Is the Wildlife Really Playing More?

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This scissor-tailed flycatcher has rid this oak of the much larger raven that had been arguing with it for purchase. Part of a group of “tyrant flycatchers,” they tend to dominate their airspace.

I hoof it west on Walnut Street, past a bus stop, a convenience store, a tire shop, and a daycare. After all these enterprises, the south side of the road opens up in an expanse I might think was virgin prairie if I didn’t know otherwise, and I hook a left across it. As quickly as it opened up it agoraphobically closes back in on itself in a forbidding succession of oak, sycamore, and dogwood. There are mosquitoes and bees. There’s a tangle of trails and a feral pig wallow, and I’d think there’s nothing on the other side if I’ve never been here before. The city, whose sounds are absorbed in the foliage, has dropped into an alternate dimension. And suddenly as the horizon expanded, suddenly as it swallowed itself, it opens again onto a patchwork of soccer fields, and there’s no one around because the campus of Richland College has closed itself in the pandemic.

This is where the scissor-tailed flycatchers have come to play. I’ve seen them before, briefly, on a field journaling exercise more than a year ago. Stopping to sample the abundant June beetles on the college campus, the flycatchers would invade the airspace of larger birds, the ravens and even the Canada geese, that normally rule the campus. Today is no different.

The prolific acrobat is named for the dramatic streamers that flow from its tail fans. The medium-sized passerine has a solid reputation in literature for its flamboyant flight patterns. It can bristle the feathers on its head to make itself appear larger and more aggressive.

It is a territorial bird that ranges from Texas and Oklahoma, where it breeds, to the southernmost reaches of Central America, where it vacations in the winter. Studies report the scissor-tailed flycatcher having testy relationships with other species in its orbit, especially in its nesting environment. One researcher wrote that during observation for a nesting study on the bird, he found it ejected the eggs of brown-headed cowbirds, another Texas native and prolific nest parasite whose offspring many birds accept in their nests. This makes the scissor-tailed flycatcher one of 11 species that eject cowbird eggs from the 220 species the cowbird imposes upon. Tensions escalate in the scissor-tailed flycatcher’s migration season, when resources are short and needs overlap. Another researcher described an incredible instance of interspecific competition between five male flycatchers and two blue jays over a perch. The latter birds challenged the flycatchers for the real estate and eventually called in nine reinforcements to wrest the spot from them.

The two birds this morning are typically aggressive. Cowbirds, swallows, and ravens are grazing for grubs in the ravines that separate the soccer fields, and the flycatchers wheel about, 45 feet in the air, and dive-bomb them to take over their real estate. The raven, twice the flycatcher’s size, talks back at one point, trying to oust its enemy from a shade oak. The flycatcher counter-attacks, and the raven gives up, opting for pasture in a fenced-in soccer field in which its antagonist doesn’t seem interested.

The whole display lasts about twenty minutes before a police officer with the Dallas County Community College District kicks me off campus.

Perhaps my visit is irresponsible, but walking around outside — and keeping my distance from vectors and potential victims — keeps me sane. Either way, there are rightly no humans allowed here; in a state of crisis, campus belongs to the wildlife. I leave.

There’s a certain sadness knowing I won’t come back. I’ve been fascinated to read recently about the animals that have taken over public places since the pandemic shut everything down. Ten days ago, the New York Times ran the subhead: “Goats in Wales; coyotes in San Francisco; rats, rats, everywhere: With much of the world staying home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, animals have ventured out where normally the presence of people would keep them away.”

Here’s how I was thinking about it: since classes were done, the animals, which are playful and bold on the campus even when there is no pandemic, would party like teenagers whose parents are on vacation.

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A red-eared slider dredges the muck for worms in a stream that feeds Thunderduck Lake.

Yesterday, I visited the red-eared sliders and the river cooters in Thunderduck Lake, a pond that snakes north-to-south through the campus. Things did seem different. The wildlife were congregating in places they usually didn’t, like a stream that flows under a parking lot and feeds Thunderduck Lake. The stream is normally empty of turtles, but yesterday, I counted a dozen. I snuck up on one that was digging up worms in the muck to snap some photos. The lake’s turtles are habitually attentive to human presence, diving under, pushing away as soon as they see you. This turtle didn’t notice me for about 45 seconds.

But the more I think about it, my vision of a wildlife soiree seemed naïve. As I discovered during a six-week research project for my master’s degree about a year ago, Richland College has intentionally built itself as a haven for wildlife.

For my project, I interviewed Ron Clark, the vice president for Business Services at the school. Clark has worked here since Richland opened in 1972 and spent many years fishing in Thunderduck Lake. He has seen the campus ecology undergo many changes, but none so loud or dramatic as the arrival of the Canada geese. An initial pair claimed residence more than a decade ago, gobbling the lush landscaping that lines the administrative complex, the grass on the soccer fields on the east side of the campus, and handouts from people who feed the wildlife. The geese quickly dominated the campus landscape, and the gaggle grew to its current size, about 30 individuals. It’s difficult to visit the campus for more than five minutes without noticing them.

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A lone Canada goose on Thunderduck Lake yesterday.

The college has accommodated the geese, been a good neighbor. When the birds nested atop the campus’s old planetarium, the college lined the surrounding sidewalk with hay bales, where the goslings would eventually jump from a distance well above my head. The college built artificial nests and ramps for the baby waterfowl to escape turtle predation. Richland even cleans up after them, dispatching groundskeepers to spray away their feces, which would otherwise thicken on the campus walkways. (During my visits, I found areas of campus so littered with goose droppings that I couldn’t walk through without at least some sticking to my shoes.)

The gaggle has food security and safety from predators and hunters on the campus, along with comfortable temperatures, a stable food supply and, aside from the errant snapping turtle and perhaps a raccoon, a relative absence of natural predators. But these factors aside, Richland College faculty and experts cited the way the campus wildlife and humans interact as one major factor in the persistence of the Canada geese.

“These babies don’t go any place; we love them too much,” said Clive Siegle, a longtime history professor.

On my excursion this morning, I wanted to experience a newly energetic menagerie of wildlife amid the pandemic. But there were no goats of Llandudno or coyotes of the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, the turtle populations that normally manifest in the dozens or hundreds under the bridges that span Thunderduck Lake on any sunny day were absent. Is it because there are no pedestrians from whom to solicit morsels of white bread? We know feeding wildlife can habituate it to such charity.

Richland College is different from the public places where wildlife are taking back the land. The party was here long before we left.

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

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