Will physical distancing allow you to see more wildlife?

Published: April 6, 2020

Hand Opens Curtain on the Wooden Cottage House Window to look for wildlife. Bright Sunlight Shines Through. Photo by AlexMaster/Shutterstock

You may find yourself baking bread and binging Netflix in an attempt to stay busy while practicing social isolation to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But just because we’re spending a lot of time indoors doesn’t mean we have to totally disconnect from wildlife. Nature watching, whether it’s from a window in your home, from your backyard, or from a Public Health Ontario-approved walk where you stay two metres away from anyone who is not a member of your household, is a great way for families and kids to enjoy nature and learn which critters call their neighbourhood home.

With a lack of people and cars out and about, you might think you would see more wildlife as animals move into spaces that were previously occupied by people. But are there actually more animals around during this period of social distancing, or are we just at home and have the time to see what’s always been there?

James Pagé, a species at risk and biodiversity specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF), thinks it’s a bit of both. With fewer people outdoors, wildlife, particularly the bolder species, aren’t being scared off. At the same time, he thinks we’re noticing “what’s always been there, and we just happen to be at home with time on our hands to look out our windows,” he says.

“One thing I can say for certain is that populations wouldn’t have increased, not in this short of time,” says Pagé. So if you notice an increase in squirrels in your yard, it doesn’t mean that the squirrel population has taken off in the last couple of weeks.

That being said, having fewer people on the move—particularly in cars—may have a positive effect on some species as we move into spring and summer. The CWF runs a study in partnership with Scales Nature Park tracking where turtles are hit and killed on roadways. Turtle nesting periods don’t peak until June, but Pagé says that the team is interested to see what effect the decrease number of cars on the road will have on the animals’ future travels. Pagé adds that amphibians are currently coming out of hibernation, so the decrease in traffic may have a more immediate impact on frogs and salamanders.

If you’d like a new hobby during social isolation that will connect you with nature while also helping scientists, you can help track how animals are responding to the new conditions. Download the iNaturalist app to any smartphone, and submit your nature sightings to a global database. Pagé, who is the project lead for iNaturalist in Canada, says that not only does it provide data for scientists, it’s also a great education tool. “There’s image recognition software in the app that can auto-identify the species for people,” says Pagé. The app also allows you to stay connected with what fellow nature lovers are seeing in your neighbourhood by allowing you to browse nearby observations and see what others are posting.

The CWF has created a specific project on iNaturalist to track what people are seeing during isolation. From your iNaturalist account, join “Observations from Isolation.” Once you are a member of the project, the app will automatically add any sightings submitted in Canada until isolation is over and the CWF ends the project. Pagé says that it will help connect people to each other and to nature while they are at home, and provide “a glimpse of what a reduced human impact could look like on nature.”

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