Spring Puts Spotlight on Urban Wildlife

Apr 11, 2017

A pagoda in Forest Park, St. Louis's largest urban park.
Credit Keith Yahl / Flickr

With the official start of spring just a week away, more and more wildlife is emerging from the thawing winter undergrowth. If you’re listening from a rural area, you’ve likely already heard an increase in morning bird song, for example. But even in urban areas, where habitat is harder to come by, entire ecosystems can survive, if given the right space.

Stretching across almost 1,400 acres in St. Louis, Forest Park is one of the biggest urban parks in the country. While its most famous inhabitants are the number of exotic animals that live in the St. Louis Zoo, the park is also home to countless native species, including a great-horned owl named Charles.


"Charles is a big male. He’s about 20 to 22 inches tall," naturalist Mark Glenshaw described. He’s studied Charles for eleven years, since he first spotted him on a walk through the park one evening.

"That first sighting was amazing. In 20 to 30 minutes I saw them fly, I saw them hoot together in a duet, and then I saw one of them attack a great blue heron," he recalled.

Glenshaw was hooked. From that point on he’d regularly check on Charles and his mate at the time, Sarah. She has since died, and now Charles is on his third mate, an assertive female Glenshaw has named Samantha. Glenshaw named her Samantha after the character from Sex in the City.

Two great horned owls Mark Glenshaw photographed in the park in 2015.
Credit Mark Glenshaw

Despite its urban location, Charles has thrived in Forest Park in part due to the abundance of food. The combination of wooded areas and open lawn present fairly ideal hunting grounds for great horned owls like Charles, who will eat almost anything.

"Great horned owls have the widest range of prey of any owl in North America, eating everything from animals as small as worms and insects and other invertebrates, to animals as large as raccoons and hawks," Glenshaw said.

That diversity of urban wildlife is something Doctor Charles Nilon has studied for years as a professor at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. Nilon says maintaining green areas like Forest Park is one of the more significant things cities can do to foster wildlife.

"So the more amount you have that’s not built up, and the more amount of land you have that’s sort in something like the original kind of vegetation that was there, you’re going to have higher biodiversity," Nilon explained.

Nilon has studied biodiversity in big cities including Baltimore and St. Louis. He says while cities can provide habitat through parks and restricting development, reaching out to private landowners is crucial.

"Most decisions are made by individual property owners. In other words, what happens in the city happens by what individual people do," Nilon added.

Nilon says a lot of the people he’s talked to want to see more wildlife in their yard. According to his research, there are a few key things landowners can do to provide habitat.

"We’ve found that the big things seem to be the ratio of how much vegetation you have in your yard versus how much is pavement and building and that kind of thing," he said.

Timber in particular seems to make a big difference, especially when it comes to birds like Charles and Samantha. Nilon has found, "The tree cover, the amount of tree cover and shrub cover versus the amount of lawn kind of shapes different kinds of birds."

Back in Forest Park, Glenshaw says with all the wooded areas of the park, the owls seem right at home in the middle of St. Louis. 

"A lot of it is very much the same, because a lot of it you don’t see- a lot of it is happening while we’re sound asleep."