tick are less capable of carrying B. burdorferi than the Black-Legged Tick in Eastern Canada and the U.S.A.
  3. The animals on which Ixodes ticks feed are different. In B.C., the ticks primarily feed on small rodents such as deer mice and dusky-footed woodrat. In Eastern Canada and the U.S.A., the ticks feed on white-footed mice and white-tailed deer.
  4. The vegetation and climate are different between B.C. and Eastern Canada (e.g. B.C. has mostly coniferous forests, whereas Eastern North Amercia has mostly leafy forests).
  5.  Despite Ixodes ticks being present throughout southern and central B.C., including in most of the highly-populated areas, an expansion of the range of these ticks, which could occur with climate change, would not greatly increase the number of people exposed in B.C. since the expansion of the range would be to less-populated areas.
Black-legged (deer) tick. Photo from pestworld.org

To sum it up, the risk of Lyme disease in B.C. is lower and more stable than it is in Eastern Canada and in the Northeastern U.S.A.

That said, it is always important to protect yourself from being bitten by ticks, especially while out hiking. Check out the BCCDC website for more information.

Out of concern for Lyme disease, some people have asked about the number of ticks seen on deer through the course of our research project. During the UWSS’s deer contraception project, there were very rare instances of ticks seen on the deer that were handled. In fact, none were seen during the latest Fall of 2020 portion of the project. So, though deer management is on the mind of many people in Greater Victoria, at least the risk of Lyme disease does not need to be part of the concern.

Camera thefts threaten innovative deer project

A few updates as we start the New Year

As 2021 has begun, we’re wishing everyone a safe and healthy start to the New Year!

Hunkering down

With the darker, wetter days and nights, you may feel that you’re seeing fewer deer…the official term for that appears to be “hunkering down”! Like us, deer tend to look for warm, dry shelter where their needs can be met, and as a result they seem to be less visible.

Watch for deer crossing

We’re glad to note that some actually are a bit safer when crossing the road – 60 does that received their IC in the Fall all have reflective tape on their identification ear tags, and we’ve heard that they are quite visible in headlights.

Theft of wildlife cameras

Sadly, in the first couple of weeks of December, nine of the wildlife cameras collecting data on urban deer in Oak Bay were stolen.  The cameras were all on public land with permission from Oak Bay and are the property of Oak Bay and the UWSS.  If you saw someone removing a camera from its location (likely a tree), please report to the Oak Bay Police (250-592-2424).

Injured buck recovering

You may have seen a recent photo in the newspaper of a majestic buck with an arrow in its side, just behind its right foreleg. The suffering buck had been shot, likely in Oak Bay, with a crossbow, clearly with the intent to kill. 

Thankfully, a number of people reported the injured deer to the Conservation Service, and with the help of UWSS past president Bryan Gates and our wildlife veterinarian Dr. Adam Hering, they were able to locate the buck and successfully remove the arrow. The arrow just missed the buck’s heart but when last seen appeared to be doing quite well.

It is illegal to hunt within urban boundaries.  As well, urban deer eat many plants that have pesticides on them and the meat is unfit to eat.  As well, does that have been given immuno-contraception have a small, yellow provincial tag in one ear that identifies them as unfit for meat. If you see anyone attempting to hunt within urban boundaries, or you see an injured deer, please call the Conservation RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277 or #7277 on Telus mobility.

White-tailed deer in boreal landscapes

White-tailed deer in boreal landscapes

The native deer species here in greater Victoria is the Columbian black-tailed deer. But our lead scientist Jason Fisher and colleague Cole Burton have a new paper in the journal Ecology and Evolution on white-tailed deer in north-eastern Alberta.

They found that oil and gas features play a key role in sustaining the expansion of white-tailed deer northward into boreal landscapes. The infographic, right, explains the key findings of the paper.

Original research paper: Spatial structure of reproductive success infers mechanisms of white-tailed deer invasion of boreal landscapes. http://buff.ly/2KEMMJT

Marking the end of 2020

Marking the end of 2020

Since our last blog post, we successfully completed our second season of immuno-contraception (IC)!  Thanks to all of you who engaged in citizen science and helped us with locating the elusive does who needed vaccinating – almost all received their booster meaning that between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, 120 does were successfully vaccinated!

