The (hidden) joys of urban ecology

Studying urban ecology isn’t always the most glamorous of tasks; whilst others are jetting off to sunny climes in the search of exotic species (and a suntan) or enjoying the solitude of the Scottish Highlands, I’m often left picking my way through abandoned shopping trolleys and discarded Irn-Bru bottles. Yet delve a little deeper, past the smog and grime, and you find that urban wildlife can be just as exciting and rewarding as elsewhere. Some of my most memorable wildlife encounters have been within urban areas where animals are habituated to humans and appear inquisitive for human interaction rather than fleeing for the nearest shelter. Bats can often be observed much more clearly in urban areas either foraging around streetlamps or skimming across the floodlit water of rivers and canals. Unlike elusive species such as the wildcat and pine marten, many commoner species co-exist with humans in the urban landscape. This presents the opportunity for the vast majority of our population to learn about wildlife, nature, and conservation on their doorstep.

This makes a study by Balmford et al. (2002) even more alarming. This study found that children were able to identify more Pokémon characters than common UK wildlife species. The study demonstrates that children have a great capacity for learning about creatures (natural or man-made) however children are either uninspired or unaware of the diversity of wildlife surrounds them. Recent scare stories hyped up by the media to portray urban foxes as ‘out of control’ further add to the disconnect between people and the wildlife that surrounds them. We need to start finding new novel ways of inspiring the younger generations – the I-Spy books I so fondly remember from the 1980’s will no longer be the inspiring source material that it once was.

The internet obviously has a big part to play in all of this (see the ICCS blog at for a great discussion), however even the internet can reinforce the common misconception that nature is distinct from humans. If you google the word ‘Nature’ or similar you will be able to view photo after photo of the most pristine surroundings without a single human blotting the landscape. Even the photos containing images of buildings or villages (normally Swiss chalets) are eerily devoid of humans; ghost towns of beauty which aren’t scarred by the images of their own creators. Changing this perception to reinforce the connection between nature and humans will in turn strengthen the notion that urban areas can still support important wildlife and (semi) natural beauty. So urban ecology might not have the glamorous appeal of solitude, rare species, or sandy white beaches however it does have the capacity to reach, educate, and inform the vast majority of the world’s population and that must be worth stumbling over all those shopping trolleys for.

Nature - without humans ruining the scene (Source:

Nature – without humans ruining the scene

Nature and humans in sync (Source: Kushal Bose via

Nature and humans in sync
(Source: Kushal Bose via