5 reasons you might be seeing more wildlife during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coyotes sauntering down the
streets of San Francisco.
Neighborhoods flooded with birdsong.
Snakes slithering
onto trails and sidewalks. And of course, the rats. Rats everywhere. Somehow,
as COVID-19 forced us all into our homes, it also managed to bring nature a
little bit closer. Sometimes — as in the case of rats — a little uncomfortably
close.

Newspapers have eagerly
reported sightings of wildlife in the streets. The U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention even issued guidelines
to deal with an expected flood of rats. It’s easy to think that nature is
sweeping into our ordered lives and taking over now. But numbers of rats or
coyotes probably aren’t all that much higher than normal, and animals aren’t
even necessarily going anywhere new. Instead, COVID-19 has changed the way we
interact with the natural world.

Here are five reasons that
people might be running into more wildlife than before.

1. Human handouts are scarce.

Restaurants are closed, and
dumpsters usually filled with trash lie empty. That might be forcing rats out
into the open to search for food. People have certainly claimed to see more
rats. But there’s not yet real data to back that up, says Jonathan Richardson,
an urban ecologist at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

“We would expect them to be
impacted as restaurants close and trash generation moves to residential
buildings,” he says. “It’s very intuitive, but lots of people are throwing that
around without data to support it.” He and his colleagues are in the process of
gathering some of that data themselves, using surveys of pest management groups
and calls to city services about rats.

But if there is a bust, heRodents are prone to boom
and bust cycles in their populations, as opportunities for food and threats
from predators (or pest control) come and go. If food is scarce enough for rats
during shutdowns, he says, “it could be the beginning of a bust cycle. A lot of
city health folks are hoping that’s the case.”

says, don’t get your hopes up that it will last. “It would absolutely be
temporary,” Richardson says. “They’re just so adapted to breeding quickly and
reproducing they’ll be able to repopulate declined populations very quickly.”

2. Scary humans aren’t around as much.

Every animal exists in a landscape of fear  — trying to get what they need while avoiding
areas where predators might be lurking, says ecologist John Laundre. Those
predators include humans. “We are predators on pretty much everything,” says
Laundre, of Western Oregon University in Monmouth. “Everything fears us.”

Pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains,
for example, will chow down peacefully on a carcass while a nearby speaker
plays nature noises. But the big cats beat a speedy retreat when the speaker switches to the sound of humans
talking, a 2017 study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B showed. Similarly,
black bears living near human-inhabited areas avoid those areas during the day.
They prefer to venture to peopled places at night, when humans are less likely to be out, according to a
2019 study in Movement Ecology.

When humans retreat, due to
lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the landscape of fear that we create retreats
with us. Animals common in suburban areas, such as coyotes, might normally
restrict their activities to the evening and night. But “the fewer people they
see around,” Laundre explains, “the more willing they are to come out during
the day.”

3. It’s nice and quiet.

Not all animals fear us. “We
can see a lot of birds flying around and coming to our feeders,” Laundre notes.
“They know humans are safe.”

Those humans are, in turn,
taking greater notice of their avian neighbors in the time of COVID-19. “I
would say noise pollution is the biggest reason people notice them,” says
Gustavo Bravo, an ornithologist at Harvard University. Or rather, the lack of
noise pollution. “If everyone is hunkered down at their homes, cities are
quieter,” he notes.

The Sounds of the City
project, a New York University study that places microphones around New York
City to study urban noise, showed drastic decreases in the sounds of traffic and people as COVID-19 took
hold.

“Birds will adjust their
song and the times they are singing to account for urban noise,” notes Deja
Perkins, an urban ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Usually,
they sing earlier in the day to avoid competing with city noises such as
traffic.” They also sing at a higher sound frequency in urban neighborhoods to help their songs stand out
against the city’s roar.

While it’s too early to say
if birds have changed their singing times or tones in the quieter streets, she
says, we are better able to hear them. And people are taking note. The Cornell
Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day, which invites people to log their bird
observations on the eBird app and website once a year, reported a 32 percent increase in
participation compared with 2019.

4. Spring has sprung.

If the birds seem especially
musical, Bravo explains, it’s because they are. COVID-19 happened to hit the
Northern Hemisphere at a critical time. “March, April and May are the spring
migration months in the Northern Hemisphere,” he says. “Also for the resident
birds not migrating, it’s the time they mate. They sing a lot; they’re looking
for their partner.”

Birds aren’t the only
animals becoming more common in spring. “This is the time of year – March, April,
Mary — when snakes are coming out of hibernation, to eat, warm up and look for
each other to mate,” says David Steen, a herpetologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission in Gainesville. It’s nothing to do with COVID-19. “I’ve
been answering people’s questions about snakes and identifying snakes for
people for a decade or so,” he says. “This is my busy season.”

5. We’re finally paying attention.

But the snakes themselves
never changed. “These snakes have always been right next to us,” Steen says. “We’ve
been living with these animals [for] so long. We just happen to see them more
often [now].”

People who previously might
have traveled to wide vistas and tried to spot rare species may be stuck a bit
closer to home, and finally paying attention to their back gardens, says Helen
Smith, an arachnologist with the British Arachnological Society who’s based in
Norfolk, England. “They’re at home more and in their local patch more,” she
says. The BAS has put out several surveys to help people report their spider sightings. “You’re
living with these really interesting animals,” she says. “Make friends with
them.”

Our social media fixation
also helps shine a spotlight on local wildlife sightings, Bravo notes. “People
have started to post about it on social media, and because everyone was looking
at social media, it spread it out fast.” In Bravo’s home country of Colombia,
he says, “even some national celebrities were posting pictures of birds. It’s not
something they’d do on a daily basis, but they’re sitting at home.”

Perkins, who has been involved with #BlackBirdersWeek, an effort to promote birders of color on Twitter, hopes that the social media and in-person attention will spark interest in local wildlife that extends into the post-COVID-19 world. “I hope that people continue to go outdoors and make these observations and pay attention to the wildlife that we have around us,” Perkins says. “And [that it’s] helping people to notice that people aren’t the only things that thrive in cities.”