One of our Wanted posters, to help us find does for IC. Thank you to everyone that called!

Thanks as well to our many supporters in the community and beyond—our field team answered many questions, and were even cheered on from balconies as they professionally, efficiently, and compassionately handled the does.

On October 31 we completed our fieldwork for this fall and our permit expired. Since then, the UWSS and Oak Bay applied to the Provincial funding program (PUDAC) for 2021 funding in order to continue collecting and analyzing data, to prepare for report writing (also to be published in peer-reviewed journals), and cover the costs of boosting both 2019 and 2020 does in the Fall of 2021. 

We are happy to report that the funding was approved, and we look forward to carrying on this important research project.  We know there are many communities and municipalities looking forward to accessing the extensive knowledge of urban deer that we have been collecting and seeing immuno-contraception becoming an operational solution.

If you have any questions, please reach out to us at info@uwss.ca

Time for a boost!

Time for a boost!

We’ve been busy giving immuno-contraception (IC) to the does in Oak Bay. Each doe gets an initial dose, and then a booster a few weeks later. That means that we need to give boosers to the does treated with IC this year (which is about 60 “new” does) and to last year’s IC-treated deer. And good news, we’ve gotten nearly half of the boosters done already! But since the IC vaccination needs to be completed prior to the start of the rut, we need your help finding the does that still need their booster.

The list of does needing boosters can be found here. That list includes the tag number, tag colour and collar colour (if she has a collar), and the general location where she was originally found.

If you spot one of the does listed in the spreadsheet, above, between 7am and 2pm, please call our wildlife veterinarian, Adam, at (250) 880-7263.

Compassionate conservation — yes even for rats and raccoons

Compassionate conservation — yes even for rats and raccoons

by Anne Drummond

In mid-June, the Saanich municipality voted to discontinue the use of anticoagulant rodenticides in all of their facilities. The motivation for discontinuing the use of these highly toxic rodenticides was evidence that owls, raccoons, and other wildlife were also being killed by ingesting poisoned rodents. Mayor Haynes is hoping that Saanich will be setting an example to inspire other municipalities to follow suit.

While the Saanich Council is to be applauded for this humane decision, nonetheless the alternatives to rat poison still remain lethal and in the long term do nothing to change the rat/human conflict.

Rats, and mice, are intelligent, devoted parents and loyal spouses, do they really deserve the death penalty for simply trying to get on in a challenging world? It seems that it is easier to use lethal methods to control animals than for humans to change their behaviour;  because in the end, all human-animal conflict is about habitat destruction—we humans are taking way more than our fair share of available resources.

A United Nations report released in 2019 reveals that at least a million plant and animal species will be extinct within decades, this, the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event can be squarely laid in the hands of mankind. The major factors responsible for the decline of species are habitat destruction and climate change.

Traditional conservation focusses on selected species and populations without considering the well being of individual animals or the ethics involved. The North American model of conservation in particular has a rather egregious track record of the mass killing of one species to preserve another species which is considered to be of greater value to humans. For example, the BC wolf cull, the killing of seals and birds accused of diminishing fish stocks, and the controversial goose cull in Denver CO, to name but a few. These strategies have not only ignored the wider effects on communities and ecosystems but paid no attention to the suffering of individuals involved in the cull. As we move deeper into the Anthropocene and an increasing rate of extinction we need another way to manage human-wildlife conflict.

Compassionate conservation recognizes that all animals are sentient beings and aims to protect Earth’s biodiversity while treating individual animals with respect and concern for their welfare. Following the guiding principles of: do no harm, individuals matter, inclusivity, and peaceful coexistence. No matter whether a species is rare or not, of value to humans or not, native or not,  all animals have intrinsic value. Compassionate conservation offers a different approach to how we deal with animals in the light of what we know and continue to learn about the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals.  Furthermore, it is increasingly acknowledged that the health and welfare of humans are closely connected to the welfare of animals and the environment we all need in order to survive.

The daily activities of humans—in our homes, agriculture, parks, and cities—cause considerable harm to wildlife. Less well known is the harm to wildlife in the name of conservation via culling, trapping, relocation, or captivity. Culling/killing wildlife is not a scientifically proven way to manage wildlife populations. In many instances and in particular among urban wildlife, as you kill individuals others will move into the vacated opportunity—this is what keeps pest control companies in business!

