What has happened to all of the ___ (fill in the blank)? That’s a question that I hear frequently from concerned citizens. The blank may be filled by squirrels, rabbits, birds at my feeders or other wildlife. Invariably, the question catches me by surprise because the animal that is “missing” is often a common species that is widespread and abundant in Missouri.
As a landowner and nature observer myself, I can empathize with the people who notice the absence of certain species. In some years, my residential lot will have abundant rabbits; in other years they will be scarce. I can’t remember a year when squirrels were not pests at my bird feeders, but I do get reports of their sudden absence from others’ properties. I try to resist the temptation to respond, “They are all over my place--come and get them.”
I think there is an element of human nature that makes us want to apply our personal, local observation to the larger landscape. The questions are always difficult to answer because there is seldom a problem with the overall population of the species. I never know the details of what has happened at the specific locality cited that might impact the local wildlife. Something as simple as the destruction by a predator or lawnmower of one rabbit’s litter of young could change the perception of the local rabbit abundance that year from plentiful to scarce.
With squirrel declines, the numbers present in a particular year may be more the result of the nut crop last year than the present crop. This lag time can confuse observers who notice plentiful food sources but few squirrels to take advantage of it.
As with most wildlife issues, healthy habitat is the key to keeping animal populations strong and resilient. If habitat requirements are met, wild populations will still have down years but will respond more quickly when food sources are plentiful again. Declining habitat quality often occurs slowly and cumulatively so that we don’t even realize that the landscape no longer provides for wildlife’s needs. It’s sort of like those clothes that we haven’t worn in a while that seem to have shrunk while hanging in the closet. We can keep our properties wildlife-friendly by periodically evaluating the land to ensure that we are providing the food, cover and water that wildlife need. Maybe we can turn that “What happened to all of the _____?” into “Look at what we have now!”