Calgary Unearthed: Understanding our Animals

Posted on May 28, 2024

Yesterday evening, in the last minutes of the gloaming, I was called to the kitchen window by the chatter and cries of irate crows and magpies. This behavior I usually associate with the arrival of a hawk or other large raptor in the vicinity, whom these corvids (the family name of crows and ravens, etc.) will harass to prevent them from taking their eggs or young. The subject of their ire was not a bird but a handsome little bobcat, all bobbed tail and compact feline muscularity, strolling unperturbed up the drive on its way to insinuate itself under the deck of the house next door, whose occupants are away for the week. The bobcat will probably wait there until nightfall and move on without being bothered by the birds.

It is not exactly the same as the leopards of Mumbai or the deer that came in and helped themselves to the beans in our garden last year, but it was definitely an encounter with a wild animal within the city. Indeed, two out of the three near-misses I have had with deer on the road while riding my motorbike have been no further than three kilometers from my home here in the inner city. Truly, dealing with animal life, wild or domestic, is a regular part of life in the city.

There are many species of animals that we often consider to be troublesome in our urban lives. The depredation of mice, squirrels, crows, magpies, ravens, feral dogs and cats, coyotes, and even the occasional moose and bear regularly feature in our considerations. Anyone who has been dive-bombed by nesting robins and falcons will understand my inferences intimately. Yet, if there is a single caveat when dealing with animals in the city, it is this: we are the problem, not the animals.

Let’s remember that animals don’t build cities and that by engaging in the urbanization process, we destroy the original ecology and replace it with a new one full of new dangers and opportunities for local animal life. As a result, mice and other rodents move into houses and buildings built on the grassy fields where they once sheltered. Coyotes den and whelp under decks and patios while your neighbors are away traveling. There are Calgarian suburbs with big lots and mature trees so quiet with residents away on the daily commute that they attract regular populations of bobcats and deer.

There are plenty of problems that we could cite in this discussion, but I choose to recall and focus on the particularly conspicuous magpie. An Alberta native and member of the Corvidae family, which is known for a number of particularly intelligent and highly adaptable birds like ravens and crows, magpies are smart and marvelously agile acrobats. Ferociously protective of their young (remember the bobcat at the beginning), extremely social, superb nest builders, intensely cooperative in survival, able to transmit information from one generation to the next (the exact mechanism is yet unknown to science), magpies even show signs of possessing culture.

Magpies also mourn their dead.

What is more, magpies have no problem living next to humans. Try to count and identify as many individuals of this species as you can someday. You may trust that if you spend any time outdoors around your house, they know and can readily identify you. Simply ask someone who has run afoul (no pun intended) of these birds.

Now we come to the problem. Magpies eat garbage. In fact, magpies will probably eat anything so long as it doesn’t eat them first. I have personally seen magpies harass rabbits in deep winter when pickings are slim to make them defecate and then sort through the leavings. Somewhere magpies learned that rabbits, like their equine cousins, trade digestive efficiency for speed and explosive power. As a result, their feces are rich with partially digested food. It is also warm and moist and a boon to a hungry magpie in winter. I have noticed, however, that they show a marked preference for the mealworms that my wife leaves for them every morning in the seriously cold weather. The eating of garbage, particularly food waste, is not the worst option for a generalist-survivor like a magpie. The food discarded by humans supports many kinds of animal life in the city, and the magpies seem to thrive on it, although many species do not.

That is the first problem.

Magpies are also extremely good at getting at garbage. Bags and nets over trash are no real obstacle to them, and anything less than a closable waste storage with a heavy or locking lid is still a viable opportunity for them. The following example illustrates my point. At the ground floor of the eastern side of the Social Sciences Tower on the University of Calgary campus, there are two trash receptacles. They are made of concrete and covered over the top with two downward-angled openings that shed snow and rain and, of course, allow disposal. One must pause and turn one’s wrist and elbow to drop waste into these bins, and at first, I thought the perpetual drift of litter surrounding these bins was due to the ergonomic obstacle it posed and the laziness of its users. I was quite annoyed by this, having stooped on several occasions to pick up the trash and place it back in the bin only to find it on the sidewalk later. It was not until I actually witnessed a magpie fly into the confines of the covered bin, rummage about, and then toss a paper bag containing a half-eaten cheeseburger and a partial container of french fries out on the sidewalk—preceded by several articles of undesirable flotsam, I hasten to add—that I knew the identity of the true culprit. I had not considered that a bird the size of a magpie would readily fly into a very enclosed and cramped space of a mostly covered trash can, but I was apparently wrong.

This is the second problem.

The problem here was not the bird but the improper means of disposing of trash and, of course, the consumption of fast food, which is good neither for the body nor the academic mind in training—I digress, forgive me. Magpies have adapted to opportunistically exploit whatever viable resources come their way. If, by littering and taking little care to properly dispose of food waste, we provide them with that opportunity, we have only ourselves to blame for the inevitable outcomes, usually the destruction of the animal in question rather than adapting our own behavior.

We can, of course, choose another path by exercising some care for our surroundings. Managing waste properly reduces opportunities for magpies and other animals and pushes them, gently, to rely on other resources. Understanding what makes an animal special, like the magpie’s high intelligence and acrobatic abilities, is part of getting along with them. Magpies often alert us to disturbances in the area, such as loose domestic cats that use my zucchini patch as a litter box, and it pays to monitor their behavior. With these and other interactions, these birds turn from pests to sometimes useful but always entertaining neighbors. Again, the problem, if there is one, is usually with us or something we have done or some aspect of our behavior that we have failed to consider. Animals are part of a living city, and like the water, land, trees, and air, require our care and comprehension to maintain and improve city life.



Shawn Mueller 

Communciations Team Volunteer 

Green Calgary Association