 Killing animals causes suffering and pain and young pups/nestlings/fawns may die when their parents do not return to feed them. Furthermore killing individuals destabilizes groups and communities. This is an important point because a stable family group or community is more amenable to behaviour modification thus making coexistence more feasible.

Yes, that rat/raccoon in your garden may be a nuisance, but before you consider lethal control ask yourself the following questions. Is it:

  1. Justified: in other words are you sure there is a problem (the simple presence of an animal does not equate with it being a problem), is it the right thing to do or might there be other less harmful solutions, is it really reasonable to kill an animal simply for being in your garden?
  2. Humane: can you kill this animal without causing excessive pain and suffering, or could you find a non-lethal solution, do you feel sympathy for the animal, can you generate kindness and attempt peaceful coexistence?
  3. Effective: will killing this animal have the desired effect?

So after considering those questions perhaps now you’re not ready to kill the rat in your garden, having decided that it is innocent until proven guilty—but nonetheless you are wary about this idea of peaceful coexistence.

Yes rodents and raccoons can cause structural damage, yes they are capable of carrying bacteria and viruses but the simple presence of these animals does not necessarily mean harm and disease are guaranteed. In principle, any animal can carry a disease that humans could catch but in reality, 99.999% of pathogens carried by animals will not infect people. By comparison, 60% of all human pathogens can infect animals. If your interactions with animals involve little more than feeding the dog, putting seeds out for birds, and shooing away the squirrels you are unlikely to contract a zoonotic infection—walking into a hospital or a doctor’s office is far riskier.

Peaceful coexistence involves tolerance and understanding and both parties’ needs being met. Accepting that we play a role in human-wildlife conflicts is a big start, so keep your home secure—check for gaps where animals may enter your roof/walls, and keep branches off your roof to limit access to attics,  windows, and vents. Look for greasy, smudgy rub marks which indicate routes used by rodents—disrupt these routes by cleaning with bleach, but also use them as indicators to the ways they may be getting into your house or shed. Rats and raccoons respond to hazing, so bang pots to make loud noises, squirt them with water, be a crazy banshee. Don’t leave piles of junk around as these are prime real estate for rats and raccoons, and don’t leave dog food or cat food outside—that is literally a gilt-edged dinner invitation. Basically, if you limit the food and shelter opportunities in your garden rodents are less likely to make a home there. That said, rodents are everywhere and if you can accept their presence at a distance, then just leave them be.

These are difficult times and animal populations are as stressed as we are; COVID-19, climate change, the state of the economy, political upheaval-  it takes its toll on all the Earth’s inhabitants. We as individuals here in Victoria may not be able to bring about global change but we can start with our own hearts and practice more compassion and respect for all the sentient beings that we share the planet with.

Tweens of all species

Tweens of all species

Humans aren’t the only species whose “tweens” that are itching for more independence but perhaps lack a bit of experience. Tween fawns aren’t much different.

While young fawns tend to stay close to mom, as they get a little older they start to become a little more independent.

“We really encourage drivers and cyclists to be mindful all the time, but now especially to be a little more cautious – when you see a doe walk out, a fawn or two will often follow behind, it just may take a little longer to see them now,” explains Kristy Kilpatrick, President of the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society.

UWSS is working with the Township of Esquimalt on deer management, in addition to undertaking a research and deer contraception program in Oak Bay.

“There really can be quite a distance between the doe and fawn, so cars that have slowed down for the doe think the coast is clear; as they begin to accelerate, the fawn jumps out to follow its mother.”

Be especially vigilant around dawn and dusk, when deer tend to be more active and when it’s more difficult to see them. Headlights can also confuse deer, causing them to freeze or act unpredictably. To reduce your chance of colliding with a deer, slow down and scan ahead, particularly in areas deer are known to frequent.

Residents can help spread awareness that deer are in the neighbourhood by picking up a free lawn sign from the Township of Esquimalt or by contacting the UWSS, Kilpatrick says.

