Why Some Wild Animals Prefer Backyards Over Forests

Study explains the urban wildlife paradox.

Squirrel raiding wild bird seed feeder
Squirrels are attracted to backyards because of bird feeders. Jeremy Hogan / Getty Images

Humans, for the most part, aren’t typically good news for wildlife. People contribute to habitat loss and biodiversity problems, so it makes sense that there would be fewer wild animals where there are more people. But a new study was designed to explain what researchers call the urban wildlife paradox: why some animals are found more in developed areas than wild ones.

Researchers found that people are feeding wildlife — on purpose, and sometimes accidentally — and providing animals with shelter and other resources.

“There’s this idea that nature and humans don’t coexist well,” says co-author Roland Kays, research associate professor at North Carolina State University and director of the Biodiversity & Earth Observation Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Resources.

“But what we’ve been finding is that when it comes to mammals, especially in North America, they actually do pretty well around people. You end up with high abundance. You expect there to be fewer animals, and there’s actually more.”

Researchers set up cameras in the backyards of 58 homes near Raleigh, Durham, and in nearby forests in rural and urban areas to compare activity. They focused on six types of features that might be used as resources: animal feeding, vegetable gardens, compost piles, chicken coops, brush piles, and sources of water.

They analyzed the photos from the cameras and found seven species were more frequently spotted in backyards instead of forests. Eastern gray squirrels, gray and red foxes, Virginia opossum, eastern cottontail rabbits, woodchucks, and eastern chipmunks were more commonly spotted near homes than in wild areas.

Eleven species, including white-tailed deer, northern raccoons, and American beavers, were more common in suburban forests instead of rural ones.

They found that fences deterred fox and other predators, and pets kept away opossums and raccoons.

The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

The Impact of Feeding Animals

Feeding animals had the greatest impact on animal populations in urban areas.

“We found that animal activity in backyards was mostly strongly affected by feeding. Other features (e.g. vegetable gardens, water features, chicken coops, composts, etc...) also had positive effects, but much less than active feeding,” Kays tells Treehugger. “ We think that this resource supplementation by people is a big part of the explanation for the urban wildlife paradox.” 

This shows that actions by homeowners and property owners can have an effect on wildlife populations, whether they planned it or not.

“Some of the composts had kitchen-waste that animals ate that was probably accidental,” Kays says. “Animal use of vegetable gardens or chicken coops was also not 'purposeful' from the home owner's point of view.”

Although the study was performed only in the Raleigh area, it’s likely that the findings would translate elsewhere, Kays says.

“The urban wildlife paradox has now been found in other places so I expect these results would be similar in other places, at least in the USA.,” he says. “I expect water sources would be more important in arid areas compared to Raleigh, where it rains a lot.”

The researchers don’t weigh in on whether attracting wildlife is good or bad. It’s a nuanced questioned that wasn’t directly assessed by the data, Kays says.

“You see widespread recommendations: Don’t feed the bears. Where do you draw the line from small birds to squirrels, rabbits and raccoons? When does it become bad to feed the animals, even if you’re doing it accidentally?” Kays says. 

“On one hand many people enjoy having wildlife around and they can help support a healthy local ecosystem; however, they could cause conflict with people.”