They were always here: the tiny wrens flitting through Fairmount Park, the mad chatter of starlings in the backyard, the rock pigeons that scavenge for tossed bread outside Reading Terminal Market.
But something has changed.
Philadelphia has been sitting stiller than it has in over a century since the last pandemic, and for many residents, it’s as if the city’s creatures are appearing for the first time.
“Everybody is working from home or taking classes from home, and they’re seeing the wildlife in their backyards in a new and different way,” said Jackie Kent, education director at the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center. “They’re feeling deeply what these animals are feeling.”
Wildlife watching has seen a curious resurgence in the time of coronavirus.
Over the last three months, Philadelphians have been looking at more birds, spotting more deer and confronting nature in ways that the pre-pandemic city rendered easy to ignore. Advocates have been fielding calls about animal life from Point Breeze to the Jersey shore.
Sometimes, they’re worried. Other times, concerned. Sometimes there’s a raccoon in their ceiling and they don’t know what to do.
One day, a city resident noticed a baby fawn right in the middle of their garden. Was it OK?
Kent picked up the phone at the wildlife center. “This is normal — it happens every season,” she explained. “The mom comes back late at night. Same with baby bunnies.”
“You’re just seeing it now for the first time,” she added.
‘The warbler at FDR Park does not care about COVID-19’
Since the pandemic began, George Armistead says droves of Philadelphians have tracked him down to ask for recommendations — for binoculars, books, field guides and birdwatching locations. “It’s become another one of my jobs,” said the 46-year-old pro birder.
The hobby’s pandemic surge is not unique to Philly. In Trumbull County, Ohio, families are flocking to Mosquito Lake to glimpse bald eagles. Teenagers in Annapolis, Maryland, say they can now identify brown-headed cowbirds on sight, and compete using phone apps, like real life Pokemon Go.
With much of the world under lockdown, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported record attendance at Global Big Day, an annual bird-spotting event. More than 50,000 people in over 250 countries logged over 2 million birds, from Kenya to Costa Rica.
In many cities, conditions are more welcoming for birds than usual.
The Schuylkill River hasn’t quite gone clear like the canals of Venice, but Philly’s nature is healing in other ways favorable to the city’s beasts of flight, Armistead says. There are fewer planes overhead, the roads less congested with cars, and as a result there’s less smog and clearer skies. The night sky has been clearer. And generally, there are less disturbances to rout birds from their nests — despite overcrowding at some parks.
The coronavirus era has been chaotic and stressful for millions, but from Armistead’s perch, wildlife watching has a clear benefit in these times.
“You’re not worried about the future. You’re not worried about the past,” Amistead said. “You’re just being in the moment, enjoying the bird or the groundhog or the deer running past.”
“The warbler at FDR Park does not care about COVID-19. It only cares about its next earthworm,” he added.
Stuck at home, watching life through the window
The sharpened eye for animal life is not exclusive to the skies — nor is it always finding the welcome variety of creatures.
Since March, the mass closure of restaurants nationwide has brought a well-documented rodent trend. Rat populations have been migrating away from retail storefronts and toward residential buildings, where people have been accruing more trash during the shutdown.
Pest control business has remained steady, or even seen an uptick, according to local exterminators.
“People are seeing stuff more that they normally miss because they’re home,” said Rich Foreman, owner of Dynamite Pest Control in West Philly. “We’re surprised people let us in their houses because of the COVID-19.”
More people have been seeing the (occasionally aggressive) raccoon, sometimes dubbed the “Philadelphia Trash Panda,” breaking into their outdoor waste bins and creeping around backyards. At the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, Kent says there’ve been calls about them making their way into the family home.
“A man did call about a raccoon in his bedroom that fell through his ceiling,” Kent said. “That wasn’t the first time.”
More often, however, the calls come from people who are simply looking out the window more, noticing the animal populations in their backyards, gardens and alleys. And they’re taking an active interest — sometimes too much interest, unintentionally putting wildlife at risk.
“We had a baby deer brought in last weekend for example, who was uninjured,” said Sarah Barnett, the development and communications director at the city’s Animal Care & Control Team.
Armistead has seen it, too. It’s “baby bird season,” when young, featherless chicks are often seen wandering out of their nests, leading good-hearted people to try to intervene. The answer, he tells them, is almost always to leave it alone.
Overall, however, ACCT has seen a decrease in wildlife-related calls since the crisis began — 203 between March and late May of this year, compared to 369 for the same time frame. Still, one thing is for certain.
People are watching.
Nature is healing? It’s full of surprises, anyway
Kent, at the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, said the city’s pigeon population is experiencing some hunger hardship: “There’s not the same amount of bagels on the city streets.”
Even down at the Jersey Shore, avian nature is changing its tune.
“Many of our sensitive and endangered beach-nesting birds are moving to areas where there’s usually too much human traffic,” said Brett Ewald, program director at the Cape May Bird Observatory, though he worries those nests may be disrupted as the season takes off.
In other cases, it’s hard to tell which changes are spurred by the pandemic — and which are just
nature surprising a city in distress. A horse or a bull or an emu might get loose on the streets of the Philly region at any time of year, but it would seem more significant now.
For birders, it’s been a feast of wings.
Philadelphia’s first-ever seaside sparrow turned up in FDR Park earlier this month. A group of camouflaged, nocturnal whippoorwills were found day roosting in the trees of East Mount Airy. Someone sent an alert on a local birdwatcher WhatsApp channel about sighting a Philadelphia Vireo — a scarce migrant bird that is more often reported seen than is actually seen in the city, despite its name. Dozens of birders new and old donned masks to go search.
The spring summons a glut of warblers. But one weekend in May, a large incursion of bay-breasted warblers — a regal, chestnut-colored songbird that is rare to see in town — appeared in Bartram’s Garden. “To see six in a tree or 17 in a day, it’s almost unthinkable,” Armistead said.
Philadelphia has been called “the birthplace of American Ornithology,” and even amateurs can find hundreds of types in and around the city. According to online database eBird, Heinz Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot, where nearly 300 species have been sighted. But amateurs can get started in their backyards: European starlings and house sparrows bop around almost every neighborhood.
Once the crisis has eased, Armistead hopes it becomes a lifelong interest.
“I look forward to May in seeing the warblers, I look forward to the dead of winter when arctic gulls appear down here, I look forward to narrow migration windows when they pass through Philadelphia, and when you see them it’s like seeing an old friend,” he said. “It’s affirming.”