And because deer see dogs as a threat—no matter how well behaved or small your dog—keep Fido leashed and walking close to you to prevent unwanted interactions. Dogs can also startle deer, prompting them (both the deer and the dog) to dart out into traffic.

While most fawns are born in late spring and early summer, some later births are still possible. Because does shelter fawns from predators, leaving for long periods to forage, wildlife centres like the BC SPCA’s WildARC typically advise residents to leave “orphaned fawns” alone – the mother is likely nearby and will return once you leave.

If the fawn appears cold, weak, thin, injured, is bleating repetitively, or if the mother has not returned to a seemingly healthy fawn for more than eight hours, call WildArc. DO NOT remove the fawn on your own—if you have inadvertently handled the animal, rub an old towel on the grass, then gently wipe the fawn down to remove human scent.

As UWSS continues to monitor Oak Bay’s immuno-contraception program and track how many fawns are born this year to both the control group and the IC-vaccinated does, it underscores the importance of research in any deer management plan, Kilpatrick says. “While the Oak Bay project will help inform future decisions about immuno-contraception and deer management, research unique to each community is essential for an effective plan.”

Humming to the tune of Hummingbirds

Humming to the tune of Hummingbirds

by Anne Drummond

It is 6 A.M. and only a tiny sliver of light on the eastern horizon to presage the dawn. There is 2 feet of snow on the ground and the temperature dropped to -8 C for the third night in a row. You are taking the freshly filled hummingbird feeders out to hang under the porch. As you move across the patio you hear the click-click and the soft whir of wings as the hummingbirds come out of the shrubs and alight on the feeder before you even hang it.

Tiny scraps of feather and bone and a heart capable of beating 1,250 times per minute, and the ability to go into a state of torpor where their hearts beat only 50 times per minute. Given their prodigious feats of endurance and survival, it is no wonder that these birds have been associated with powerful beliefs.

Hummingbirds have fascinated and inspired humans for many centuries and this is reflected in the mythologies and folklore of many societies. The Aztecs believed that hummingbirds were the reincarnation of warriors who had died in battle. Amongst many indigenous people of the Americas, the hummingbird is regarded as a messenger of hope and jubilation. A dream involving hummingbirds suggests your apparently insignificant ideas may possess much power and potential, so just perhaps your flights of fancy may have merit and deserve to be explored.

Hummingbirds are a New World species with the 338 different species found only in North and South America. In Victoria, we see the Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds. Most Anna’s do not migrate, 15 years ago it was unusual to see one in the winter now they are regulars at winter feeders. Winter feeding does not discourage migration, Anna’s overwinter here because the winters in Victoria have become warmer over the last ten years, no doubt the presence of winter feeders helps the birds, however, Anna’s can be seen in forests far from the presence of feeders.

The Rufous hummingbird does migrate and has the longest migration of all birds relative to its size. They overwinter in Mexico and the Gulf states and breed from Washington state north into Alaska. Both males and females migrate but separately, though both show great consistency in the route they use from year to year.

In all hummingbird species both males and females set up and maintain territories, the males’ territory focusses on a stable food supply, while the females’ territory is centered around the availability of good nest sites. The males and females do not form a pair bond—so no joyful reunions after the long journey back from Mexico! Rather the males will mate with any female that comes into their territory, the females are then responsible for nest building, feeding, and rearing of the hatchlings.

The Rufous arrive in Victoria in late March or early April and breed until late May and usually have only one or two clutches per year. In contrast, the Anna’s, which overwintered here, start breeding at the end of January and on through till the end of May and will lay two or three clutches consecutively. All species lay just two eggs which take two weeks to hatch and another two weeks before they fledge. The nests are very well hidden, small cup-shaped, and disguised with fragments of lichen on the outside. The wall of the nest is lined with spider silk and can thus stretch as the young birds grow.

Hummingbirds were once considered to be exclusively nectarivorous, however, we now know that invertebrates are an important part of their diet providing many nutrients not found in nectar. Hummingbirds will eat almost any invertebrate that is small enough to swallow, for example, fruit flies, gnats, mosquitoes, aphids, spiders, maggots, caterpillars, ants, and insect eggs. Hummers are very resourceful foragers and employ a number of methods to hunt invertebrates including hawking (catching them in flight) and gleaning (searching the new leaves of trees and shrubs or the bark of trees where insects and eggs are picked from tiny crevices). Hummers also practice leaf rolling where they hover above leaves on the forest floor, wafts of air from their wings turn the leaves over and the birds pick off insects and eggs. Hummers will also poach insects from spiders webs and the insects attracted to sapsucker wells. Females also require calcium for eggs and the nestlings bone development so birds will be seen collecting beaks full of ash from fire pits and burn piles.

