Urban Food Chains

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Published on: May. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

children and fighting with dogs in the neighborhood. Braithwait asked the man to stop feeding the foxes so they would stop associating people with food. When the man refused to cooperate, the foxes had to be trapped.

Whether fed intentionally or not, crows, starlings, opossums, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bears and other animals are attracted by pet food.

"Commercial dog food is so high in protein and other nutrients that much of it passes through the animal's system undigested," Heatherly said.

Rats stay well nourished by eating dog feces in urban areas where people don't regularly pick up after their pets. If rats are well fed, predators move in to eat them. Red foxes and coyotes are two species that do well in urban areas by preying on rodents, carrion, squirrels and, occasionally, pets.

In West St. Louis County, coyotes are attracted to subdivisions surrounded by green space. Many people admire picturesque backyards with no fencing, so they use underground electronic fences to contain their pets. For coyotes, these fences present no barrier and make it easy for them to occasionally prey on cats and small dogs.

"Coyotes clean up a lot of rodents and carrion," Damron said. "There are many benefits to having coyotes around and, besides, they are here to stay. If we have the habitat, we will have predators. We need to learn to live with them, but not to attract them too close to homes."

In addition to removing food sources, Damron recommends making noise to scare coyotes away when they get too close to houses. "If coyotes aren't challenged, they won't run away from people and may become so bold that they have to be removed," he said.

Sometimes it's hard to know when you are adding an element to a wild animal's food chain. Cities that require people to use plastic trash bags for curbside garbage pickup provide a feast for many animals and birds, especially crows that are adept at breaking open packages. This may help explain why some crows peck holes in black leather car tops in the St. Louis area. A vendor at a suburban St. Louis golf course had no idea that his outdoor concession stand would become part of the urban wildlife food chain when an enterprising crow discovered it could open potato chip bags.

Most people expect to deal with nuisance animals when they plant vegetable gardens. Tender, young plants, as well as their fruits, attract raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, skunks and groundhogs. Simple fencing will keep out most animals. Avoid planting sweet corn unless you are willing to share with raccoons, and don't grow nut trees unless you are prepared for an abundance of squirrels and other rodents.

Plants that are not normally thought of as food also may become a link in a food chain. Scott McWilliams, a wildlife damage biologist, told me about a man in a small community south of Joplin who landscaped his well-manicured yard with roses he planned to enter in a flower show. He called the Conservation Department after the deer found the roses to be tasty. McWilliams' solution was a wooden fence, which saved the roses but changed the owner's landscaping plans.

Conservation Department Ombudsman Ken Drenon hears from lots of people in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield who have discovered that their new landscaping projects attract deer. Flower bulbs, hostas, clematis and willows are some of the more popular snacks. Drenon offers another solution to prevent deer damage--planting vegetation that deer don't like to eat. Some examples of native plants reported to be deer-resistant are purple coneflowers, butterfly milkweed, wild ginger, wild geranium, American holly and most varieties of ferns.

The Conservation Department's Grow Native! program can help you attract birds and animals to your yard by providing a natural supply of native foods and habitats through the use of native plants.

Conservation Department animal nuisance complaint specialists suggest that people avoid trying to attract as much wildlife as they can. Provide water, food and shelter only for a limited number of animals. Too many animals can become a nuisance for a neighborhood, cause substantial property damage and spread diseases among wildlife.

For most people, it's a thrill to observe wildlife close to home. Just be sure you are prepared for the extra company. Try to anticipate how your activities might set up a wildlife food chain, or you, your neighbors and wildlife will pay the consequences.

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