Wildlife in Suburbia
The upside (and downside) of living so close to animals
Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth
I knew there’d be decisions to make when I finally got around to remodeling my kitchen: knobs or pulls for hardware, soapstone or marble counters, wood or cork floors? After years of planning and clipping magazine spreads on kitchen makeovers, I felt prepared.
There was, however, one decision I hadn’t anticipated: what to do with the house finches nesting in the kitchen exhaust fan that was slated for demolition?
Nothing, as it turns out. Disturbing any active bird nest is cruel. Disturbing the nest of a federally-protected native bird like the house finch is a crime punishable by prison time and a fine of up to $15,000 per evicted bird. It’s lucky for us—and the finches—that my husband and I are bird lovers.
We’re birds of a feather with Ann Fleming of Potomac. Walking her dog near her home this spring, she discovered a juvenile great horned owl that had fallen from its nest and couldn’t yet fly. She called in wildlife experts to help get the owl home.
“It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history,” journalist Jim Sterba wrote in his 2012 book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.
Two things are happening at once, Sterba writes: a vast regrowth of Eastern forests is hosting a return of wildlife while people are moving deeper into the exurban countryside. More wildlife is “on the way, moving in among us as their populations thrive and spread to regions where they haven’t been seen for centuries,” Sterba writes. “This is a new way of living for both man and beast.”
Some suburbanites and city dwellers—whose experiences with wildlife are primarily on television, movie and computer screens—are ill-equipped to share their home turf with the real deal.
This June, a young male black bear generated panic and breathless news coverage as he circled Montgomery County looking for a place to call home. He was seen as close-in as Silver Spring.
In the spring of 2015, several Bethesda homeowners reported seeing a coyote in their yards, by bus stops, even near Bethesda Row. “It’s frightening,” County Councilman Roger Berliner said at the time. Although county animal control officials couldn’t confirm the presence of a coyote or coyotes in our midst, John Marcus didn’t doubt it. Last spring, Marcus, who lives near Bethesda’s Ayrlawn Park, spotted a wild animal sitting right next to his cat Lily, who looked terrified. Marcus stomped and made loud noises until his unwanted guest fled. Then Marcus Googled wildlife photos to identify it. It looked just like a coyote.
Nineteenth century philosopher Henry David Thoreau—no slouch at observing wildlife—noted how difficult it was for him to see an owl. “Well, I see owls all the time,” says Jim Monsma, executive director of the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg. “Now they live where we live: suburbia. The problem for them is that all the resources are on our side. For them, there is nothing.”
Second Chance takes in injured wildlife, nurses the animals to health and releases them. Some grow fond of the square meals and safe digs. They resist returning to the rigors of the wild and hang around the center begging. “If you walked across our parking lot right now, you’d probably end up with a blue jay standing on your head,” Monsma jokes.
Monsma, who studied theology and Russian literature in college, ended up running a rehabilitation center because he wanted to help save wildlife. Instead, Monsma sometimes feels as if he has a front-row seat to its destruction. Suburbia is rife with hazards for wildlife, from speeding cars and lawnmowers to spotless house windows that reflect trees and sky, fooling birds into striking them.
Through the ages, American eagles have fed heavily on live fish. In places like Montgomery County, they’ve added roadkill to their diet. In March, county and state wildlife officers rescued an injured American eagle they named Trust. They suspect he was hit by a vehicle while dining on roadkill.
Raccoons fare worse. Every year, the Montgomery County Animal Services & Adoption Center euthanizes scores of healthy raccoons after homeowners have hired for-profit trappers to remove them from their attics or the spaces under their decks. Some unscrupulous trappers promise homeowners they’ll release the animals in distant woods, but drop them off at the county shelter instead. Since raccoons are vector species for spreading rabies, the county can’t release or relocate even healthy raccoons that are brought to its center, and licensed wildlife rehabbers can’t take them in. Katherine Zenzano, who heads community outreach for the center, urges homeowners to try to coexist peacefully with wildlife in their midst instead of automatically hiring a trapper to take them away, possibly to their doom.
Humane Wildlife Services, an arm of The Humane Society of the United States, doesn’t typically trap and cart away wildlife, says director John Griffin. Employees figure out how, for example, a raccoon is entering someone’s attic or porch. Then they build one-way doors and lure the critter and its offspring safely outside. They do home repairs, securing loose boards or installing wire mesh, to prevent the raccoons from getting back inside. But the critters get to stay in the neighborhood where they already know how to survive.
Like a lot of humans who end up with furry or feathered houseguests, I made my own trouble. When I bought my 1930s stone house in Bethesda 16 years ago, it came with the original exhaust fan in the kitchen. The fan, which didn’t work, had a heavy cast-iron door on the kitchen side and a metal grate on the exterior wall. I bought a fancy new downdraft fan.
Removing the old broken fan and repairing the hole that it would leave in my 13-inch-thick wall would require hiring an electrician, a plasterer and a stonemason, so I figured I’d leave the old fan in place until the day I was tearing up the kitchen for a makeover. I painted the old fan shut, then forgot about it.
In recent years, my husband and I have consciously attracted birds to our garden. We dug out invasive plants, planted some natives, put out feeders in the winter and installed shallow bird-friendly fountains. In good weather we chase away stray cats. In cold weather we tote out hot water to keep one fountain working for the birds who don’t migrate. Birdsong became the sound track of our suburban life. So many different birds roosted in a row of evergreen arborvitaes that my husband and I started referring to it as “the apartment complex.”
The past few springs, two house finches have nested inside that unused old fan. The opening in the exterior metal grate is big enough to let finches inside the stone wall, small enough to keep predators out. My husband and I didn’t mind. We cut electricity to the fan so their nesting materials weren’t a fire hazard. We were enchanted by their presence.
Yet, somehow, I forgot about the finches when I scheduled my kitchen demolition and makeover to begin this spring. The finches arrived ahead of the contractor, and there was no way we were going to evict them. We figured we’d wait and rip out the old fan after the babies learned to fly.
We were delighted when fledglings, with their rough, fluffy feathers, started appearing on our terrace, staggering around like tiny drunks having bad hair days. We cheered their test flights as enthusiastically as any suburban parents urging adult boomerang offspring to spread their wings and move out of the basement.
One day, my husband noticed that the parent house finches were bringing more dry straw inside the fan. They were rebuilding their nest, signaling that they were preparing for a new round of eggs. “Please stop fornicating,” he muttered in the general direction of the fan. The finches paid no heed.
The contractor finished the kitchen and left. The old fan and the house finches stayed. As I write this, the house finches are feeding their third round of babies in our fan. I am sitting at my new kitchen counter—marble, not soapstone—listening to a demanding chorus of “cheep, cheep, cheep.” It’s a happy sound.
We’re not going to fight Mother Nature. We’re counting the house finches as a Bethesda success story: offspring who can afford to live in the house where they grew up.
April Witt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.