Hummingbirds consume nectar from a wide range of flowering plants and a single bird may visit between 1,000-2,000 different flowers in a day to supply their energy requirements. They have long tongues that extend well beyond their beaks and with the rapid flicking of their tongues can lap up nectar. There is no sucking involved rather, nectar moves up the grooved tongue by means of capillary action—the physical force that causes fluids to move through small diameter tubes.

Hummingbirds are major pollinators across their entire range as migrating birds follow the flowering of plants northwards in the spring and southwards in the fall. Many flower species have evolved floral shapes and colours that attract the hummingbirds. As endothermic (warm-blooded) pollinators they can be active in the cold spring of the west coast and play an important ecological role by guaranteeing fruit set for early flowering plants, like the Salmonberry, which in turn sustains bears and even wolves until more food becomes available.

 Setting up hummingbird feeders is a wonderful way to observe these delightful birds however it should only be done with the birds’ safety and well being in mind.

The optimal position for a feeder is somewhere out of reach of cats, protected from rain and wind, and not too many hours of full sun. It is preferable that the feeder is at least 8 feet away from a window to prevent death by window strike. Nearby trees and shrubs provide shelter for birds to rest or wait a turn at the feeders. Male hummingbirds will defend a feeder as part of their territory during the breeding season, so if you have multiple feeders it is best to set them up some distance apart and preferably out of sight of each other, this gives more birds a chance to feed and reduces the male scuffles around the feeders.

Nectar from flowers contains between 12% and 25% sucrose so the solution in the feeder should be 1 cup white sugar and 4 cups water, using rapidly boiling water to kill any fungi/yeast cells that may be in the sugar. Cool before filling the feeder. If you do not have time to cool the solution, use one cup of boiling water to kill the yeast then top up with 3 cups cold water. Do not be tempted to put more sugar in the solution as it is both difficult for them to lap up and will cause hardening of the birds’ kidneys.

Feeders should be cleaned frequently depending on how many birds visit them, but at least once a week in the winter and every 2 to 3 days in the summer. Just use regular dish soap and water and rinse well. Never let the solution become cloudy as that indicates the presence of bacteria that will harm or kill the birds.

Never use anything else other than white sugar;  do not use red dye or the commercial nectar preparations as they contain carcinogenic substances—a red feeder is sufficient to attract the birds. Also do not use honey as it ferments rapidly and can kill birds. Brown sugar contains iron which will poison the hummers, icing sugar contains cornstarch which ferments, and artificial sweetener has no calories.

If you don’t feel you can commit to maintaining feeders through the winter you should remove your feeders in September to give the birds a chance to find another food source for the winter. If you do maintain the feeders over the winter you will not only earn the gratitude of the birds but gain an insight into their remarkable tenacity and capacity to survive. Feeders will often freeze and people have developed many enterprising solutions to prevent this, from wrapping feeders with Christmas lights or insulated wrappings, or commercial heating elements. Have a spare feeder or two inside so if the feeder freezes during the day you can quickly exchange it for a warm feeder and let the other warm up inside. During the winter it is ideal to bring the feeders indoors at night, but only if you can take them back outside at dawn as the birds will be in dire need of the food after a long cold night. Sometimes the birds go into cold shock and will sit on the feeders stiff and unmoving and not feeding, or they may be on the ground. Pick them up gently and either warm them in your hand indoors or put them a large box (a 12 bottle wine box is the ideal size) with a hot water bottle in it for 10 minutes to warm up, then release them outdoors near the feeders.

And finally, a word of warning, be prepared to become very attached to ‘your’ hummingbirds.

On the Nature of Stewardship

On the Nature of Stewardship

by Anne Drummond

We are living in strange and uncertain times; forest fires, floods, and other manifestations of climate change along with the social, economic, and ecological problems associated with an ever-increasing human population. Then the current COVID-19 pandemic which has touched most humans on the planet, and probably left animals wondering what is going on with us.

