August 28, 2012
The Wildlife at the Arboretum and How You Can Help
By Susan C. Eubank, Arboretum Librarian
The Kinds of Wildlife at the Arboretum
Even though the Arboretum’s official name, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, doesn’t say anything about features other than plants, we are an official wildlife sanctuary and have been declared one from the beginning of the Arboretum’s history. Anyone who visits instantly knows that and is often enchanted by the peacocks, peahens, peachicks, Eastern Grey Squirrels, and a myriad of waterfowl, both native and non-native.
We do seem to have “primordial ooze” here. It has been seen over and over in the various movies and television show such as Anaconda, Tarzan, etc. These movies try to scare their audiences. Our aquatic environment actually contains exotic fish, exotic turtles and the small aquatic life that supports the larger aquatic animals.
The Arboretum has lots of insects too. European honeybees thrive in southern California and when they swarm out of maintained hives, sometimes they develop a home in a hollow trees or an irrigation box. Careful observation and watchful walking will keep you from interacting in a negative manner with the bees. The honey bees not only give us honey, but are pollinators that are extremely important in providing humans with food, essentially, pollinating the plants that become fruit. Without them our lives would certainly be less luscious. When I lived in Colorado watching the bees on my penstemon flowers I would go into the same zen state that I enjoy when I’m watching the waves at the ocean. Colorado doesn’t have an ocean, so that was my replacement. The bees’ calm, methodical movements, gently flying from flower to flower, encouraged that zen-like state. There are also mosquitos here which have been tested and declared to be West Nile Virus carriers. There currently is no quarantine, however mosquitos are most active at dawn and dusk and it is recommended that during those times, you wear insect repellant. The Arboretum is usually closed during those hours, although some events take place in the evening.
Our superintendent, Tim Phillips, tells of a time when he first came here 11 years ago that perplexed him. The Arboretum grounds didn’t appear to have any reptiles, such as lizards. He created an initiative to use less herbicide and now we have a thriving lizard population. That wasn’t his original intent, but it is a sign of the return of a complex ecosystem. He had never seen a snake here until my daughter pointed out a native California kingsnake to him during one of our Garden Shows. Lizards are fun to watch and are fairly benign around humans although I wouldn’t want to pick up an alligator lizard, because their jaw grip is pretty strong and hard to disengage. Some people are afraid of snakes, but kingsnakes are as benign as lizards. Their great benefit is that they eliminate rodents.
Our rodent population here is “thriving,” especially around the buildings. I struggle, daily, to protect the Arboretum Library book and magazine collection from the rats’ and mice’s desire to have a warm nest out of the elements. I have transformed from a librarian who was easy going about food in the Library to one who is rather stern about a “pack it in, pack it out” theory of food in the library. We can never leave edible items in our wastepaper baskets without creating a great risk for the books. I have to especially keep the rodents away from our rare books. The Library has a book from the 1598. I am responsible for that books persisting into the future; to protect it from rodents. The vegetarians outside include rabbits. The rabbits wreak havoc on our plant collections. You will notice cages in the African section preventing the rabbits from eating the newly planted palms to the ground.
There are 250 kinds of birds on the birdlist for the Arboretum. Southern California is privileged to be a birding hotspot and because of our water and open space we are a hotspot within a hotspot. From 60 migrating Swainson’s hawks, which are members of a dark morph, staring at the Arboretum employees on an early morning foray to Tallac Knoll after a stormy night, to migrating and resident native and non-native waterfowl, to feral parrots and peacocks, to “rare in the U.S.” non-native bulbuls (eagerly sought after by birder life listers), to rare, native Red-naped Sapsuckers and the ubiquitous peafowls, the birds are the most evident and beloved wildlife here. The peafowl and waterfowl are so beloved they have legions of fans who want to feed them to have them come closer even to let their 3 year old child pose by or pet. They are considered benign when they are not. Peacocks in breeding season have a proportionally equivalent amount of testosterone coursing through them as a bull eyeing a female cow during the cow’s breeding season. If you think about the effort the peacocks go to display to attract females, you can start to understand why they are not benign. They are protecting a territory against other males and are engaged in mating behavior. I would never let my daughter near a male peacock in that state. Look at their feet and bill and you will know they can do damage to something that they perceive as a threat to their mating activity. I’m tall enough at 5’ 2” to have the peacock feel that it wouldn’t be wise to attack me, but a toddler is not. The Canada Geese are even more territorial than the peacocks when they are preparing to nest and are more aggressive. Watch your children and yourself with them too.
