It was Hitchcockian: A dark cyclone of crows swirled around a tall tree, maybe 50 birds fractiously cawing.
A few blocks away, I’d been reading outside my house in Wallingford and heard the growing clamor. Soon the noise drew one of my roommates outside. A few neighbors stepped onto the sidewalks to watch. One ventured closer to record with his phone. This was a month into quarantine and we looked on with a mix of anxiety and awe. It was as if we’d taken the low dread that underpins everything now and projected it into the sky.
We tend to look to animals for prophecy. That canary in the coal mine is, in fact, a canary. And when the big one comes, we note, the voices of dogs will be our warning. The pandemic is a different sort of disaster—slow, silent, often invisible. But is it such a stretch to think our corvid friends might be going wild during a Covid-induced shutdown? Anecdotally, at least, it’s Jumanji out there. We’ve heard reports of a turkey wandering around West Seattle, of a mad squirrel attacking a child, of midday coyote sightings, of rats alternately frolicking in the parks or turning to cannibalism. A neighbor passing my deck this Sunday afternoon pointed out a raccoon under my porch. About a month ago, a rat got in my house and, as I tried to chase it outside, dove out a second story window, like Keanu skydiving in Point Break. It hit the lawn running.
But don't reach for a trumpet to herald a new and more feral age of city life just yet: Overall, local researchers are cautious about confirming major changes in urban wildlife behavior. Those swirling crows? “That is textbook mobbing behavior,” says Douglas Wacker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Bothell, who studies birds. Probably the crows were swarming a predator, like an owl, in the tree. “That’s super common.” Neither Wacker nor John Marzluff, who also studies crow behavior at the UW, say they’ve noticed any major bird changes since we all started staying home. (Though it is a good time to watch birds.)
Perhaps, Wacker offered, less mobile animals have been affected more readily. Carnivores, such as raccoons and coyotes, can’t just fly off for a new food source. I spoke with Christopher Schell at the UW Tacoma and Robert Long of the Woodland Park Zoo’s Seattle Urban Carnivore Project. Both monitor city animal behavior via cameras that were set up in the region as parts of the national Urban Wildlife Information Network. They also concur: Possibly animals are changing their habits during the Stay Home order, but it’s too soon to tell if such changes are statistically significant. (Schell figured they may have data to release by November or December.) Even anecdotally, Long said he hasn't seen much out of the ordinary.
But one thing has definitely changed: People are spotting and reporting urban wildlife more. Long directed me to carnivorespotter.org, where Washingtonians can post about wildlife they’ve seen. In April 2019, in Seattle, people reported nine coyotes, four raccoons, one possum. In April 2020, those stats leapt: 31 coyotes, 14 raccoons, and eight otters. Eighteen of the coyote sightings were during the day.
That might be a shift that hasn’t registered in more rigorous data yet. But those I spoke with agreed that, at least in part, the uptick in animal sightings is also because we’ve changed our behavior. Most of us are at home more. We wander our neighborhoods during the day, aimless witnesses to creatural life. Swift communications on social media, Long notes, can compound that. Someone posts, say, a video of a coyote running by Green Lake, and Baader-Meinhof phenomenon commences: Soon we’re seeing animal aberrations everywhere. Indeed that raccoon my neighbor noticed under my porch has lived there with two others since I moved in.
Wesley Parker, owner of Parker Eco Pest Control, says the company has gotten more calls about squirrels—even a possibly apocryphal report of a squirrel attacking a kid. “But we're not sure if that's actually due to a change in squirrel behavior, versus people just being home and noticing that there's a squirrel up there.”
What Parker’s exterminators have noticed are rodents leaving the world of restaurant dumpsters for nearby neighborhoods. “Restaurant sanitation has never been better,” Parker says. But that’s causing hungry rodents to tunnel into residential jobs that Parker's company had patched up before.
So rats actually are starving? I asked Parker. The cannibal rat stories are true?
“Oh, a hundred percent. But that’s not just because of the pandemic. They eat each other all the time.”