Talk Description to Me

Episode 115 - Urban Wildlife

July 30, 2022 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 4 Episode 115
Talk Description to Me
Episode 115 - Urban Wildlife
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

If you live in a city, you have lots of animals as neighbours; squirrels, raccoons, rats, skunks, maybe even foxes or coyotes. But what do they look like? How do they move, eat, and interact? This week, Christine and JJ describe the visuals of urban wildlife. That's right trash pandas -- we're talking about you!

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me, where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

In Canada, 80% of us live in cities. And shockingly, I interviewed noted scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki recently very exciting to me. And one of the things I asked him and his partner, Dr. Tara colorless is because so many of us live in cities, how do we cultivate a relationship with the natural world? Because when I opened my door, it's concrete and streetcars. Right? And so how, how do we maintain that connection when we live in a city and one of the things they both said is, well, even in a city, nature is all around you. And you know, there's there's parks, there's always a bit of green space, there's always something growing somewhere. And one aspect of that is urban animals. And we've talked about urban landscapes from a few different angles in the past about infrastructure and things like that. But we've never talked about the way the natural world gets expressed in urban environments. And as pesky as we might find some urban animals, I take comfort in the fact that they're still here. And one of our listeners from Toronto remya asked about this and what you know, what goes on in a city in terms of urban animal life. And so we thought we'd break down some of those those visuals and what the animals look like, but for me, it's also about how they behave and where and when you see them and what your interactions are with them. So, JJ, in a typical day, you move around the city a fair bit. So in a typical day, what kinds of urban wildlife Would you would you see?

JJ Hunt:

Okay, great question. So, first and foremost, the number one animal that that I would see during a regular day walking around Toronto, squirrels, squirrels are everywhere. Tons of squirrels hopefully you don't see any rats, but you might encounter a rat dead or alive. Raccoons, if you're out in the evening, you're probably going to find some raccoons about and then you know, on on any given day, if you're, you know, going, going for a walk through a more heavily wooded area, like there's a cemetery nearby even that's, it's, you know, quite close to us. That is a very long cemetery. It stretches for blocks and blocks and connects to a few ravines. It's not unusual if you're in an area like that to see a coyote. Maybe a rabbit, maybe a fox, not those are not everyday kind of animals. But certainly squirrels. You're seeing dozens of squirrels every single day if you're if you're out and about in Toronto.

Christine Malec:

And the birds too. I remember one one time I had, I guess I've been camping a lot that summer and I came back and that common chirping bird you do not ever hear that outside the city and it's a house Sparrow, I researched so there's actually birds that are specific to, to city life to and the house Sparrow which is an important species, I believe but so well, let's start with squirrels because I know they're, they're a big part of, you know, of urban life. And so you see them even during the day like on Yeah, not on a busy street, right. We're talking supper or like residential streets.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, mostly residential streets. Parks, anywhere there are trees. There are going to be squirrels. I mean, they're everywhere. And they, they're, they're not afraid of humans. They're not afraid to be seen. I think that's the big difference. There's probably as many rats, but they rats don't want to be seen. Squirrels have no problem being seen. So they are constantly running about jumping about. They're very quick. They're very acrobatic, so I mean a squirrel. You know, classic squirrel would be you know what, I don't know eight inches long in the body. Either kind of a grayish color, kind of a gray brown color with a white belly or a black squirrel. Sometimes black squirrels have white bellies, but quite black for long. tails and if it's a healthy squirrel, a healthy city squirrel, that tail will be quite puffy. So the tail is at least as long as the as the body of the animal and then fairly long what what makes the squirrels a little bit different because they're very closely related to to rats and mice, but what makes them different is the length of their arms and like the length of their legs and the strength of their hind legs in particular, so fairly long front arms, and then their back legs are like big hunches at the side like horses kind of you ever like big big muscular hunches and longer legs look almost like kangaroo legs. So there's a long part that is, you know, makes contact with the ground and then bends up and goes back into this haunch. And then yeah, little rodent face with, you know, a fairly snub snout. Bat you usually black eyes, ears that perk straight up. And yeah, quite impressive. Paws or claws on a squirrel. They are incredible climbers, they can move about like crazy.

