With the extra-frigid winter we have been experiencing this year, it boggles my mind that any wildlife can actually survive outdoors. It has been hard enough for humans! So at EcoMyths we wondered: How do animals survive this challenge within our vast urban landscape? On our latest Worldview segment, Jerome McDonnell and I explored this topic with wildlife expert Bill Ziegler, senior vice president of collections and animal programs at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Can Wild Animals Be Homeless?

Bill explained that many of our native animals are, in fact, homeless because their habitats have disappeared or dwindled—not just in Illinois but also further afield. In a well-intentioned effort to beautify our cities and our neighborhoods, we have gradually almost completely replaced the native habitats that once provided both food and shelter thousands of species of birds, animals, and insects.

Based on positive motivations, we have planted beautiful exotic flowers, bushes, and trees from other parts of the world. We have cleared oak forests and drained wetlands to build safe, dry homes. And we have replaced our messy native tall grass prairies with pristine lawns so that our kids can play soccer and baseball in the yard.

Some Fixes Are As Simple as Falling Off A Log

Whether inadvertent or not, in many places only small pockets of habitat remain for native creatures such as red fox, white tailed deer, opossum, frogs, salamanders, and songbirds. But even with forest preserves and parks, Bill encouraged us to take steps to help wildlife find food and shelter in residential areas. In our own yards and parks, it can be as simple as keeping a pile of leaves or old hollow logs in the yard over the winter to provide homes for small animals.

The beautiful dark-eyed junco can handle winter a little better when it's well fed! (NWF)
The beautiful dark-eyed junco can handle winter a little better when it’s well fed! (NWF)

In the summer we can prepare friendly year-round habitat by planting groupings of bushes to provide “micro-habitat” sanctuaries with seeds and berries for food.

Bill also emphasized the importance of providing connections between wild spaces. In some parts of Illinois, we are fortunate to have many natural greenways, thanks to the efforts of the County Forest Preserves and other conservation organizations. Preserving corridors and providing new connections between separate open areas are essential to the health of the animals because it enables them to move more easily from place to place to find additional food, shelter, and breeding grounds.

Where Palm Trees Sway

Not only did Bill enlighten us on wildlife habitat in Illinois, we also discussed the recovery of panther populations in Florida and vast habitat losses and restoration efforts in Southeast Asia.

One of the first animals to be listed as Endangered Species, today there are less than 100 panthers living in the wild in Florida. (NWF)
One of the first animals to be listed as Endangered Species, today there are less than 100 panthers living in the wild in Florida. (NWF)

Development in Florida has drastically reduced the cypress swamps and pinelands which the panther inhabits. Now living in only 5 percent of its former habitat, it is more likely to venture out into human territory.

Efforts are underway to expand Florida’s panther habitat, so that they can live and breed in the large interconnected spaces they need.

In much of Southeast Asia, such as Sumatra and Borneo where rainforests are being clear-cut to make way for profitable palm oil plantations, thousands of plant and animal species have become displaced. Much of the land has become a monoculture—home to a single species of plant. Orangutans and tigers are being driven out, as are the native people who depend on these forests. Agreements have been created to make these plantations more sustainable, but habitat continues to be lost and damaged.

Healthy Wildlife Habitat is Healthier for Humans Too

Although the protection of any particular single species may seem unimportant, it turns out that the restoration of native habitats is actually important to the human species as well. Why native plants? Because native plantings absorb rainwater to prevent flooding and refill our groundwater wells; forests absorb excess CO2 from the atmosphere moderating the rate of global warming; native plants attract and support the insects that depend on them; the native insects support the diets of the birds and mammals which in turn help the local plants to thrive by pollinating and spreading their seeds.

There is no need to take extreme measures, like throwing out all our exotic plants and flowers from other areas of the world. These help make the landscape beautiful. But many non-natives can also co-exist with healthy populations of native plants. Including native plants as part of your landscape can complement your colorful garden and also provide important habitat for local creatures.

One Green Thing You Can Do: Incorporate Native Plants

Bill recommended consulting your local nurseries for advice on incorporating native plants into your yard. Not only will you be helping the wildlife, but your plants will be easier to care for!

To learn more about how we can help wildlife in winter and all year long, listen to the EcoMyths Worldview podcast and check out the full myth.

—As part of our partnership with WBEZ/Worldview, this content also appears at WBEZ.

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