In workshops and writings, a wildlife biologist helps Puget Sound-area residents learn to live with urban wildlife.
An outing to see a special plant as it flowers, or to spy through binoculars at young birds as they hatch is one of the pleasures of living in a place that is so close to nature. Freelance writer Kathryn True, co-author of a Mountaineers guide, “Nature In the City: Seattle,” presents another in a series of occasional stories offering ideas for such outings.
Russell Link is no stranger to uninvited houseguests. Over the past 12 years, his Whidbey Island home has provided temporary lodging for Norway rats, Douglas squirrels, big brown bats, Townsend’s chipmunks and, most recently, a river otter mama with three pups.
As a district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Link is an expert in helping the Northwest’s two-legged citizens find ways to peacefully coexist with the region’s furrier residents. But by coexist he doesn’t mean within the same building; he never intended for his home to become an urban wildlife eviction laboratory. Link attributes the house’s desirability as a critter condo to its age, proximity to a creek and the former owner’s negligence.
“I’ve written two books on the subject and have consulted with hundreds of people on these issues, and my wife, Kathy, says, ‘Don’t you think we should bring someone in on this who knows what he’s doing?’ ” Link laughed, remembering her losing patience with the time involved in Operation Otter Removal.
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“I sealed off every possible entrance, waited until the mother left and went in with a flashlight,” he said, finding a trio of three-week-old pups in the most inaccessible corner. He carefully snuggled them into a bowl with bits of their insulation nest and set the makeshift bed on a heating pad outside the former entryway. The otter mother was able to safely move her family to a new, hopefully wilder, location.
Link admits most people are not this tolerant when they discover another species has chosen their Craftsman over a cave.
“Issues and conflicts are almost always food-related,” said Link, who shares his own stories in a series of “Living with Wildlife” workshops this month. “Someone either knowingly or unknowingly is providing food. Once the animal relates people to food, you have a problem.” With a neighbor’s goldfish-stocked pond just a few tail-lengths away, Link’s otter saw his crawlspace as a well-provisioned nursery.
When I said I wanted to learn about urban wildlife, Link suggested a visit to Washington Park Arboretum, where a variety of different habitats come together — wetland, woodland, shoreline and a park with mature ornamental and native plantings — to look for signs of three main players on the urban wildlife stage: coyotes, raccoons and nutria.
So far this year, Link’s office has received more than 700 calls about coyotes. The biggest misconceptions about them, he says, are that they eat nothing but cats and they carry rabies. Neither is true. Coyotes prefer to eat smaller mammals such as mice, rats, birds and their eggs (Canada goose eggs are a favorite). They attack cats only because they are competitors for the same prey.
To prevent conflicts, remove all food sources, including compost, unsecured bird feeders, water sources and pet food. “Don’t make food and shelter available to wild animals,” he said.
At the Arboretum, wandering from the Graham Visitor Center’s parking lot north to Foster Island, Link scanned Duck Bay for signs of nutria, semiaquatic rodents (about two feet long, half of which is ratlike tail) imported from South America. Red-eared sliders basked in the sun as mallards pecked hopefully at our toes (humans = food familiarity?).
Link spotted an eight-inch hole in a distant bank he guessed was the work of nutria — too small for beaver and too big for muskrat. Introduced for the fur trade in the 1930s, nonnative nutria aren’t a big problem in Seattle, but have been deemed pests in other states where they’ve destroyed marshland and eroded river banks.
“They’re a nonnative species, and the damage inflicted elsewhere hasn’t come to fruition here yet, but has the potential to,” Link said, advising people who see a nutria to contact a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator to trap and remove it.
Depending on the legal status of an animal, trapping is or is not allowed, but for all species, Link views trapping as a last resort. One reason is that removing one animal often leads to more problems when another — possibly more aggressive — individual takes over the newly vacated territory, he explained.
When and where to meet wildlife
A kingfisher swooped low over Union Bay as we explored the shores of Marsh Island. Link pointed out a beaver scent mound among the cattails — a small, muddy hill where the male leaves his musky calling card; nearby was a signature gnawed-off tree trunk. He also found “runways,” slick muddy trails leading through reeds to the water created by nutria and river otters. Piles of scat near a small bridge contained crawfish shells, most likely the diet of a river otter. As a pied-billed grebe preened offshore, a fleet of Canada geese sailed royally by.
To see wildlife in action, Link suggests visiting in early morning or at dusk. Muddy areas are good places to practice tracking skills, he added. Bring a guidebook and seek out the raccoon’s easily identifiable hand-like impressions.
Many people find the masked faces and striped tails of Procyon lotor disarmingly cute until the day they find their garbage strewed all over the street. Link says that urbanites wrongly assume that raccoons carry rabies (bats are the only mammals in this area that carry the virus, and then only rarely).
“Of all our calls on problem wildlife, 90 percent are about raccoons, an animal that in my mind is one that we need to coexist with,” Link said. “They scavenge, eat rodents and are interesting to watch in a wild setting.”
“When raccoons and coyotes are taught by a parent that humans are a potential food source, it creates future conflicts. One way to prevent this is to keep these animals wild and remaining dependent on wild food sources,” he said. “I’m trying to help people keep the wild in wildlife.”
Freelance writer Kathryn True, a regular contributor to NWWeekend, lives on Vashon Island. Contact her through her Web site, kathryntrue.com.