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Storm Drain in Austin, Texas

February 25, 2015
Storm Drain, Austin, TX (c) MMD

Storm Drain, Austin, TX (c) MMD

Spotted in Austin, Texas. A nice little biophilic feature, which reminded me a bit of some storm drains I saw in Japan! What a great way to incorporate a bit of nature into a city sidewalk.

Bats and Bridges in Austin

February 20, 2015
Bat Statue, Austin TX (c) MMD

Bat Statue, Austin TX (c) MMD


Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin TX (c) MMD

Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin TX (c) MMD

I was in Austin, Texas last weekend and stayed at a hotel just across from the Congress Avenue Bridge. In urban wildlife circles, this bridge is famous for its summer inhabitants — a large (1.5 million bats!) maternity colony of Mexican free-tailed bats.

Although the bats weren’t in residence, we walked down to the bat viewing area one afternoon to take a look. Surprisingly, the bridge was still an attraction, even without the bats! People were standing around peering up at the bridge, hanging out in the information area, and reading all about these amazing animals. It was great to see.

Although the bats are now a big tourist attraction in Austin, there was a time when they were feared and despised. After a bridge renovation in 1980 led to a growth in their population (the new bridge made for perfect bat roosting sites), many in the city became concerned about their presence. Bat Conservation International’s founder Merlin Tuttle moved to Austin, seeing this as a great opportunity for education and outreach on the importance of bats to a healthy ecosystem. In the end, the city embraced the bats, even naming their (now defunct) minor league hockey team the “Ice Bats.” Bats show up repeatedly throughout the city, in art, in tourist souvenirs, and in local restaurants. It’s quite the PR turn-around!

Many bat species make use of bridges and other man-made structures, as their natural roosting sites have given way to human development. Because of this, efforts like those in Austin to both protect bats and work with humans to increase the chances of coexistence are vital, especially as many species face new threats such as white-nose syndrome.

People looking at the Congress Avenue Bridge, (c) MMD

People looking at the Congress Avenue Bridge, (c) MMD


Bat viewing site, (c) MMD

Bat viewing site, (c) MMD

Black-Crowned Night Herons

August 3, 2014

A group of black-crowned night herons has long chosen DC’s National Zoo as a breeding grounds (they’ve been visiting for about one hundred years!). They set up shop in tall trees around the birdhouse, stay for a while, and then take off. This year, researchers at the zoo tagged them with radio transmitters to see where they go each year once they leave the zoo. The Post had a short article about it today. Enjoy!

Leopards in Mumbai

July 11, 2014
Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Last summer I had the pleasure of traveling to India to meet some conservation scientists who work with leopards in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a huge greenspace in Mumbai, one of the largest urban areas in the world. At about 40 square miles, it’s one of the (if not the) largest urban parks anywhere (technically, like Washington D.C’s Rock Creek Park, it only shares a border with Mumbai on three sides; the fourth side borders the suburbs). I wrote a blog post for Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability about the trip, which I’m re-printing below.


On a high floor of an apartment building in northern Mumbai, India, Sanjay Ghandi National Park (SGNP) was laid out in front of us. My fellow-CLiGS colleague, Courtney Kimmel, and I were being shown around the area by Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher in Mumbai who is affiliated with Mumbaikars for SGNP, a group of organizations and individuals who work to protect SGNP and its resident flora and fauna. Sunetro brought us to this building to meet a couple who were actively involved with the group, and also to show us the view from their apartment. Not only could we see the verdant greenness of the park’s vegetation during the rainy season, but also several informal houses and shacks built into the park itself. In fact, even the high-rise building we were standing in was built (illegally) on parkland. That case, and others like it, has been settled in the courts, but is a great illustration of one of the major challenges the park’s management faces: encroachment.

But really we were there to talk about another, closely related issue. SGNP has a resident leopard population, and there are also leopards who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. In a city with such a high density of human residents, it’s hard to imagine that there’s room for these large cats, but these intelligent, adaptable animals are full of surprises.

While driving and walking through the park earlier that day, we glimpsed some of the ways that people use the park – everything from grabbing a bit of solitude to hanging out with friends, to providing a community for local indigenous groups, and of course as a provider of ecosystem services for Mumbai (including large reservoirs that supply some of the city’s water). Managing a park for all of these (and more) uses is hard enough, but the needs of the non-human residents and users needs to be taken into account as well.

Although by and large the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans (most of the time people don’t even know they’re there), at times conflict has ensued, either because people simply see a leopard and grow concerned, or in some cases because a leopard attacked a person. The group is engaging both the community and the government to develop best practices to prevent such incidences. For example, when people see a leopard, a crowd often gathers, which can upset the leopard and make him feel threatened. He might then strike out against a person in an attempt to get away. At other times, people have been mistaken for prey animals (especially at night). At the end of the day, the best way people can prevent negative interactions with leopards is by modifying their own behavior and landscape (cleaning up garbage, which attracts feral dogs — a favorite prey item, playing music and/or staying with another person when you’re outside at night, etc.). That’s of course a hard sell – and something that I’ve seen with my own work with coyotes in urban and suburban parts of the US. Oftentimes people are quick to call on the government to “fix” the problem, usually by removing the animals in question (with coyotes, often through lethal control, and with leopards, often by trapping and relocating them). This, however, can actually increase conflict because of the complex ecology and behavior of these species. Behavior change, then, is key to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. I believe that one of the main challenges conservation biologists working in these urban system face is getting people to accept that nature really is a part of cities – including sometimes predators! Once people understand this, it’s much easier to make the case that these neighborhoods and parks belong to non-human animals as well, and that we need to take their needs into consideration and learn what we can do to coexist with them. In our modern world, however, many are resistant to this – people have become accustomed to believing that the world can be divided into places where humans dominate (the “built environment”) and places where wildlife dominates (“nature”). This so-called “nature/culture divide” is a false dichotomy – nature exists everywhere, even in dense urban areas, and humans have an impact on even the most remote wildernesses.

Groups like Mumbaikars for SGNP are working hard to break through this binary way of seeing the world, which serves both a practical (lessening leopard-human conflict) and (perhaps secondarily) a philosophical purpose. It was exciting to see their work in action and to be able to compare it to efforts made in the US with coyotes.

WNS Update

July 9, 2014

Not exclusively an urban wildlife issue by any stretch, but a recent Wall Street Journal article just reported that the steep population decline in little brown bats in New York State has appeared to level off. Little brown bats are one of the species hardest-hit by white-nose syndrome, so this is potentially good news! However, little brown populations (and other bat species) are still in steep decline in other parts of the country, and WNS is still spreading across the country.

For more information on WNS, check out the Save Lucy Campaign and Bat Conservation International’s WNS information page.

Night Life

June 18, 2014


I’m horrible with moth identification, but we saw this beauty, neatly camouflaged against the concrete, on the way home from dinner a couple of nights ago.

Vultures on K Street? Let the Jokes Begin!

June 5, 2014
Black Vulture, By cuatrok77 (CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Black Vulture, By cuatrok77 (CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A pair of black vultures (Coragyps stratus) have apparently taken up residence on K Street in downtown DC (K Street is the traditional home of lobbyist offices in DC, so you can imagine the jokes that are pouring in). I’ve always loved vultures (I sort of have a thing for many species that aren’t popularly liked), so this is exciting news — especially since it appears that they might be breeding. The Washington Post has a nice article about them today. It’s been quite the year for bird sightings in DC, between this pair and our snowy owl!




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