With nature’s ‘baby season’ in full swing across the province, animal experts are sharing their advice for reconnecting with urban wildlife in a COVID-19 world.

And a key message: You should almost always leave creatures alone, even when they might seem to require human help.

As the pandemic continues, people have found themselves spending more time at home and strolling in local green spaces where physical distancing is easier. Sandy Donald, of Ontario Wildlife Rescue, says adhering to the restrictions has people paying more attention to the urban wildlife around them. 

“It does appear that because people aren’t running around like they usually do, they are noticing animals that they didn’t notice before,” said Donald. “And it’s not the wildlife that’s changed, it’s just people.”

A pair of ducks walk across the sand. People can be seen in the background.
Most urban wildlife, like this pair of female mallard ducks, have become very tolerant of humans, said University of Waterloo conservation professor Michael Drescher. They allow themselves to be watched, fed and spoken to by humans from a close distance, although the latter two should be avoided, he said. [Photo © Jordan Haworth]
A duck stands in the sand on a beach as the sunsets behind it.
Female mallards often nest in open areas and their high tolerance for human activity means they’re often spotted in cities and towns. This particular female approached and watched people at Westboro Beach in Ottawa in July 2019. [Photo © Jordan Haworth]

While it may feel like these animals are suddenly appearing in backyards and pools across the country, their homes were typically here first. 

“In many urban areas that were previously wildlife habitat, that land has been converted to suburban areas. So there’s very little habitat left for these species in these areas,” said Dr. Michael Drescher, a conservation professor at the University of Waterloo. 

Donald encouraged people to appreciate the animals they see but to resist the urge to directly interact: “Like with deer, if it’s lying down on the grass, the mother put it there,” said Donald. “If you just leave it alone it’s not going to be a problem.” 

Wildlife should be enjoyed with caution and from a distance, agreed Drescher.

When it comes to coexisting with Ontario’s urban wildlife species such as raccoons, ducks and other birds, he said it’s important to avoid feeding them and to keep your property clean. 

“They’re wild animals,” said Drescher. “People should not confuse them for pets and they should respect them for that.”

According to Drescher, wild animals will usually retreat when people get close and that’s good. “If they don’t, then that might be a sign of trouble.”

Drescher said this might indicate the animal is ill or diseased, or has young nearby. This is why he says keeping a distance from wildlife is the best policy when sharing an urban space.

A frog is sitting amongst leaves and branches on the forest floor.
This endangered Fowler’s Toad was spotted in the suburbs of Vaughan, Ont., and is one of many endangered species that is coping with habitat loss and coexisting in urban environments. [Photo © Ananya Vaghela]

When encountering aggressive larger animals such as coyotes, it’s best to calmly back away and call city bylaw services. Ottawa Police recommend taking the following precautions when it comes to coyote encounters:

  • Never approach or touch the animal
  • Do not turn your back on the animal and do not run away from it
  • Back away while remaining calm
  • Stand tall, wave your hands and make lots of noise
  • Carry a flashlight while walking at night.

Donald said the main takeaway for coexisting with urban wildlife is to just leave the animals alone, unless you’re absolutely sure they need help. 

“If you think (the deer) is orphaned and take it away from where the mother left it, then yes it will be orphaned — then certainly, now we’ve got a problem.”

With baby bird season in full swing in mid-June, the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre — located within the Stony Swamp Conservation Area near Bells Corners — is seeing an increase in calls but it isn’t due to an increase in birds needing care. 

“At this time of year, we find a lot of people picking up baby birds that are just learning how to fly,” said Patty McLaughlin, a co-ordinator at the centre. “And they’re not necessarily injured and they should be left in the wild, but that’s not happening as much.”

A robin sits on a log in a suburban forest trail. Trees and green leaves can be seen in the background.
Robins love short grass where they can easily pick out worms and insects to eat. They have adapted well to the clearing of land for agriculture and urban living. [Photo © Ananya Vaghela]

She said people noticing the wildlife around them is the first step in getting them to care more about nature. Learning to coexist with these urban animals will help get people engaged with protecting them and their habitats.

“Now, if we can leave nature be and coexist naturally without interfering with them,” said McLaughlin, “I think we’d all be a little bit happier.”