The Scrogues Guide to Denver and the DNC: urban wildlife

Posted on August 21, 2008

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Every city I’ve visited has animals that make the city home. Denver’s urban wildlife is more interesting than many other cities for two reasons. The first is simple geography – the city sits on the margins between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, and so not only does Denver see animals from both, there are also major migration routes for birds that track right over Denver. In addition, the Front Range of Colorado has a long history of supporting greenbelts and undeveloped open space and many animals use these undeveloped areas as refuges and as corridors to get deep into the city.

Denver’s western and southern suburbs push right up into the foothills, exposing residents – and delegates who are being housed in area hotels – a much wider variety of urban critters than you might be used to. Some of the animals will be common, others not so much, and some could potentially be dangerous if you plan on hiking in the mornings. Here’s a run down on some of the animals you could encounter on your visit.

Peregrine falcons aren’t the most common things around cities, but a while back, a number of mated pairs were introduced into downtown Denver and given nesting boxes. The idea was that the city was safe from animals poisoned by DDT (the chemical that nearly wiped out lots of raptors including the peregrine), the buildings were like artificial box canyons (the peregrine’s natural habitat), and prey was abundant – pigeons. Originally, the nest boxes were housed outside one of the nicer restaurants downtown, but that ended when the peregrine’s dining habits put off the diners inside the restaurant off their own meals, and the boxes were moved. However, if you see a small raptor swoop down and hammer a pigeon out of the air, this is the falcon that’s likely responsible.

Mountain lions aren’t exactly common in downtown, but if you go hiking up in the foothills, it’s possible you might stumble across one, especially if you’re foolishly hiking alone around dawn or dusk. These big cats, also known as cougars, have been known to attack cats and dogs and, on very rare occasion, people. If you do see one up close, make yourself look as big as possible and DO NOT RUN. Mountain lions are like most predators in that they interpret flight as a signal that you’re prey, ripe for eating. Thankfully, though, mountain lions tend to be higher up in the mountains this time of year than most delegates are likely to be hiking due to the heat.

Bears are also possible in the western and southern suburbs and foothills. This time of year you’re most likely to come across young bears raiding trash cans for food. Again, don’t try to run away from them – bears can run very quickly over short distances, but assume that “short” in this case means “the distance needed to catch you.” The best thing to do for bears is make noise so you don’t surprise them. A surprised bear is a cranky bear. And if you see really little bears (ie cubs), don’t approach them – mommy bear is around somewhere, and you don’t want to get between her and her cub.

Skunks are common across the U.S. and Denver is no exception. Our local brand of skunk is the white striped skunk, and you could see entire families this time of year. They’re nocturnal, so keep away from anything that looks like a bushy-tailed black and white cat and you won’t need a bath in dish soap, hydrogen peroxide, and backing soda. This recipe works, BTW – it got the skunk smell out of my cat’s fur a month or so ago, and Mythbusterstm says it works better than tomato juice.

Raccoons are also common around cities, but Boulder especially seems to be all but infested by them. I think they’re cute, but I do know of some people who developed raccoon phobias after being nearly attacked by an irate family of raccoons hanging out in the bushes. Look for this urban critter pretty much anywhere.

The first time I saw a golden eagle, it was sitting atop a telephone pole behind my house between Boulder and Longmont, and I’ve loved these big predators ever since. I saw one recently flying above the open space in Broomfield, where a couple of the delegate hotels are located. You’ll find them sitting atop tall objects, looking for rabbits, prairie dogs, even small dogs and cats, or circling lazily above open fields looking for prey.

Bald eagles have made an amazing comeback in Colorado in the last ten years. I went my entire youth without seeing America’s eagle except in Yellowstone National Park, but in the last year, I’ve seen three (or the same one three times). There are several nesting pairs along the front range, and the last time I saw one it was flying over US Highway 36 between Broomfield and Boulder. Talk about an amazing sight.

At this point, I have to mention prairie dogs. Not because some crazy people are trying to domesticate them and sell them to Japanese couples as pets, but rather because prairie dogs are important for two reasons. The first relates to my nickname for them – “eagle snacks.” They’re prolific, and so when you see prairie dog towns, you’ll find prairie dog predators like golden eagles, foxes, and coyotes. Prairie dogs chirp when they sense a predator, so don’t be surprised if you’re around them and they’re all chirping away and disappearing into their holes. The second reason is that they’re carriers of bubonic plague, so don’t go wandering through their towns if you can go around. The black death doesn’t kill many people anymore, but that doesn’t mean you really want to be suck on a course of antibiotics.

