Exploring the Behaviour of Urban Wildlife

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

For many of us, our first encounter with animals was probably at home with cats and dogs, or on the streets with cows, chickens and so on. These creatures may be called ‘domestic’ because their lifeworlds almost entirely revolve around human beings. On the other hand are creatures that are collectively referred to as ‘wild’ as they are not entirely dependent on human beings for their survival. For instance, if one were to explore the city of Delhi, especially forested areas like the Delhi Ridge, it might be possible to encounter lesser-known wild species like nilgai, jackal, porcupine and civet. While domestic animals have been bred to be a part of human society, wild animals are seen as belonging in the wilderness (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011). In other words, the city, by definition, has no place for wild creatures (Buller, 2013). Yet, several wild animals have managed to persist in the urban environment, and herein lies a paradox. Considering the drastic modifications to nature, more specifically, the built infrastructure created mostly by decimating nature, how does it become possible for some of these species to not just survive but thrive in the city?

While different urban landscapes have different habitat characteristics, the species that have managed to adapt to the generally fragmented nature of urban landscapes have done so by modifying their behaviour, social ecology, and diet (Bateman & Fleming, 2012). Behaviour can be defined as the motor response to sensory information and is an important way by which animals interact with their environment (Sol et al., 2013). However, all behaviour, whether innate or learned is always a product of both genetic and environmental factors (Jensen, 2007). Behaviours that are manifested as a result of these factors indicate which animals are more likely to survive in an environment – a phenomenon referred to as ‘survival value’ or simply adaptation (Dawkins, 2008; Tinbergen, 1963). An important inquiry for biologists has been to understand how some species are able to adapt to cities while others are not, especially when resources are not a limiting factor (Lowry et al., 2013).

While urban adaptations may be physiological to a limited extent, in most cases they may be behavioural, where the animal expresses tremendous ability to learn. Learning is an animal’s ability to change behaviour based on individual experience so that its behaviour is better adapted to its physical and social environments. While learning from other members of the group is called social learning, social learning which happens across generations results in cultural traditions (Wyatt, 2017). A popular example of cultural transmission is the invention of washing sandy food by wild Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) (watch clip below). During a long-term study on the behaviour of these monkeys, sweet potatoes were placed on a sandy beach by Researchers. Observation showed a juvenile female monkey going to the water’s edge and washing the sandy potato before consumption. Interestingly, at first, the behaviour was copied by other juvenile monkeys but later picked up by some mothers who learnt from their offspring, and within a few years, almost all the monkeys in the troop washed their food in this way. Similarly, a study on feral pigeons (Columba livia domestica) in an urban space showed how the birds were able to learn from repeated interactions with human feeders and were able to differentiate between friendly and hostile people, using this knowledge to maximize the profitability of the urban environment (Belguermi et al., 2011).

Clip: Japanese Macaques have learnt to wash the sand off sweet potatoes before consumption.

Behavioural types associated with personality traits such as exploratory behaviour, boldness and aggression may prove advantageous for species to adapt to novel environments (Sol et al., 2013). Exploratory behaviour is often related to the personality traits of animals where some animals are able to express ‘boldness’ (taking more risks) in order to take advantage of resources (Lowry et al., 2013). For instance, in an urbanizing area, mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) – wild birds that are highly adaptable – have changed their behaviour and taken to scavenging in response to learning what practices will earn them bread from passers-by (Palmer, 2003). Other examples, which I talked about in my earlier article on Human-generated Food and Urban Wildlife, are of Racoons (Procyon lotor) in Canada learning to unlock household garbage bins at night to access food waste; European songbirds learning to rip off the metal caps of milk bottles to access the rich milk cream; the learning of a unique hand extension gesture of bonnet macaques (Macaca radiate) to request food from humans in India. Similarly, personal observation in the Delhi Ridge showed how wild species like nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) and golden jackal (Canis aureus) often come in close proximity to human beings in order to obtain food. Aggression is often described in the context of biological invasion, and some of the most abundant species in urban areas are those that are very aggressive towards conspecifics i.e. members of the same species (Sol et al., 2013).

While the presence of ‘wild’ animals in our ‘tame’ cities might represent a paradox, evidence of learning and cultural transmission in animals, as discussed in this article, are helping us understand this paradox. Since urban environments are novel and present new challenges constantly, many urban species use innovation, exhibiting greater learning and problem-solving skills as compared to their conspecifics in the wild in order to thrive in the city (Lowry et al., 2013). These innovative behaviours and modified lifestyles may not always have a genetic basis but may be continuously acquired through individual and group learning, pointing to the possible co-construction of animal lifeworlds in the urban environment.


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Featured Image by Vipin Kumar

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