Christine Malec:

We've talked before specifically when we talked about insects about the distinction between cute and not cute and apparently it's quite distinct. Not always easy to codify. But are they cute squirrels?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so they are... I would say borderline. Some people really think squirrels are cute. Especially folks who are from places where they don't have a lot of squirrels. We had some Australian visitors come to our place. And they just lost their minds with squirrels they just couldn't get over how fantastic and they you know, they they're pretty cute. But they're also they're everywhere. And they're they behave a little bit like rats. I mean, the nice thing about squirrels is they're not taking from your garbage, right, they're not going they're not mucking around in your garbage they're taking you know, they're digging up your garden. And they're finding nuts and seeds and anything they can find that that's outside but not so much in your garden so that makes them a little bit more cute. Their eyes are kind of beady but really the cute. If you're if you want cute like a squirrel, then you're gonna go to the chipmunk Chipmunks are decidedly cuter than squirrels. So you know, that would be an end you'll see some chipmunks in the city a little bit. You've seen them more outside of the city. They don't, they're not as populous the the chipmunk population isn't, doesn't boom quite the same way the squirrel population does. But Chipmunks are quite a bit cuter so they're smaller, their tails aren't as big and puffy. And they've got these very distinctive stripes down their backs. Those Chipmunks are kind of brown in color. But they've got these stripes of dark, dark brown and white running down their back. Their ears are smaller, their heads are bigger. And the way a chipmunk can stuffed their cheeks is adorable. I mean, it's it's just outrageous. This idea of like stuffing your face like a chipmunk. It's super real. So it's really a thing like a chipmunks head is already bigger proportionally to their body than a squirrels head is proportional to their body. So chipmunks head is maybe half the size of their body. It's pretty big. Bigger heads remind us of babies babies have bigger heads. It's a very cute look to begin with. And then they start stuffing their cheeks and a chipmunks stuffed cheeks make their head three times as large. I mean, they're huge. When they stuffed their cheeks full their cheeks go out beyond their shoulders, for lack of a better word, they will make it wider than their body. They're absolutely packed and the chipmunk will sit up as a squirrel, but they will sit up on their on their hind legs and nibble and eat like that. So there's something kind of there's something a little bit human about sitting up and looking around as they eat. So that's kind of cute. Again, they share that with with squirrels, but but Chipmunks are just they're cuter and their eyes aren't quite as big. They have a little bit of a white lid. And so even in they'll slight more, there's a little bit more of an almond shaped to some chipmunk eyes. That makes them just a little bit less. You know, they're not as rat like.

Christine Malec:

Why are rats sinister?

JJ Hunt:

So, good question. I mean, there's lots of historical reasons. But in terms of the visuals of a rat, so, if you if you just take a picture of a rat in a picture of a squirrel and put them side by side, there's not that much difference. The rats face is longer. The little legs are a little bit shorter. The they're not quite as muscular in the hind legs. They are, you know, usually kind of a dark brown, gray brown fur that's a little bit greasy er than your average squirrel. But then the paws on a rat are hairless. They're furless. So they Oh my god. Yeah. So they're pink and a little bit too human. Yeah. The big difference is the tail. So a squirrels tail is covered in fur. And often, like I said, if it's a healthy squirrel, it'll be pretty puffy. A rat tail is just long and kind of fleshy and tapered. And that's a big difference. Because it goes from being soft and cuddly. To his This is a little, it's not slimy. It's not but I want to say it isn't slimy at all, but it's something fleshy about it. That doesn't feel right. There's also the movement like squirrels. Because of that strength in their hind, they hop and they bound and they leap and they climb trees. And rats can do most of the things and get to most of the places that a squirrel gets. But they, especially a city rat, if it's really fat, they have a wattle. They keep a little bit closer to the ground. When they move, they don't bound. They kind of run in skitter and wattle which is a movement that is less appealing. And that yeah, and there's something about the way that rats go after our food, they want to be in our spaces, whereas squirrels at worst want to get into the attic. But, you know, so when I was a little kid, my brother woke up one one night, screaming, and it had been squirrels in the attic and one of them chewed through the drywall, the drywall ceiling, my brother woke up with a squirrel looking straight down through a hole in the ceiling right above his bed. Yeah, but even still, that was a squirrel. My brother's scream the squirrel ran away. Whereas a rat, you're worried that they're gonna get on you. They're gonna get in you because they want what you have. Yes, yeah, rats are a little... ugh.

Christine Malec:

I don't know if this is true in other cities, but in Toronto, the raccoons are epic. They're creatures of legend. They, they have opposable thumbs, I think they have planning strategies. They probably have language skills, they do things where you go, how the you what they, they, they have their own Enigma machines, like really, they they're very kind. And so can we can we do a bit of a breakdown of the raccoon, the visuals and the antics?

