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When you think of urban wildlife, you might think of gulls, sparrows, starlings and pigeons. However, once you start to look a bit closer at the wildlife around our towns and cities, you soon realise just how many species have adapted to live alongside us.
Some species adapted to living with humans a long time ago and readily exploit manmade structures for nesting or our rubbish as a food source. Nearly all the UK’s swifts, for example, now nest under the eaves of buildings. This is instead of the tree holes and crevices they used in the distant past. And we have all seen gulls and corvids rooting through overfilled litter bins. There are some creatures, though, that are more surprising urban colonisers, ones that we think of as extremely shy and unlikely to come into towns at all.
So, I’m going to share some of my urban wildlife highlights and show there is so much to enjoy, even if you live in a busy city centre.
Gulls and Terns
Ask someone to name an example of urban wildlife and there’s a good chance they will say ‘seagull’. This is, of course, a generic term covering a number of species that a lot of people lump together for convenience, or because they haven’t actually noticed how different they are. We see two species in towns most often: herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls.
Even though tabloid scare stories appear every summer, warning of killer gulls out to steal your chips, herring gulls are suffering a worrying decline in numbers. Since 1969, herring gull numbers breeding on the coast have dropped by over 50%. One of the reasons is the collapse of fish stocks (due to overfishing and warmer seas). Fishing fleets consequently have less discards. Despite exploiting new opportunities in our towns and cities, overall numbers of herring gulls are falling too. And if they choose to move into our towns to raid our bins, it is only because we are such a messy and wasteful species. We make it incredibly easy for this resourceful species to find food from what we throw away. Let’s start appreciating this clever, beautiful bird instead of vilifying it.
Kittiwakes would seem a much less likely gull to colonise our towns and cities. We might think of this beautiful, diminutive (but very noisy) bird as our most maritime gull. The River Tyne in Newcastle and Gateshead, though, has hosted the world’s most inland breeding colony of kittiwakes since the 1960s. Each spring they return from a winter at sea to breed on building ledges along the river. Their numbers are actually increasing as well, in contrast to populations both globally and in the rest of the UK. Kittiwakes elsewhere are in serious decline. There have been losses of over 80% since 2000 in Shetland and Orkney, for example.
Their presence is not without controversy; local business owners have tried to deter them at some sites due to the noise and guano. This has led to clashes with conservationists. Birds can easily become entangled and die when deterrents such as netting are used incorrectly or not monitored.
It is perhaps even more surprising to see terns nesting in towns. There are a number of towns in Scotland with rooftop tern colonies, including Wick in Caithness. Wick’s contains both common and Artic terns. Although they are usually ground-nesting birds, terns of a number of species are increasingly using manmade structures for nesting.
We often think of sparrowhawks as woodland birds, designed to jink through the trees chasing small birds. They are also found in more open country, although they stay close to cover. They are now moving increasingly into our towns and cities, however. This is probably because of food availability. Sparrowhawks are another bird that is unfairly vilified. Blamed for songbird declines, they have little or no effect on their numbers overall. Their kill success rate is below 50% and while they may temporarily cause small birds to disperse, their presence is actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem as it means there is enough prey to support them. When I lived in Inverness, I would regularly see a pair hunting through our neighbourhood, yet our house sparrow population remained extremely stable.
Peregrine falcons nearly went extinct in the UK in the 1960s due to pesticides entering the food chain and persecution. Greater protection and legal restriction of chemicals means they have now bounced back and have spread into many of our urban centres. Cliffs and crags are their natural nesting sites. But to a peregrine, tall buildings look similar, so our churches and tower blocks have proved welcome alternatives. Churches and cathedrals around the country now host nesting peregrines, including Salisbury and Norwich. Tate Modern in London is another good spot to see them as the RSPB usually have a watchpoint set up in season. Remarkably, peregrines also reveal that some very rare birds fly over our cities. Among over 100 species found in food remains, urban peregrine expert Ed Drewitt has even found corncrake feathers!
