These smart critters are well adapted to urban life and your backyard
Your backyard is not only a haven for you, it’s territory for the cleverest critters well adapted to urban life: raccoons, coyotes, foxes and crows.
By Mary Lynn Bruny
You walk out your front door one day and notice a crow perched on your fence. It cocks its head and looks you up and down. Is it your imagination, or does the crow seem to be sizing you up? Chances are, it is. But what’s more interesting is it can remember your face.
Crows are just one of the highly intelligent animals that live side by side with us in urban settings. You may not see them much during daylight hours, but raccoons, coyotes and foxes are (hopefully) quietly living with us, too, and have thoroughly acclimated to life in the burbs, where the livin’ is easy. These creatures have easily adjusted to urban life because food is more plentiful and they’re less likely to find themselves on the wrong end of a shotgun.
All of these animals are highly adaptable problem-solvers, but each species has its own clever abilities that make them successful city slickers.
The Dexterous Raccoon
The entertaining Procyon lo tor combines keen intelligence with incredible agility. Weighing in at up to 25 pounds, the 2.5-foot-long critter has paws that are the envy of the animal kingdom.
“They’ve got skillful, dexterous hands with these fascinating digits that can open many things,” says world-renowned animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff, who is also an author and a former professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Some animal experts say they have greater dexterity than apes.” Combine their nimbleness with acute problem-solving ability and a great memory, and the rascals can open almost any type of trash container, cupboards, refrigerator doors and pet doors, and even undo twist-ties and laces.
Jack Murphy has dealt with a lot of raccoons in his line of work. His Denver nonprofit, Urban Wildlife Rescue Inc., is dedicated to humane wildlife eviction and rehabilitation. Murphy relates the story of a raccoon “fishing” in a backyard pond. The pond was too deep for the raccoon to catch its prey. So the critter picked up rocks and dropped them on top of the fish. The dead ones floated up and the raccoon grabbed its dinner.
Raccoons’ front paws are super sensitive, having the same type of nerves as we do in our tongues. They can tell what is edible by touch, which is why they so often handle things.
And then there are their legs. “Their ankles can turn 180 degrees around, yet their knees and everything still work,” Murphy says. All their limbs are ambidextrous, which is why raccoons easily go straight down trees and fences, do amazing acrobatics and maneuver into every cranny in an urban environment, including chimneys, attics and high, partially open windows in old buildings.
Findings show that urban raccoons are smarter—as well as bigger—than their rural counterparts, as they must solve more complex problems, Murphy says. “A rural raccoon might know how to go down to the creek and catch a few crayfish and then go over to the field to grab an ear of corn, whereas the urban raccoon knows how to stay away from the dog by walking on the fence, then hop to the tree, go over to the roof and come down on the other side of the house to get inside the dog door to look for food,” Murphy explains. “They’ve just learned how to get around people and their pets. They’re adapting to learn how to live with people.”
The Wily Coyote
In Native American folklore, the elusive coyote, Canis latrans, was known as the trickster who could morph into other forms.
“They’re very cunning and well-camouflaged,” says Bekoff, who has studied coyotes in the field for a decade. “They’re all over the place, yet you don’t see them.” For a 3- to 5-foot-long dog that weighs up to 45 pounds, that’s a pretty neat trick. Their tawny fur, slinky walk and low-hung tail definitely help them blend in.
The coyote’s cunning nature, match-ed with its acute hearing, excellent vision, extremely sensitive sense of smell and great jumping ability, makes it an excellent hunter wherever it lives. “They’re very stealthy. When they hunt rodents, they act very nonchalant about it while getting closer and closer to their prey. Suddenly the rodent finds itself being pounced upon,” Bekoff says. (Keep that in mind if you have a cat or small dog.)
“The coyote is probably the smartest mammal in North America,” Murphy says. “They’re very good at adapting to anything. They can live anywhere. They’re really good problem-solvers.” In urban environments, coyotes observe and learn where and when people eat and throw away their food, as well as the patterns of garbage-truck pickups.
Although considered carnivores, the canines are really omnivores. “One study found a hundred different items in coyote feces, including a wool glove and a rubber boot,” Bekoff says.