JJ Hunt:

That's right, the trash pandas.

Christine Malec:

Trash pandas! Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

Raccoons are, it's it's funny because they're kind of, um, there's so all over Toronto. It's a bit of the like, the unofficial mascot of the city. In fact, there's, there's a Toronto airline that uses the raccoon as its mascot, because they are, if you just look at a picture, they can be kind of cute. And they're fluffy and puffy. And they've got this tail that is ringed and like it's really cute. But wow, they are too clever. And they are they come out only at night and they got this this mask on their face. So that yeah, we do have a very love hate, largely hate relationship with raccoons. So yeah, so the animal and the other thing is a raccoon in the forest is actually a relatively lean creature that doesn't really want to be seen and wants to be a way from humans. So when you catch a glimpse of a raccoon in a forest environment and wooded environment, it's kind of cool. They're kind of special. It's it's a neat animal to see. But a city raccoon is a different beast. So city raccoons are fat. Like we're talking way bigger than a house cat. Oh yeah, raccoons are considerably bigger than house cat really the size of a small dog and fat gray fur and they move quickly but they lumber as well if they want to. If they are not afraid of you and which most are not. They will lumber and so that the heads come to a point at us at the snout blacks note like a big round black nose with white around it and then this black mask that goes around the eyes like they do look like bandits they have this like classic black Lone Ranger mask around their black eyes so you really can't see their eyes very well. White just above that black mask white fur above that. So like It looks like a very heavy brow, and then a gray color like a you know, like someone with salt and pepper hair kind of gray fur all the way over the ears which stick up and down the body and around the girth of big, fairly bushy animals. And then their tails are not overly long, but they're pretty thick. And they're ringed black and kind of this caramel color. very distinctive ringed tails. And yeah, that they're huge. And so when you encounter a raccoon, you it's always at night. If you encounter a raccoon during the day, that's a raccoon you should steer clear of a raccoon will mostly be out at night, and often with families because they you know, they got their families nearby. So if you see if you encounter a big raccoon crossing a residential street at night stop because likely two or three smaller raccoons are going to be trailing along behind. In those raccoons, those baby raccoons are those are like the size of cats the size of a house cat and they climb there you can spot their, their nests in trees, sometimes very high up in the fall. You can see it just looks like a pile of leaves and sticks kind of clumped together high in a tree. But they'll also you know, they'll nest in the in inside a hollow log or something like that, but you don't usually what you spot are these nests up high in the trees. And they chirp You know that very

Christine Malec:

Yeah yeah yeah.

JJ Hunt:

So they have big conversations with each other. distressed chirping?

Christine Malec:

They sound like fights to me, I don't know exactly what's going on.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. And they are so clever. And yeah, their paws. Like they when they fight with each other when they moved. I've got one photo here, you know, I just Googled raccoons and called up some photos and one photo app. I'm sure it's this this raccoon is eating you know, sitting up on the on the hind legs and bringing food to mouth. But the claws the paws are their fingers. They are so clear. Every single digit is very, very clear. With the long like, like witchy nails. Yeah, each paw and it looks like this. This animal which is probably like I said, using two hands to bring food to mouth. It looks like it's doing like the Monty burns. Excellent jibs are tapping each other just below the snout and with this mask on and the it's like they're they do look nasty. Have you ever had a nasty raccoon encounter?

Christine Malec:

I'm just I came out of my back door and there was something at the bottom of a tree, maybe like two or three meters away from me that made a big squawk and scrambled up the tree and that was a little alarming, because pretty sure it was a raccoon. Yeah, they're there. They're very agitated, they get agitated, and they're they're a bit alarming because you think oh my god, look that could do anything. That's it. Yeah, it

JJ Hunt:

A raccoon, if it wants to, it can do some damage. They're big. They are strong, and they're fearless. They don't care. When I was when I was I guess I was probably about 13 It was my job to take the garbage out. We had this little kind of garbage box at the side of the house that had it was a wooden box with an angled lid, a sloped lid, and we had the garbage cans in there. So you know I'm taking out the garbage. It's dark out. Got a couple bags of garbage that I'm supposed to I gotta push open this big heavy wooden lid and then throw the bags into the trash cans that are inside. But as I started lifting up the lid, a raccoon leapt out straight at me. The raccoon had managed to get inside this bin and was rooting around in the garbage. So this probably 40 pound furry animal with claws jumps straight out at me. I lost it I lost it super scary and you know all the all the raccoon wanted to do is get away from me at that point. You know an Oreos bag in its mouth.