The raven is another bird of cliff, crag and moor that has moved into our cities. Like other species that were persecuted to near extinction in the UK, they were restricted to the extreme north and west of the country for much of the twentieth century. Greater legal protection means they have also recovered and spread across much of their historic range. Our tall buildings and pylons have proved to be good nesting sites for this extremely intelligent corvid. Bristol is a great city for seeing these birds. You used to see them on some of the derelict buildings near Temple Meads station until regeneration work started. They have also been nesting on a church not far from the city centre for the last two or three years.
The only evidence of hedgehogs many of us see in our urban areas is sadly when we see those killed by cars. Unfortunately, this is by no means the only threat they face. As we pave over more of our gardens for parking spaces or replace natural lawns with plastic ones for easy maintenance, hedgehogs lose vital green corridors. Hedgehogs have large territories and need to move between a lot of gardens. If they can’t do this safely, they risk failing to find sufficient food or a mate. By keeping our gardens messier and leaving holes in fences, we can help. The Hedgehog Street campaign is a good place to start looking for ways to get involved. If you have hedgehogs visiting your garden, a wildlife camera trap is a great way to get to see them.
Red foxes have been recorded in our cities since the 1930s and are now found in urban settings across much of the UK. Moving into towns has proved a double-edged sword, however. Although it gives them easy access to the food we throw away, they have a much shorter lifespan than their rural cousins. Urban foxes only live from one to three years, with road accidents the biggest cause of death. Rural foxes can live up to nine years. Urban populations naturally fluctuate. When populations get too big, they are prone to mange outbreaks which lower numbers again. Whenever I visit family in Bristol, I always look forward to seeing some of the city’s foxes. My brother even had a vixen use his shed as a den for raising her cubs there a few years ago.
Like our raptors, otters suffered huge declines in the twentieth century due to a combination of persecution and pollutants. Better protection and control of chemicals have likewise led to a resurgence. Otters have large territories, so it was inevitable that as their numbers grew, they would start to exploit rivers in new areas. Improvements in our cities’ water quality means that food is now readily available for them in urban watercourses. One cause for concern is that, as with foxes, town life will mean road deaths are more likely. They can now regularly be seen in cities from Exeter to Sheffield, London to Manchester. We saw a number of different otters in the city centre whilst living in Inverness.
Many butterflies and moths are widespread and found in urban gardens as long as they can find food. If you are interested in moths, you can attract night-flying species with a simple white sheet and torch setup. We invested in a moth trap during the first lockdown while in Inverness. We were amazed at how many species we caught that spring and summer, even as far north as the Highlands. The exotic-looking poplar hawkmoth above was just one of our highlights. What was really exciting was seeing species with a particular flight season appear, then be replaced by those with a slightly later one in sequence as the months progressed. And we also found some other interesting insects in the trap, including a tiny water boatman that had strayed from next door’s pond!
The Wonders of Urban Wildlife
A wide variety of wildlife now lives in or visits our towns and cities. This brings new challenges and conflicts. Not everyone is happy to see gulls raiding bins, foxes digging up lawns or kittiwakes pooping on buildings. Urban animals also run a greater risk of being hit by cars. But the fact that we can now see so many different birds and animals in the city not only shows how well species that were in real danger of extinction have recovered. It also shows how green our towns and cities have become. We may not be as green as some cities on the continent (Berlin has a large urban goshawk population, for example) but our urban spaces are far from the wildlife deserts some might think they are.
These are just some of my personal highlights, but I could have added so many more gems including kingfishers, badgers, water voles and dippers. What have you seen in your home town? Let me know in the comments!
If you want to know more about urban peregrines, Ed Drewitt’s website is a brilliant resource. He has been studying and ringing peregrines for over 20 years and you can buy his excellent book via the website, too.
In her book Wild City, Florence Wilkinson explores the many species that make our urban spaces their homes. She also discusses the importance of learning to live alongside and protect them.
Field Notes From a Hidden City is Esther Woolfson’s account of a year watching Aberdeen’s wildlife, from its insects to its rats and everything in between. She muses on why we place value on some species over others and why we see urban wildlife differently from rural wildlife.
If you want to identify the moths you find in your garden, this recent book is a great introduction to 350 of our commonest moths. The book is organised by season so you can easily see what will be flying at any particular time of year.