Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadians are self-isolating and staying home to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that causes it, leading to quieter streets in municipalities nationwide.
With the sudden decline in human and vehicle traffic on sidewalks and roads, will Canadians start to see more wildlife in their towns and cities? Experts say it’s possible.
Almost two weeks ago, a video surfaced of a swarm of starving monkeys brawling for food in the streets of Thailand. After that, several other images circulated online of animals purportedly reappearing in other human-occupied municipalities, though these were later debunked by National Geographic.
Canadian wildlife visibility and COVID-19
In Canada, there are species that are already adapted to living in humanized landscapes like raccoons, skunks and coyotes, which people might start to notice more of, according to experts.
“You will begin to notice that subset of animals that have always been there with us,” Faisal Moola, a geography, environment and geomatics professor at the University of Guelph, told Global News.
“Those include those animals that are generalists, that are well-adapted to living in humanized geography.”
James Pagé, at-risk species and biodiversity specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, said that while he’s not sure people will see a spike in animals in urban centres, people may have an opportunity to see wildlife more because they’re not being scared off as much.
“With decreased activity, they may not be scared off as much,” Pagé said. “In general, and in Canada, we’re fortunate, generally, to have a lot of natural spaces in and around our cities so that these species may not have a need to come in.”
Behavioural changes in wildlife amid COVID-19 pandemic
Wildlife is very responsive to human activity, according to Adam Ford, the Canada Research Chair in wildlife restoration ecology and a biology professor at the University of British Columbia.
“As people change their behaviour, you can imagine that some wildlife may change as a result, but some of the drivers of that change in behaviour are not going to change even if people are self-isolating,” Ford said.
For example, he noted, there’s still a lot of sensory pollution from light in cities, and some buildings and machinery are still making noise.
“I don’t think this should be really seen as a reflection of nature taking the cities back because the reality is we still impact their habitat in other ways — and quite destructively,” Moola explained. “Climate change is still happening, and the release of pollutants into the air and into the waters is still happening.”
Different species respond to different cues of danger from people, according to Ford.
“Depending on which of those cues are removed, we’ll see maybe some filtering of some wildlife that maybe are going to move closer or change their daily routines a little bit,” Ford said.
Self-isolation’s effects on wild animals
One of the biggest differences people may notice due to self-isolation and more of the population staying at home, Ford said, is quieter traffic on some streets.
“Road mortality is a major impact for a lot of different species,” Pagé said.
“It’d be interesting to see if there is a reduction on those kinds of moralities and if wildlife are out and about more so because there isn’t the noise of traffic.”
According to Moola, there may be more bears that will wander into some Canadian towns because they can cross highways with less risk of getting hit by a vehicle or train.
“That’s not necessarily a good thing for them because they’re still habituated to these humanized geographies,” Moola said.
“Any short-term increase in wildlife populations is going to be very quickly displaced by the fact that these animals are now in closer proximity to us, perhaps even more habituated to us as a consequence of their changing behaviour, and then more likely to be vulnerable to conflict with us, which inevitably results in the death of these animals.”
Are there long-term effects?
Possible long-term effects on wildlife depend in party on how long coronavirus-related self-isolation goes on, according to Ford.
“By having fewer people moving about, I would imagine there will be fewer animals that will be disturbed by people,” Ford said.
“That may have some positive effect on their population, but it’s pretty hard. A lot of other things are happening right now that could change that picture.”
On a population level, Pagé said he doesn’t see there being much of an influence.
“On an individual squirrel or an individual bird, there may be some impacts on an individual in the sense where they may get caught in a spot where they weren’t expecting people to be again,” Pagé said.
“I don’t think we’ll all of a sudden see a decline in species because of this.”
According to Moola, however, the only way COVID-19 self-isolation will have a positive impact on biodiversity and wildlife is if humans begin to develop a new relationship with animals.
“If we want to do something positive for those animals and plants, then it’s going to have to be an intentional decision on the part of humans to actually reduce our encroachment on wildlife habitat and to reduce other human activities that we know have a very, very negative impact on species,” Moola said.