By now you are are probably starting to think that our site is not the idyll you had expected with all those beautiful trees and flowers. As in all things and all places, caution and careful observation is necessary when you visit here.
Let’s write about predators now. The smaller fish eat microorganisms in the water. The big fish eat the little fish. The snapping turtles eat the fish. The raptors eat small rodents. The peacocks eat insects and lizards (as well as plants). What else eats rodents and peacocks? In the past we knew we had a bobcat. It was very elusive and seldom seen and the last photograph I saw of it shows a very elderly cat. I haven’t seen or heard of other people seeing it in over a year.
If you think rationally about the urban wildlife interface in Southern California, you will know that coyotes are here and will be here forever. Studies have shown that coyote populations are growing in urban/surburban areas and that they are adapting to a closer proximity to humans and that human-coyote encounters are more frequent. I’m sure that because of our permanent water here at the Arboretum coyotes have always been a permanent fixture here. The Tongva (the Arboretum’s first people) had stories that incorporated Tukupar Itar (Sky Coyote) into their pantheon of legends. The range of qualities explained through the coyote and their legends is as a trickster and a helper for humans.
Humans at the Arboretum are as much a part of the wildlife ecosystem here as the other wildlife. We preserved the open space here. We brought in the peacocks and other domestic and exotic birds. The snapping, red-eared sliders, and soft-shelled turtles were all brought here surreptitiously by customers. The Arboretum also has many customers who feed the wildlife even though it is not recommended by the staff. It is even illegal to feed peacocks in the city of Arcadia. These changes to the ecosystem affect the make-up of what wildlife thrives here. Because customers feed many of our prey animals, such as peacocks, ducks, squirrels, not only do they become habituated to being around people and potentially can be aggressive, their population also becomes artificially large. Then the predator population expands. Our abundance of prey for our predators becomes, sort of like, how you feel standing in line at a Mongolian buffet.
The spring season creates even more intensity in this dynamic. There is the testosterone of breeding season and the need of the predators to provide for their young. The coyotes need more meat and are determined to provide. Because of these very fierce drives the human spectator element is something the predators don’t think about. Mostly the humans are benign or, potentially, the little ones could be perceived by the predators as prey to feed the predators’ young. The severe consequences for the humans are that they may be injured (which hasn’t happened here yet) and the even more severe consequences for the coyotes is that they are shot and killed by the Los Angeles County Department of Agriculture as nuisance animals. The saddest wildlife sight I have seen here is dead coyote puppies, because their mother had been shot as a nuisance. There were two pups of the same litter which survived to early adulthood, but didn’t really know how to be coyotes and, I think, they eventually succumbed to mange.
How the Humans can Help the Wildlife at the Arboretum
1. Be observant and cautious as you would in any other environment.
This means also watching your children to make sure they are not within at least 3 feet of anything that could attack them as a wildlife defense mechanism or prey response. That is, peacocks, geese, squirrels, and bees (defense mechanism) or, coyotes and bobcat (prey response.)
2. Do not feed any wildlife.
Feeding prey wildlife artificially raises the prey population and attracts more predators. It is particularly a challenge around the buildings, because the food also attracts vermin rodents which damage items within the buildings and can be a health hazard. This is especially important around the Peacock Café, the Arboretum Library and the historic structures. The wildlife also becomes habituated to humans and in the case of squirrels and some peacocks, they become aggressive in their pursuit of food to the extent that they might bite or climb on the human.
3. If a predator or angry, prey animal approaches you, make yourself as large as possible, as loud as possible and, if necessary, throw something at the aggressor. Be sure to monitor and protect your children.
Now that we understand how complex the wildlife relations are here, we know there will be predators. The ecological niche of the top predator will never be empty here, because we have so much prey, so if you encounter a predator, either just observe it from a distance or make the predator realize you are not encouraging it to interact with you.
4. Enjoy the wildlife from a distance and enrich your relationship with all the living beings at the Arboretum.
Nature is the most complex phenomenon I know and the Arboretum is a microcosm of many of the processes that occur. It is truly a benefit that the plant life and the animal life here is so vibrant. Enjoy it!
Photo Credits: Frank McDonough; “Coyote in Bushes” by Ken McGrath.