Animals’ Kingdom: New Orleans Wildlife Enjoys a Quieter City

If "Jurassic Park" taught us anything, it was that "life finds a way." Driftwood talks to several experts about the ways in which animals are adapting to our absence on the streets of New Orleans.

March 31, 2020

The sun is shining over the quaint cottages on St. Philip Street in the French Quarter. Two crows are perched above non-operating Bevolo gas lamps, seemingly having another daily romantic rendezvous. A chubby squirrel pops out of a trash can with what could be a smile across his face. A tiny roly-poly orb of a mouse saunters, not scampers, down the sidewalk and doesn’t so much as bat an eye. Speaking of bats, you can hear them calling to each other at dusk, oblivious to the notion some people think they are to blame for this human pandemic going on right now. 

Life in New Orleans has certainly changed for humans the last several weeks, and these changes have had an interesting effect on local wildlife. A viral video that has garnered international attention shows legions of rats cavorting on Bourbon Street — where the humans have left the partying behind, the rodent celebrations are just beginning. The video shows a huge mega male taking the prize: what appears to be a splattered pizza served up cold in the middle of the asphalt. Reddit users post about coyotes and foxes appearing in certain districts and express hopes that they will help take care of the rat population. 

According to Dr. Simon Lailvaux, Associate Professor in the Integrative Ecology and Evolution Lab at UNO, the French Quarter rats are driven to the streets without a steady stream of tourists and a dwindling food supply. “We’ve always had our fair share of rats in New Orleans and I have seen some rodents of impressively unusual size in other neighborhoods besides the Quarter as well (the LGD for one). Whether or not they will increase in number is a good question.”

“They are out and about now most likely due to a combination of fewer people in the Quarter for them to avoid, and less food for them since many kitchens are closed or doing reduced business and thus generating less trash. It remains to be seen whether they find other food sources that allow them to increase in number. I think one thing we can expect is that the rats will probably be somewhat bolder in the future, at least for a while.”

An unidentified species of rodent walks the streets of the French Quarter; photo by Veronika Lee

One New Orleans species Dr. Lailvaux expects to be indifferent to human-less streets is the anole lizard that usually starts popping up this time of year.

“The brown anoles are pretty bold as it is, and the green anoles are more affected by the presence of the browns than by humans. In fact, there is evidence that green anoles in New Orleans are far less wary of humans than those in more rural areas, probably because they are habituated to human presence in the city,” he says.

“There are predators for these lizards in New Orleans, but again fewer than in rural areas. One of the biggest sources of mortality for city lizards appears to be outdoor cats, and anecdotally there are far less lizards of both types in areas where people attract feral cats by feeding them (such as UNO campus, for a start).”

In 2016, National Geographic profiled the way in which animals inherited the earth in the 30 years after Chernobyl devastated a large area in the Ukraine. Although a nuclear explosion at a plant eliminated human presence in the area, animals in the region were able to successfully create their own ecosystem and remained mostly unaffected by the nuclear waste. Experts surmise that the heavy prevalence of predators like bears and wolves helped to keep the animal population stable and effective. As Reddit users have conjectured, alligators, foxes, and coyotes may end up serving a purpose in the aftermath of the virus after all as they may be able to help cull the rising rat population. Tulane PhD student Annelise Blanchette, who studies Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is not so sure that will be a solution we will see. She says that while she herself observes many people in her area, near Audubon Park, still out and about enjoying nature and nice weather, she isn’t sure that’s enough to motivate predators.

“In quiet neighborhoods where there are no local parks it’s possible we could see some wildlife (like coyotes and foxes) roaming, but I think it would take a little longer, with almost no people around ever, for them to become emboldened enough to walk around houses during the day,” she states.

Blanchette seems to look at this situation as a double-edged sword. While less humans are creating waste, especially in places like Bourbon Street, wildlife actually has come to utilize human discard to both their advantage, or disadvantage. The PhD student says intelligent species like crows and jays, who already seem to have adapted to heavy human presences, are resourceful in recycling trash.

“For example, they will pick through trash and consume our food scraps, or use plastic, string, or paper as nesting materials – for better or worse. I can picture a scenario in which there is less trash spilling out of garbage cans onto the ground, or just being tossed on the ground carelessly which is 1) better for the environment in general and 2) unavailable for bird consumption/use. I study mockingbirds and last year I came across a nest but one of the nestlings wasn’t able to fledge and leave the nest, sadly, because its leg was tangled in a line of floss-like material used to build the nest, so unfortunately it died. That is an extreme example of how our trash could impact wildlife, but it’s a sobering reminder that we do interact with the environment in ways we don’t realize.”

 

“Float” appears courtesy of Jacub Gagnon. Follow him on Instagram @jacubgagnon. For more information about his work, visit http://jacubgagnonart.com/.

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