Wildlife Surprises

Social distancing, quarantines and shuttered businesses because of the COVID-19 crisis have upended our lives and disrupted our routines. Deserted streets and trash-free sidewalks make even Center City Philadelphia feel like a ghost town.

As the rhythms of urban life for people have changed, what about the wildlife that live in our midst? Foxes, opossums, racoons, rabbits, groundhogs, snakes, bald eagles, pigeons, very large rats — they’re out there even in a large city like Philadelphia. But they usually stay out of our way or hide, probably for their own safety, unless they see an opportunity for food.

False reports abound on social media of dolphins swimming Venice’s canals and drunken elephants moping around China’s Yunnan province. What about in Philly and its suburbs? Are animals feeling emboldened and venturing out of the shadows with more frequency?

red bird
Photo by Tanya Dapkey

It could go either way. Without people leaving their trash in the streets or throwing breadcrumbs to the pigeons, maybe there aren’t enough reasons for animals to scurry out as there would be on a normal workday. On the other hand, maybe our furry friends are feeling emboldened. As for the rats, we don’t really want to know.

And then there’s this: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

We asked the Academy staff what they’ve been seeing in their backyards and on neighborhood walks. We’ve all been working from home since mid-March, and many of us can’t wait to shut off the digital and go outside.

Here are some of the responses from our staff. We’d love to hear from our readers! Send us your sightings in the comments section at the end of this post.

“I live in a very suburban area of Bucks County. We keep a bird feeder and the dark-eyed juncos and chickadees have been visiting us all day. The kids love to watch the birds and hear their little chirps. It brightens up our day. They were probably always there, but because we have been staying home, we are noticing them a lot more.”

… Tanya Dapkey, Patrick Center for Environmental Research, lives in Bucks County

Photo by Michelle Gannon

“My dog, Roses, and I live in Jenkintown Borough and spend a half hour or so in the evenings chasing bugs in the front yard. Who knew a biogeochemist with a passion for mollusks would raise an entomologist pup! We have seen a few slugs that have probably always been in the yard without observation. Turns out malacology can happen even when on the hunt for bugs! We saw a snake a few days ago too! I think it was a juvenile rat snake that was intimidated enough to hiss. There is always a red-tailed hawk nearby that likely keeps us safe.”

… Michelle Gannon, Patrick Center for Environmental Research, lives in Jenkintown Borough

one deer
Neither deer nor snow has appeared in the photographer’s yard since last year when he took this picture. Photo by John Hutelmyer

“Honestly, out here in the ‘burbs, I feel like I’ve seen less. We usually have like up to 20 deer that come through our backyard, but maybe with so many people not going to work and hanging outside when the weather is nice, the deer have changed where they hang out!”

… John Hutelmyer, Exhibits and Public Spaces, lives in Coatesville

Photo by Roger Thomas

“We just got back from New Zealand and looked out the back yesterday morning to see 15 deer browsing near our garden!”

… Roger Thomas, Patrick Center for Environmental Research, lives in Harleysville

“We saw a little snake on a hike through Wissahickon Park this weekend. We live just down the road from the trailhead. When I explore the Wissahickon, it’s with my five-year-old in tow, so we always have our eyes out for fun wildlife.”

… Katie Marquardt, Membership and Appeals, lives in Philadelphia

2 bald eagles

The other day, during a lunchtime walk with the dog in my neighborhood park I saw six (!) bald eagles fly over! In a lot of ways, this an opportunity for people to become aware of the amazing nature that surrounds them and is always there (but they just don’t notice).

… Jason Weckstein, Ornithology, lives in Wynnewood

Photo compliments of Nate Rice

“About two months ago I noticed I had no birds or squirrels in my yard. I typically put out a bit of feed, and it’s super strange not to see a single bird. I learned that because a distant neighbor was feeding cats, there were dozens of them roaming around the neighborhood, killing family cats, being aggressive to kids, and getting into fights. I immediately suspected the cats were coming to my yard and picking off the birds. Then I noticed a fox had made its home under a neighbor’s garage. Another fox began to appear, and both have shown an appetite for cats. The neighborhood Facebook post says there are very few cats left in the colony, and I now have the full diversity of winter feeder birds in my backyard that I can watch as I work from home.”

… Nate Rice, Ornithology, lives in North Wales

“What I haven’t seen is odd but also enlightening. The pigeons that used to congregate in my backyard have flown the coop. But our ornithologists say Philly’s infamous pigeon population has been on the decline for a couple years. I’m just noticing it more now that I’m working from home.”

… Carolyn Belardo, Public Relations, lives in Philadelphia

“I have spotted an inordinately higher number of primates ambulating along the sides of roads. They appear to be over-dispersed in ecological terms, that is, spaced widely apart by 6 feet or more. This is despite the fact that they appear to be a very social species, and their interactions are quite amiable. Often, a quadrupedal carnivore can be spotted walking with the upright bipedal creatures. I suspect that the primates are emerging from a long winter’s hibernation.”

… Rick McCourt, Center for Systematic Biology and Evolution, lives in Philadelphia

By Carolyn Belardo

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  1. Love this! I’m glad to see Rick has retained his sense of humor; and am glad to see the foxes are balancing the neighborhood ecosystem

  2. As a retired employee of the Academy, I have had lots of time to gaze out my back window to enjoy lots of birds at the feeder and a family of foxes that have had a den for the past two years behind my house in a scrubby wooded area with overturned dead trees that make a great spot for a den. This year there are four little once romping about everyday (usually just two or three of them at a time in the morning when the sun hits the back patch of yard bordering the “jungle”). They don’t venture too far from the brush and mom is always present and vigilant. They are certainly entertaining and – like puppies and kittens – very cute when they are romping about. Last year I kept finding dead bodies in my yard (including a large frog from the small stream which runs through the brush area) – they never seemed to get eaten and moved to different places, so I think served as training “toys” for the babies.

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