As our knowledge of the science of this pandemic grows, so too do the questions. Every country, every community, and every family are asking what now, what will change, and more importantly what needs to change? The more specific questions will reach into every facet of human life and have the potential to bring positive change to our societies and by extension to the planet. Because, although we are focused on our own safety and well-being we should also remember that our fortunes are intertwined with those of all living organisms on earth.

For biologists and naturalists the world over, a bright light shining through the gloom has been the anecdotes and photographic evidence of nature taking to the streets and other spaces vacated by humans—no more living in the shadows, animals are claiming space. In addition, at home and with time to spare, more and more people are noticing the urban wildlife around them. Can we as the UWSS, individuals, households, urban and rural communities take this increasing awareness of wildlife along with the urgency to address climate change and turn it into more effective stewardship of our beautiful planet?

Stewardship is a word we hear frequently but what exactly do we mean? In essence, stewardship refers to the responsible use and protection of natural environments and incorporates conservation and sustainable practices. However, that said, stewardship has many faces and not all of them are pretty.

While there is no discounting that commitment, passion, and work by many people has resulted in the preservation and conservation of land, wildlife, and ecosystems, stewardship has for a greater part had an economic basis and has been human-centred. The environment provides resources which have monetary value and we want to exploit these, so we take care of the resource we wish to exploit but have little care for the remainder of the system or for the consequences of our exploitation. This has led to the rise of industrial-scale farming, destructive mining practices, deforestation, exploitation of the rivers and oceans.

Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of wildlife ecology and the USA wilderness system, wrote the Sand Country Almanac in response to the economic and libertarian-based land ethics, where only aspects of the environment useful to humans were preserved. In this book of essays, he proposed a land ethic (a framework guiding how people regard the land) that called for a more caring and morally responsible relationship between people and nature. His ecologically-based land ethic stems from the principle that the land, air, and water as well as all living organisms have intrinsic value, not just value to people.

In Leopold’s land ethic he maintains that “when we see land (nature) as a community to which we belong – we may begin to use it with love and respect”. His vision thus changes the human role from one of dominance to being but one of the many citizens of the community of nature.

While this may seem like a vague and perhaps even whimsical philosophy to some, delving deeper into how we view nature—the language we use, the actions and behaviours we engage in, the fears and expectations that we have—it is not difficult to see that we often neglect to consider the needs of the wild creatures and the land itself. There is little doubt that a more caring relationship between people and nature would bring great benefits to both parties. While as individuals we may not be able to bring about change on a large scale, we can, through our actions, all foster a more caring relationship with the urban wildlife around us.

Perhaps the most crucial thing we can do for wildlife is to preserve or create habitat wherever we can, thus making it possible for wild creatures to coexist with us.

This can take many forms including:

  • Creating brush piles and encourage wild areas for shelter in your garden,
  • Don’t rake up leaves, leave them in the beds as winter mulch and the insects and invertebrates the leaves attract provide protein-rich food for birds in the spring,
  • Plant bird and insect-friendly plants
  • Don’t remove trees unless they are a safety hazard as every mature tree, particularly evergreens, are home to many birds, invertebrates and small mammals,
  • Let your lawn become wild, or plant wildflower lawns or dig it up and plant trees, shrubs, and flowering plants
  • Only prune hedges, trees, and shrubs well before or well after birds have nested
  • Avoid pesticides, herbicides or poisons
  • Maintain hummingbird feeders and even seed feeders during the winter
  • Provide clean water for birds and animals

And of course, keeping cats indoors and teaching dogs and children not to harass wildlife creates a safer environment for them.

Key to the development of a more respectful and caring relationship with nature is understanding the needs of wild creatures. which in turn has its root in observation. So this is an invitation to set up the deck chair on the lawn or take up a comfy spot on the lakeshore, bring your tea and simply observe, follow ants as they wend their way through the grass, watch the ducks protecting their young while still trying to feed, notice the sentry bird on the edge of bird feeding parties, learn the alarm call of a Towhee, notice all the different pollinators in action on flowering plants. Ask questions, find answers, and seek to understand and then protect.