Christine Malec:

Yeah, every Torontonian has a story about their cutting and their their the power went out here. It was in the winter and so we took all of our freezer stuff out and put it in a sturdy shopping bag and I was aware I wasn't naive i i suspended it I took a chair outside and I tied it way up and I suspended it from an outside staircase and they got out at any way you would have had to like pour across this like half inch wide railing and reach way up about a foot and a half to tear open the corner and eat our chicken dumplings like they meant they were not kidding around. Yeah, every Torontonian has a story totally hunting got the carnage and another A similarly storied animal is the skunk. Don't we all have a skunk story? So can you start with the visuals of what they look like?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so the the skunk, of course, largely black animal long, kind of tapered, snout, and fairly free. But if you really have to look up photos of a skunk, you can't just rely on your encounters because they're only out at night. So of course, skunks, mostly very, very dark black, jet black, but they have the white stripes down their back, most of the skunks that we have around here have kind of like a split stripe down the back. So it's a patch of white on the top of the head, that then splits into two stripes that go kind of down the sides of the back, and then reconnect kind of near the base of the tail. And then the tail is is puffy, white and black mix. But I have seen pictures of some skunks that their entire back is white, like one night thick striped down the back. But when you're in when you encounter a skunk at night, if you don't smell them first. Because even when they haven't sprayed, of course they haven't they do have an odor. They do have a smell. But if you just walk around a corner or something like that, and you encounter a skunk visually before you have smelled it, usually all you see is a little bit of movement and that white, because they're so dark. Like I really I've found some pictures here but I can't describe faces very well. There's a little very thin white stripe that goes from the tip of the pointy snout up the middle of the head. But I can't see the details of their features. I can't see their eyes. I can't really see their ears. They are so black. They are very well masked except for the white. That's all you see if you see them at all.

Christine Malec:

Wow. And is it true that they have this stomping behavior before they spray? Have you ever witnessed that I've heard they sort of turn around and stomp a foot a few times or something.

JJ Hunt:

Oh, that's I've never I've not seen that in person. I've certainly seen like, I've seen him turn like I've had that moment where you round a corner and there's a skunk and you kind of start lit and it turns and you know it goes tailed towards you. And it's like back away. Back away quickly. It's no it's no good. Oh, gosh. Yeah,

Christine Malec:

yeah, everyone's got a story about that. I used to have guide dogs. My second guide dog had a vendetta. He caught one once and God sprayed and I don't even want to talk about it. But he he got a vendetta and he went after them after that. He's like, I'm gonna get you this time. And we ended up first second. I'd walk onto a bus like three months later, I'd get on a city bus and just go "Sorry!"

JJ Hunt:

Oh, yeah, it lasts forever.

Christine Malec:

Forever. Yeah, it was bad. in an urban environment, what other kinds of wildlife Do you see? And also, how do you see wildlife interacting with each other? Like, do you ever see a predator prey activity going on? Do you see the cycle of life acting out in a city? Other than with the people?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, interesting. So I mean, I've never seen an encounter between a raccoon and a squirrel. Lots of like house pets and wild animals. So my cats love chasing squirrels. Oh, never to be caught. Like they're not ever gonna catch any of these squirrels. But they like that as a game almost. But they actually for the most part are pretty casual with each other. Like I've got one cat who's less interested in catching squirrels and that cat will just sit in the yard while the squirrels eat all the food in the garden. That cat doesn't care.

Christine Malec:

Heh heh! Can't you put yourself to some use for a change?!