Urban coyotes develop different patterns than their rural brethren. “Their natural rhythms basically go to pot,” Bekoff says. Instead of their usual dawn-and-dusk rounds, they have to plan food foraging around sprinkler systems, rush hour, bus schedules, carpools and other human activities.
The Fleet-Footed Fox
According to Murphy, Front Range cities are mainly home to the European or red fox that was brought here for fur farms. The farms released them in the 1950s when business declined, and they adapted to life in the city. The Vulpes vulpes is about 3 feet long, but only weighs around 10 pounds; its dense fur makes it look heavier.
“They lead solitary lives,” Bekoff says. “They’re less social than coyotes. They’re very catlike—very cunning and stealthy. They can live almost everywhere because they are small and don’t depend on anyone.”
“They’re a lot faster and better coordinated than coyotes,” Murphy notes. “It’s really hard for a coyote to catch a fox. And foxes are better than coyotes at catching rabbits.”
Foxes are also able to anticipate the future. “I’ve watched foxes on the side of a road watching traffic,” Murphy says. “When they see a break, they cross the street. They get hit occasionally, but not as often as other animals. Lots of animals don’t understand cars at all, but foxes do.”
Foxes also want to avoid clashes with coyotes. Animals in urban environments, which usually have smaller territories, have adapted by staggering their schedules. “These animals know how to space themselves out spatially or temporally so they don’t overlap,” Bekoff says. “They’re just like us with their scheduling: Mary does this at 10, Mark does this at 11 and Joe does this at 12.”
A quirky characteristic of foxes is they like to collect (some would say steal) things. Murphy tells the story of getting some foxes out from underneath a porch that was near a country club. It was a complex den with many side dens. In one he found a stash of pocket gophers, in another a collection of tennis shoes, in another dog raw hides and chew toys, and in yet another tennis and golf balls. In a completely different den he found five pairs of gloves with “Mike” written on them. “I figured Mike was pretty bummed out,” he says.
The Cunning Crow
There is nothing bird-brained about the American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, a large, imposing bird ranging in length from 17 to 21 inches with a 39-inch wingspan.
Crows are the birds many people love to hate: They’re loud, cheeky and downright daunting when they gang together—that’s called “mobbing”—in a cackling group called a “murder.”
“They’re very smart,” Bekoff says. “They have a very large brain relative to the size of their body. Crows know how to make more sophisticated tools than chimpanzees. That’s why they’re so fascinating. They’re great observational learners and can put things together.” For instance, if a crow cannot reach some food using a straight piece of wire, it will bend it into a hook to get the job done. You wonder if soon they’ll be picking your locks!
In urban settings crows have figured out how to take advantage of complex situations. For example, they’ll sit on the side of the road by a stoplight and wait for a car to get a red light. Then they’ll scurry out, place a hard nut under a tire, return to the side of the road and wait for the light to turn green and the car to run over the nut. When the coast is clear, they’ll rush out and grab the cracked-open nut.
“They’re very keen observers of what other animals and people are doing,” Bekoff says. “And they have amazing, amazing memories.” Crows have long had associations with certain carnivores, such as wolves, which may explain their kinship with dogs. Bekoff tells the story of a crow’s relationship with his dog Jethro. During walks, the crow would bop along in the trees adjacent to Bekoff and his dog, cackling happily as if talking to the dog. Jethro, in response, would occasionally glance up nonchalantly at the bird. Bekoff surmised the two had formed a bond when the dog was out in his pen during the day.
One Massachusetts couple made a YouTube video documenting a stray kitten’s bond with a wild crow. The crow “adopted” the starving kitten, bringing it worms and other food to eat. When the couple began setting out bowls of food for the kitten, the crow let the kitten have its fill before eating any of the food. The crow also prevented the kitten from straying into the road when cars approached.
After the couple adopted the kitten, the crow would come to their window each morning and squawk until they let the kitten outside. Then the crow and the kitten would go for long walks and engage in playful games of cat and mouse, or cat and crow in this case.
Crows can distinguish between humans and remember a particular face. There are many accounts of crows targeting a specific person for some perceived aggressive act, such as moving a baby chick, and continuously harassing them by squawking and dive-bombing.
So think twice before you do anything to that incredibly intelligent bird sitting on your fence. You might not be smart enough to recognize that particular crow, but it will remember your face forever.