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Coyotes and Jackrabbits and Elm Trees, Oh My!

Exploring the wildlife all around us in the core of the city

Edmonton’s core is known for many things: the noble Legislature, bustling Jasper Avenue, and the vibrant Oliver neighbourhood. What doesn’t often come to mind is the wildlife. The streets we navigate daily are shared with plants, animals, and insects. According to Mary-Ann Thurber, ecological planner with the City of Edmonton, we live in a special place for wildlife. “With respect to the River Valley, Edmonton is in a unique area. We’re in this transition zone between the prairies and the boreal forest.”

Dr. Colleen St. Clair, conservation biologist at the University of Alberta, added that our River Valley is important to wildlife. “[It] is said to be the largest contiguous green space in a city in North America. To have that much natural habitat, that goes right through the middle of the city, Edmontonians do not realize how rare that is.”

Here’s a snapshot of the wildlife you may find in the core.

Mammals

Coyote (Canis latrans)
These scavengers are very prevalent in the core. Slightly larger than a dog, they’re lanky with tan or grey coats and bushy tails. They’re one of the species found in Edmonton known as urban exploiters, which St. Clair classifies as animals that thrive within the city. If we want to keep these animals wild, be wary when leaving out food. “[Human food] makes them much more dependent on people. That dependency quickly results in conflict.”

Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum)

Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum)
These bark-loving critters are herbivores. Covered in quills, they waddle around swinging their large, flat tails. St. Clair said their population within city limits is higher than in the wild. “They’re declining in lots of areas outside of cities. No one really knows why.” Likely it’s due to the reintroduction of fishers, a type of weasel that preys on them. So a place like Edmonton makes great habitat for a porcupine. “There’s not really much that can kill a porcupine in the city, coyotes would probably be the only thing.

Skunks (Mephitis mephitis)
These nocturnal omnivores are the size of a cat, and identifiable by the white stripe on their backs. People fear skunks because of the spraying, which can blind a person for up to 15 minutes. However, they will not spray unless provoked. If you encounter a hissing and stomping skunk, slowly back away from it. If you do happen to see a skunk out during the daytime, report it to 311, as this may be an indicator of aggressive behaviour.

White-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus townsendii)
White-tailed jackrabbits might be 100 times more prevalent in the city than the prairies, according to St. Clair. Jackrabbits are the largest hares found in Alberta. Their fur changes from brown in the summer to white in the winter. These herbivores might look like bunnies, but they’re identifiable by their black-tipped long ears, giant rear legs, and running speed of up to 64 km/h.

Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus)
These rodents glide around Victoria Park, according to Thurber. They are omnivores with brown fur and white bellies, and are distinguishable from the common red squirrel by their mouse-like face. And, of course, the stretchy skin between their front and hind legs which allows them to glide for distances of up to 20 metres.

Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Lynx (Lynx canadensis)
Although you’re unlikely to spot a lynx in the core, St. Clair said it’s happened before. In 2019, photographer Tim Osborne snapped a photo of a lynx napping on the Legislature grounds. These carnivorous animals are identifiable by their big feet and tufts of fur at the tip of the ears. Lynx may be mistaken for a large housecat. They are known for their huge appetite and can eat an entire white-tailed jackrabbit in one sitting. They are generally tolerant of human presence, but if encountered you should back away and call 311.

Insects

Although we would love to include a list of insects found in the core, it’s impossible. According to University of Alberta biologist and insect specialist John Acorn, “There are thousands and thousands of different species of insects and things like spiders and daddy long legs in the Edmonton area.” Major and minor pollinators include species of bees and butterflies, of which there are plenty every year.

As far as poisonous insects go, Acorn said there is really nothing to worry about. “In terms of insects that actually result in people going to the hospital, there are bees and wasps.”

People may worry when they find spiders and insects in their home, but as long as they’re not a pest like bed bugs, Acorn said it’s best to leave them alone. “If you do find insects or spiders in your home, that’s not an indication that your home is not clean. It’s an indication that your home supports life.” He stressed that to preserve our lovely pollinators, something to consider is reducing our pesticide usage.

Birds

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum)
Last May, a wildlife camera at the top of Bell Tower caught a peregrine falcon once again making a nest for her eggs at 31 storeys high. “The role of neighbourhoods and urban infrastructure is sometimes a good thing,” Thurber said, referring to the height of Bell Tower and its proximity to the River Valley. This at-risk bird can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. It is a carnivorous species that feeds on other birds, and can be identified by the stripes on its body and flanks, and a wingspan of up to four feet. The peregrine falcon is well known for its directional instincts, able to locate the nesting site after travelling great distances.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
The largest goose in the world, the Canada Goose has been known to fly as far as northern Europe. This goose has a telltale white and black head, loud honk, and is fiercely protective of its offspring. It is an omnivore abundant in areas close to the River Valley. At one point, Canada Geese were on a sharp decline due to habitat loss.

Plants/trees

Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)

Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)
This fast-growing, salt-tolerant, deciduous tree is common throughout the core. It is tall and thin with thick, egg-shaped leaves. The balsam poplar is most identifiable in June, when it produces cotton-like fluff that floats in the wind. It’s usually the culprit for the rustling sounds made during windy days.

Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
The green ash is another deciduous tree. Growing up to 60 feet, its branches can spread up to 45 feet wide. It’s a hardy tree with branches that bend upwards at the tips, and green leaves that are wide and long (up to a foot in length). This tree is most identifiable by its light green or purplish flowers, and in the fall it produces single-winged whirligigs that flutter down and cover the streets. It is the most planted of all ash trees.

American Elm (Ulmus americana)
The American elm has been extensively planted downtown. It has grey bark with deep diamond-shaped fissures. It can grow more than 260 feet tall with an umbrella-shaped canopy up to 65 feet wide, perfect for dappling the sunlight. Its flowers are usually small and pinkish with no petals. An easy way to identify this tree is by its fruit: flat, green, egg-shaped, and with small white hairs fringing it. This tree can live for up to 200 years.

STREETLIGHTS

The core never sleeps. At nighttime, the area is flooded with artificial light from streetlights, homes, and businesses. Carrie Ann Adams, ecology PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, said this might be harming the wildlife.

“Typically, nocturnal predators will have an advantage when there is a full moon and there is more light in the environment,” Adams said. “In the new moon, when the nights are darker, the prey species can be more active because they’re less likely to be caught by predators.”

Artificial light can cause sky glow. Sky glow is when light is reflected off of the atmosphere back down onto the earth, causing an eerie glow. Especially on cloudy nights, sky glow can be seen as an orangish hue hanging over a city.

“Sky glow … can bring illumination levels up to near the level of the full moon, at any time of the month,” Adams said. “Imagine you’re a mouse, hiding from an owl. You’re going to have a lot more trouble hiding when there’s all of that illumination.”

Turn off all your lights when you’re not using them; a mouse may just thank you for it.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Sadly, there’s only so much room on a page. Here are some who didn’t make the cut, but you might see sneaking around the core: red squirrels, black bears, pigeons, magpies, lichen, cougars, owls, white tail deer, house mice, meadow voles, and mule deer.