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha! Chase that thing away, it's our chard, man! And same with raccoons like a house cat, like or or a dog that's led out into the into the yard to go to the bathroom and I might encounter a raccoon. But raccoons and squirrels. I've never seen an issue with squirrels and chipmunks. I've never seen an issue with squirrel fights. Absolutely. So Oh, squirrels get territorial with each other. In fact, when when Rovio suggested this story, I was relating to her it happened to be she suggested as on the same day that my family had been outside in the backyard having a nice Father's Day brunch. And there were a couple of squirrels who were really going at it, and we couldn't quite decide if they were combatants or lovers. But they were chasing each other all around all of the yards in the neighborhood because we're connected to a pocket of other people's backyards. And so we're hopping fences flying from one yard to another up a tree down here, and they wound up. These two squirrels get tangled too. Gather like in old cartoons, when to you know, people fight. There's like this ball of dust and like a limb will stick out here if it sticks out than an arm. And then when the dust finally settles, one of them's got a black eye and the other one has a band aids and across on their cheek, it's like that kind of cartoon fight between the squirrels, and they wound up hanging from the branch of a tree, one squirrel holding on with one paw hanging from the branch while the other squirrel was kind of climbing all around them while Oh, dangling from the other schools arm and they fell, the two squirrels fell out of the tree and landed on a shed roof probably 20 feet down, they landed with a thud, and then they both took off in opposite directions. That's it. Yeah. So you see that kind of interaction? And then the kind of scaffold a little bit more nerve wracking is when you encounter something like a fox I'm not too worried about but you do see there are some Fox around the city that's kind of clearly and then the coyotes, the coyotes are the ones a little bit more careful about.

Christine Malec:

Yeah, I see on our Facebook residents group all the tow coyote alert at five in the morning, and the ravine, whatever and so why, why are they alarming? Is that their looks or what they do

JJ Hunt:

A little bit of both. So I mean, I always just find it kind of amazing that we've got wild animals in our cities that are as big as a coyote or a deer. I mean, there are deer that live in the city

Christine Malec:

It's true. I've heard I've heard deer sightings as well. Yeah.

JJ Hunt:

I encountered a deer in High Park one time Oh my god. Yeah, which is a very, very well populated Park. Lots of people, but coyotes in particular. So a coyote is about the size of a of a modest German Shepherd. So a little bit smaller than a big Husky German Shepherd. But, but about that size, a scene kind of coloring, long snout, big ears, coyotes tend to have longer legs, so they're a little bit leaner. But bushy tails again, in this kind of brown gray color with a little bit more black in the tail. Beautiful coloring, actually, they are very handsome animals, that these almond shaped yellow eyes, and they walk often if you encounter a coyote, they'll be walking with their head motionless. So the rest of the body, the shoulders are moving up and down. The legs are moving as they walk. But the head stays perfectly still, as it as it moves through a park or whatever. And yeah, they're a little they're intimidating because they they just they watch you. And if they have, if you can see them, it's because they have decided that Oh should see them. They know how to hide. And so I was walking in the cemetery area that's near that's near our place. And I encountered not one but two coyotes together. And that was really scary. Because now they've got now there's two against me. Yeah. And they were not they were not interested in moving. So I was walking down the road in the cemetery and they were right at the edge of the road. And they did not move as I got closer. And you know, I walked backwards for a while. Oh, yeah, my sights the whole time. But not looking them straight in the eye because I didn't want to be challenging to them. A fox is better a fox has like some of the mystique. But without without doesn't terrify me.

Christine Malec:

It must be something that sighted people absolutely take for granted in a city. You know, probably not on a busy street, but on the residential streets say and so do you think that if just a thought experiment, if all of the animals we described vanished? Would you notice in your day going about your day? Would you notice that?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Especially the squirrels. Okay. They have there's so much a part of of city life, especially if you are in a in a treed city of a treat a city with lots of parks. I mean, my understanding is that squirrels were introduced into cities intentionally. So they'd been introduced a couple of times before, but the way they took hold my understanding is and I'm not super well researched on this, but I think it was New York City Central Park, they were building this beautiful park and it was gorgeous. And it was supposed to be this kind of wild environment for city dwellers to have access to, but it was missing something. It was lacking a natural connection. People weren't quite connecting with it. So they brought squirrels in because squirrels were forest creatures. They were woodland creatures, and that was going to help people connect with them. The Park as a wild space as a space that was supposed to be representative of, of a forest. And squirrels being rodents multiplied like crazy. And now they have, you know, they've gone through periods where they had to call them because they're just so many. So it really those animals do, like you said off the top, they help us connect with nature. And so seeing animals in our cities does make you feel like maybe we're not too far removed, right? We are animals ourselves, we are living in a you know, very human, you know, human made interfered with environment, but we still have a connection to these furry little woodland creatures. So if they disappeared, yeah, if the rats went away, I wouldn't have any complaints but the squirrels would be upsetting.

Christine Malec:

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Squirrels
Chimpunks
Rats
Raccoons
Skunks
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