Your wild neighbors: 10 cool things about your backyard

By KRISTINA CASAGRAND
neighborhoods@ColumbiaMissourian.com

Finding the birds

Dylan Allen, an urban wildlife specialist points out the different types of birds while walking around the streets of Columbia. Photos by DANIEL LONGAR/Missourian

The Old Southwest has a wild side.

Mafia rackets, late-night fights — it’s right under our noses, but you might not know it without a guide. Dylan Allen, an urban wildlife specialist at MU, brings up new ways to think about yards, parks and street sides.

“Most people think of ecology in a city not of a city,” he said. “The popular man-nature dichotomy says that people are different from nature. But 80 percent of people in the U.S. live in urban areas — that’s where the most interaction will occur.”

Allen defied my conception of naturalists. He lives in an apartment, showers regularly, and he doesn’t garden. He hates mowing lawns, but doesn’t mind scraping dead animals off the road (as we walked, he scouted out roadkill for research).

More than a century of growth and hundreds of plants make Old Southwest one of the city’s most biologically diverse regions. Here’s what I learned about Columbia creatures:

1. The urban habitat is like a dorm.

Raccoons and opossums (or even gray squirrels and fox squirrels) don’t normally occupy the same space at the same time. But in the city, they have to learn to live with one another. That’s not always easy, even among the same species.

“Urban mammals act aggressive toward each other,” Allen said. “It’s like living in a dorm, with a lot of people living in close proximity.”

Animals also adjust their schedules and diets.

“It’s like if you and a roommate share a fridge and your roommate’s eating all your strawberries,” Allen said. “When you find out she’s allergic to blueberries, just buy those, and you’re good to go!”

More than 400 different types of bees live in Missouri. This one enjoys a flower by Stewart Road.

2. Honeybees have a political dynasty.

We have the Carnahans, the Blunts … and the bees. With 401 native cousins, it’s no wonder the honeybee won Missouri’s title for “state insect.” Allen said that about half of those species are parasitic, meaning they steal food sources and nests from other bees. Politics.

3. Opossums are the ultimate urban specialists.

It’s our national marsupial by default, and our urban specialist by effort. By capitalizing on cities’ accessible food and warmer climates, opossums have doubled their range since the 1700s.

Allen cracks up when he cites the first English opossum observation. It was by Captain John Smith, who, when he wasn’t busy chasing Pocahontas or colonizing the New World, was trying to describe this new animal:

“An Opassom hath an headlike a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignesse of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and suckeleth her young.”

And talk about killer insomnia.

Allen said that during the mating season, male Antichinus possums in Australia don’t even eat or sleep, “They just fight and reproduce.” Ninety-five percent of all possums die within a year of birth. They make up for this loss by birthing an average of 13 young at a time, two to three times in a year, with just a 13-day gestation period.

Making friends with a box turtle

Dylan Allen holds a three-toed box turtle, which we found basking under a sun beam at Westwood Avenue's south end. The three-toed box turtle is one of two box turtles found in Missouri.

4. Neighborhoods offer a new kind of nature.

Urban systems have new rules and needs that are unique from those in the wild.

Take Japanese honeysuckle; it’s an invasive plant cursed by proponents of the “grow native” philosophy. Allen says that at this point in urban development, however, it’s simply part of the habitat, a major source of berries and shelter for birds. In short, “if you like the way it looks, plant it.”

5. Forget mole traps; get a terrier.

“People don’t dislike moles personally,” Allen says, “they dislike what they do to their yards.”

Instead of garish traps to control your moles, consider employing a terrier or dachshund.  They were bred to catch rats in granaries, but do just as well hunting underground pests.

6. You don’t need Roundup® if you have a woodchuck.

“Woodchucks love dandelions,” Allen said. “I once watched a neighbor’s yard turn from yellow to green in less than 10 minutes.”

Cowbirds on a wire

The male cowbird, left, tries to attract a mate. Cowbirds deposit their eggs in the nest of another bird, forcing them to foster the cowbird chicks.

7. There’s a mafia racket in the Old Southwest.

A bully and nest parasite, the brown-headed cowbird will kick out other birds’ eggs to lay their own.

“They set up a mafia racket because they know where nests are,” Allen explained. “If unwilling foster parents get rid of the eggs, they come back and destroy the nest. They say, ‘You’re going to do this or we’re going to wreck your nest and kill your kids.’”

8. You can hunt deer in the city limits.

But only bow-hunting, and only in designated areas. Some restrictions prohibit building tree stands, riding four wheelers and dressing as if you’re actually hunting (at least, within eyesight of the general public).

Deer do live nearby, leaving tracks in John A. Stewart Park and probably munching on gardens and other greenery.

9. Birds of a feather get fat together.

Discarded junk food causes mammal diabetes and pigeon obesity in urban areas. I wondered if the portly robin we saw perched by Lathrop Road had cashed in on too many bird feeders.

10. There’s not enough roadkill in the neighborhood.

At least, not for Allen. I pointed out the clean roads, and, disappointed, he agreed. “It’s hard to do a study with a sample size of zero,” he says.

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Filed under Columbia-Boone County, Old Southwest

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