Urban Kangaroos, Urban Deer, and Finding a Balance

Last night I watched a fascinating episode of the PBS show Nature.  It was titled “Kangaroo Mob.”  Apparently that’s what groups of them are actually called—not herds, mobs.  The episode told of how frustrated Australians are trying to cope with exploding kangaroo populations in and around Canberra.  Only a decade ago, there were a few hundred.  Today there are tens of thousands.

Out beyond the city limits, drought and skyrocketing kangaroo populations have caused ecological devastation and left the landscape denuded of vegetation.  As hungry, thirsty kangaroos invade the suburbs, the citizens of Canberra are coping with hundreds of car crashes, increasing damage to landscaping and natural vegetation, and incredible hordes of kangaroos that are just generally making a nuisance of themselves.  In several recent incidents, they’ve attacked people and pets with no apparent provocation.  As sometimes happens with deer here in America, a few confused ‘roos have even crashed through windows and into suburban homes. 

Local officials have reluctantly decided to stage a cull.  Although most Canberrans support it as a necessary step, a few have donned kangaroo masks and staged angry protests.  Two wildlife biologists we follow during the program are tracking radio-collared kangaroos in the hopes of learning more about their habits and movement patterns.  Meanwhile, we also meet a couple who are working hard to rescue kangaroos that have been injured or orphaned.

Elsewhere, not far from Canberra, overabundant kangaroos have sometimes outmatched the land’s carrying capacity and starved in large numbers.  In one notable 2009 example, the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) chastised the Defence Department for not holding a cull on a nearby military base.  After mowing the base’s threatened grassland preserves and leaving the ground pretty much bare, an estimated 5,000 kangaroos starved that summer.

For me, the Kangaroo Mob story was especially fascinating because of its obvious parallels with overabundant urban and suburban deer here in North America.  In Deerland, I plan to include an entire chapter on the topic.  Its working title: “The Invasion of the Suburban Cervids.”  In some ways, deer in Connecticut aren’t all that different from kangaroos in Canberra.

Australia actually has deer problems of its own; it has six different types of deer, all of which are non-native invasives.  In addition to kangaroos and deer, Australian hunters can also pursue feral cattle, goats, and camels.  Which is probably a good thing, since most of these animals have at various times and places reached outrageous population levels that caused serious problems for both humans and the natural environment. 

The camels are quite large; I suppose if a hunter were to shoot one in rugged terrain that could only be reached on foot, it would be a lot of work to hump it out.  Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.  Actually, though, feral camels are no joke.  Australia currently has over a million, and that number could double by the end of the decade.  In large parts of the country, they’re now causing serious environmental damage. 

Australians have learned to take their invasive species seriously.  The rabbit is probably the one animal that has caused the most damage there.  Today the ownership of live rabbits is regulated in most of the country, and Queensland recently raised its fine for the possession of a single pet rabbit from $3,750 to $30,000.

Meanwhile, back here in North America…  Deer are not, strictly speaking, an invasive species.  They were here first.  But they sure can be invasive.  As I research Deerland, I’ve been talking with experts and learning a lot about the lethal and nonlethal control strategies being used when deer invade our cities and suburbs.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  The solutions aren’t simple, and implementing them isn’t always easy.  But sometimes doing nothing is not a option, and sometimes letting nature take its course is no kindness. 

Or, as one ecologist recently told me, “Just because you’re not shooting them doesn’t mean you’re not killing them.”  Suffering.  Compassion.  Kangaroos.  Deer.  Birds.  Trees.  Sedges.  Ferns.  Humans.  It’s complicated.

© 2012 Al Cambronne

Your Christmas Swan

“We’re having something a little different this year for Thanksgiving.  Instead of a turkey, we’re having a swan.  You get more stuffing.”

–George Carlin

What a bird!  I love swans.  And I don’t mean for dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. 

A century ago, people did eat them and shoot them for feathers.  When viewed rationally, I suppose it’s just an oversized goose with a slightly longer neck.  Indeed, there would be a lot of meat on one.  The wing feathers might have looked nice in a hat, and a swandown sleeping bag would be at least as warm as a goosedown bag.  But still…

The other day I managed to get this shot of a cold swan.  And no, this has nothing to do with Cold Duck, the bargain brand of sparkling wine.  You’re looking at one of several trumpeter swans that overwinter in my neighborhood.  They hang out on certain stretches of river that stay open all winter, even when it’s below zero. 

(The night after I took this photo, the temperature dropped to -22 F.  No matter how much down you have on your chest, that’s cold.)

Sorry for the grainy spy photo; there wasn’t much cover, and this bird became nervous when I was still a couple hundred yards away.  And even if it would have allowed me to approach more closely, I’d have been crawling a long distance on very thin ice.

I’d hoped for a close-in shot of a white swan on black water, pinkly luminous in the late-afternoon sunset.  Visitors to my blog would have been very impressed.  Somehow, however, I only get opportunities like that when I’m not carrying a camera. 

I thought about making another trip or two; I can sometimes be persistent.  But then I decided it wasn’t worth making this bird, or some other swans, nervous enough to fly off to the next convenient open water.  That’s a couple miles away, even as the swan flies.  Better for these birds to burn no more calories than necessary.  More cold nights are coming, and spring is months away.

In the spring, pairs will disperse to secluded nesting sites in isolated marshes and small lakes.  For most of the summer, they’ll make themselves scarce. 

And then fall arrives…  This particular swan must have acquired its numbered yellow collar in early September; that could even be part of the reason it wouldn’t let me get closer.  Maybe it recognized me.

Since moving to this area, I’ve been fortunate enough to get in on a couple of September swan roundups.  This involves a spotter plane and a dozen or so volunteers in canoes and kayaks.  Sometimes the mix includes a small fishing boat with an outboard; other times the swans’ nesting site is in a marsh too shallow, weedy, or inaccessible for anything but canoes or kayaks.

If we can, we capture all the young swans the pair has raised this year—cygnets, they’re called.  We capture them one at a time, and then later release them simultaneously.  But first, biologists weigh the birds, band them, take a blood sample, and give them a numbered neck collar so they can later be identified from a distance.  Then, after we release the birds, it’s time to load up and head to the next nesting area.  Usually we hit about four different marshes in one long day.

I’ve had to miss the last couple roundups.  I hope I get to join in again next September.  By then the cygnets are nearly grown, but not yet able to fly well.  (In theory, at least.  A few of them can already fly just fine, thank you.)  At this point, they’re already at least half again as large as a Canada goose.

Swan roundups are one of the rare times I can put my canoe racing background to practical use.  It’s also a rare opportunity to help chase down, net, and wrestle with a member of an endangered species—and yet somehow not get in serious trouble with the law.  It’s all in the name of science; we’re doing our part to help trumpeters recover from the brink of extinction.  

By the way…  The best part of all is when we simultaneously release three or four cygnet siblings and watch them flap awkwardly across the surface of the water to rejoin their distraught parents.  And yes, nervous or agitated trumpeter swans do sound like someone blowing on a trumpet.  Someone, that is, who doesn’t know how to play the trumpet very well.

So there’s your Christmas swan story.  And with that…

Merry Christmas, and to all a good, warm night!