You’re far more likely to hear coyotes than you are to see them, but you can see them pretty much anywhere in and around Denver. Coyotes have adapted to human civilization nearly as well as skunks and raccoons, and their howls will set nearly ever dog in a neighborhood on alert. If you do hear them, take a moment to sit back and listen to them – it’s quite entrancing as one starts, another one somewhere else answers, and so on until all the individual howling coyotes converge into a pack.

I’ve seen red foxes in my Broomfield neighborhood, in and among commercial buildings in Boulder, and around parks in Denver. Foxes seem to do as well or better in some parts of the city as coyotes do, given their smaller body size. They’ll be most often spotted at dawn and dusk, when they’re actively hunting or traveling to and from their dens.

Denver has been blessed with an abundance of hummingbirds and a large number of residents who have planted flowers that attract hummingbirds. You’ll see them around flowers of all types and traveling between flowers and nests, and I believe that they’re quite common around the Zoo and the Denver Botanical Gardens. If you hear a rapid, high-pitched chirp and see a small dark shape tracing a scallop pattern through the air, that’s also a humming bird – it’s just traveling too and fro instead of stopping to drink nectar.

Canadian geese are both migratory through Colorado and permanent residents of our fine state. A decent number raise their goslings in local area ponds, lakes, and reservoirs, and so you’re pretty likely to come across these birds around Denver’s many parks. While generally harmless birds who will flee if chased, canadian geese can be dangerous if they’re protecting goslings, so if you see a family of geese moving slowly, leave them alone. I’ve been charged by an angry goose once, seen kids buffeted by wings and pecked, and seen large dogs driven off by geese protecting their brood.

Around ponds and wetlands you’ll see two more birds, great blue and black crowned herons. You’ll occasionally see them flying overhead – big wing span, curved neck tucked in, and long legs trailing behind. They’ll happily hunt for small fish in any pond that supports fish, natural or stocked.

After dark, you might be lucky enough to hear the deep “hu hoo” of a great horned owl if you’re located near open space where the owls can hunt. My last residence before moving to Broomfield had multiple great horned owls in the area, and we often saw them perched atop houses waiting for a mouse in the open space below to get too far from safety….

If you head up into the mountains and you enjoy birds, keep your eyes open for a flash of dark blue and black. That’s a Steller’s blue jay (male), ith a deep blue body and a black head and crest. Noisy birds like most jays, but great to watch, and one of my favorite Colorado birds.

Of course, if you take a drive into the mountains and get off the main roads (ie the interstates), there’s a decent chance you’ll see deer, elk, and/or bighorn sheep. This time of year you’re more likely to see deer down by town since the sheep and elk are up at higher elevations, trying to escape the heat, but I saw a large herd of elk just last weekend in Evergreen, so even elk are around. You probably won’t see bighorn sheep unless you go up into Rocky Mountain National Park and over toward the sheep viewing area, and even then only if you’re there toward late afternoon or pretty early in the morning

You need to be aware of one more critter, especially if you choose to hike in the foothills. Colorado is rattlesnake territory, so if you hear a noise like a little maraca, stop moving, find the snake, and back away slowly. The best way to avoid a rattlesnake is to be aware of where they like to hang out, and when – flat, sunny rocks and on trails early in the morning in order to warm up from the overnight chill, and in shade between or under rocks when the day heats up. I’ve heard stories about people who got bit when they sat down on a rock just off the trail to have a drink of water and didn’t see the rattlesnake they nearly sat on and surprised the snake so fast that it didn’t even have a chance to rattle a warning. If you do get bit, send for help immediately and try not to overexert yourself – most untreated bites aren’t fatal to an adult, but anti-venom exists for every resident rattlesnake I can think of, and exertion will make the venom affect you faster.

I know that it probably seems like I’ve harped on some of the more dangerous animals you could find in and around Denver, and in some respects, that’s true. Wild animals can be dangerous if they’re not treated with respect and care, and someone with street smarts from a big city doesn’t necessarily know how to treat truly wild animals. I view Colorado’s wildlife as I do Colorado’s altitude and climate: it’s something to be aware of, but not something to be afraid of.

Finally, please, please, please don’t feed any of the animals. Whenever you feed an animal, you make it dependent on human beings to survive, and that means it’s more likely to die during the winter. This is true of all wildlife unless there’s specific feeding arrangements (such as duck feed at the Zoo).

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