Richard Collins: Wildlife taking back the streets of our cities

Fifty years ago, a fox was spotted in Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. The unfortunate animal was chased by local ‘gurriers’. It took refuge in a tree but was promptly stoned to death.
Richard Collins: Wildlife taking back the streets of our cities

Fifty years ago, a fox was spotted in Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. The unfortunate animal was chased by local ‘gurriers’. It took refuge in a tree but was promptly stoned to death. Foxes were regarded as vermin back then and the presence of one in the city was most unusual.

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. A young fox was filmed recently in locked-down Grafton Street. Although its sex isn’t known yet, this new city-dweller has been named Sam. Its parents are said to live in the up-market Merrion Square area.

‘If you can’t beat them join them’ is the 21st Century fox’s maxim. Other wild creatures are following suit; I encountered a badger in Donnybrook recently. Nor is moving into concrete jungles just a European trend; leopards are taking up residence in Indian cites, peregrines are nesting on New York skyscrapers, while rabbits and wild boars have been seen roaming the streets of Berlin.

Covid-19 protection-measures should appeal to Sam and his ilk; he has the streets all to himself. Could lockdown encourage similar tolerance of people by wildlife in remote locations? The 5km travel restriction offers respite from the noise and disturbance we produce.

The absence of people, their vehicles dogs and boats, should give temperamental nesting birds a welcome respite. There’s an intriguing possibility; could what the Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel calls ‘anticipated’ or ‘possible-probable’ nesters take the plunge and set up shop here?

Cetti’s warbler, cattle egret, hoopoe and marsh harrier, are candidates but the most likely new nester may be that spectacular fish-eating hawk; the osprey.

Now that red-kites golden and white-tailed eagles have been re-introduced, and the buzzard has re-colonised the country, the osprey is a conspicuous absentee among our large birds of prey. This iconic raptor, with a 1m wingspan, quarters lakes and lagoons, pouncing on fish swimming close to the surface. It dives, wings half spread, towards a victim.

Just before striking, the talons are thrown forward. The legs fold on impact, sinking the lethal talons into the fish, the bones locking automatically. The prey is lifted into the air, fed to the osprey’s chicks or taken to a perch to be eaten. Catches of pike, twice the bird’s body weight, have been recorded.

The osprey would not be a ‘new’ breeder to Ireland. The bones of two individuals were found during excavations in Dublin’s Fishamble Street. They were dated to the 10th or 11th Centuries. Were ospreys persecuted to protect fish stocks in the Liffey?

Gerald of Wales, who visited Ireland twice in the 12th Century, mentions the bird. So does the 17th Century naturalist William Molyneux. Gordon Darcy, in Ireland’s Lost Birds, claims that the illustration of an eagle, representing St. John in the Book of Armagh, looks suspiciously like an osprey.

Nowadays, some Scottish and Scandinavia ospreys pass through Ireland on migration to and from Africa. Pairs linger occasionally in suitable habitat here in spring, appearing to ‘weigh up’ their breeding prospects but, so far, conditions have not been to their liking. Has disturbance been a factor in the failure to breed? Could the reduced human presence, this year, tip the balance?

Will 2020, the year of the lethal pandemic, also be the year of the osprey?

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