If you long to notice wildlife in your daily city life, Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (public library) is just the book for you.
Haupt, author of the marvelous Crow Planet and the newly published Mozart’s Starling, writes beautifully about the animals, seen and unseen, who share our urban spaces.
A Modern Book of Beasts
A bestiary is a medieval encyclopedia of flora and fauna. Haupt uses the Aberdeen Bestiary, written in England around 1200 and once owned by Henry VIII, as her model and organizing principle. This illustrated bestiary is now available online in its entirety.
Medieval bestiaries merged natural history, myth, religion, and moral lessons. Haupt’s modern take on the “book of beasts” includes the latest science research, personal anecdotes, and practical suggestions to describe animals found in North American cities.
The book is divided into three sections (“The Furred,’’ “The Feathered,’’ “The Branching and the Rooted’’), with chapters for specific species like “Raccoon,’’ “Opossum,’’ “Squirrel and Rat,’’ “Chickadee,” “Crow,’’ “Hawk and Owl,’’ “Tree,’’ and “Human.’’
The City as Ecosystem
Haupt describes how our urban places are ecosystems for animals and shows how different species adapt to find shelter, water, and food. Although a few of her examples are applicable to her native Seattle but not New York City (like stellar jays), she does a good job of describing common urban animals in North America.
Haupt offers a fascinating account of natural history and the relatively new science of animal intelligence. In each chapter, I learned new facts like:
Opossums’ marsupial pouches are watertight.
Rats exhibit true altruism and laugh when their tummies are tickled.
Chickadees’ calls are a rare example of intraspecies communication with other birds.
Crows can recognize and remember human faces.
City ecological niches are shared by hawks in the day and owls at night.
Haupt includes practical guidance in wildlife spotting, like how to:
- Recognize a young squirrel
- Use snow days to look for wildlife tracks
- Distinguish a dog track from a coyote track
- Read raccoon scat
- Identify bird calls
Haupt also tackles how our relationships with wild animals can be adversarial. She traces the history of invasive species like house sparrows and starlings. She interviews urban wildlife management specialists and shares her own anecdotes and analysis of pests and threats. It’s thought-provoking and Haupt offers no easy answers.
Daily Habits to Connect to the Wild
Haupt writes convincingly on why noticing wildlife is so important:
“[Urban wildlife watching] asks us to find the wild thing, the peaceful presence, the animal awareness, in the ordinary moments of our daily lives and places. It asks us to bridge any disconnection between home and wild nature, to accept the constant continuity with the more-than-human world that is an essential part of human life, no matter where that life is lived.”
She offers simple habits to rediscover your aptitude for awareness in nature, like:
- Keep a nature log
- Study the signs of seasonal change
- Sleep outside
- Learn the robin’s song
- Cultivate a still spot
- Walk more
- Sketch birds
- Study field guides
- Celebrate the seasons with abandon
- Save trees
- Share lettuce
- Write your own bestiary, and allow the creatures around you to contribute to its pages with their own tracks, words, roars
If you want to start urban wildlife watching now, try this nature observation experiment Count the Animals You See.