I spent last weekend in the vicinity of Trafford Park – a massive shopping centre on the edge of Manchester. I was there with my husband and son for a steampunk event, held on an industrial estate, and staying in a Travelodge. At first look, this seemed like an intensely human-made environment. Signs for how many thousands of car parking spaces were available left me feeling a bit queasy. The traffic noise was relentless. It did not seem like a place in which a person could find much nature at all.
We walked between locations. As soon as we got moving, there were various small birds evident in the scraggly undergrowth. We had a close encounter with a wren, and my son identified goldfinches. There were rabbits grazing behind a massive fence. On the way back that evening, we saw three buzzards spiralling together over the monstrous shopping centre. All the low to the ground and close clipped shrubbery will provide a happy home for rats (Tom saw one), and rats provide food for buzzards, and likely foxes, too (although I saw no sign on them).
Walking from the Travelodge to the train station, we saw a heron, and Canada geese. Hawthorn trees were putting out first leaves.
Several times over the weekend we had lifts around the area from various people. From inside cars, we saw nothing of the wildlife.
If wild things can live in what looks like urban wasteland, then I think it’s safe to say that wildlife is most places. The smallest patch of grass, a single tree, are indicators that there will be other kinds of life, too. My sense of place changed dramatically when I realised I wasn’t in a terrible desert, that even with the soulless human constructions around us, life continued. Such spaces remain appalling habitats for humans and every other living thing, and we need to create much kinder spaces for ourselves.
I gather that urban bird watching is becoming a thing, which is excellent news on many fronts. Bird watching is a lovely, de-stressing sort of activity, good for calming people. Awareness of wildlife tends to mean we take better care of it, and urban birds require urban trees. People bird watching are going to be people who support green spaces in urban environments.
If you have a garden, then adapting the garden to suit birds is the easiest way to see them. A bird feeder, a bird bath, a shrub or two to provide some shelter and they could come to you. However, in areas where gardens are tiny and sterile, birds are rarer. It may require working with your neighbours, or looking further from home.
Parks are an obvious place to seek birds, but big expanses of cut grass are not much of a habitat for anything. You’ll find birds where there are trees and hedges – often that means the edges of parks. It can also mean the edges of roads. Canals tend to be good. Derelict sites with plant matter on them can be much better places for wildlife than parks. Urban trees are always worth keeping an eye on.
In an urban environment, bird watching is a much more visual activity. When I’m watching in semi-urban and rural spaces I’ll often find birds by hearing them first, but in city spaces there’s usually too much background noise. While pigeons turn up at ground level, most urban birds will be higher than your line of sight, which means changing how you move through urban spaces.
Of course to be a bird watcher, you have to not be tuning out your environment and not mostly staring at your phone. You have to be present and paying attention. Not paying attention is, for many people, the key to making town and city life bearable. However, it’s when we start paying attention to the environments that we create that we might start doing something about them. Perhaps the new movement of urban bird watching is the first step towards changing cities.
Ideally, take yourself outside in an urban space. If outside is unfeasible, inside at a window will do, to hear or look depending on which senses work best for you. Sit, stand or walk as you prefer – make sure that you are safe to ignore things like traffic, pick somewhere you can afford not to be paying too much attention to human activity. Humans are nature too, but for this exercise, it’s all about other-than-human nature.
Look around. Or listen out. Wait until you notice some other-than-human life. It can be anything able to self determine – plant, bird, insect, you could see a mammal. Take the time to observe this wild and living thing. If you’re really stuck, a domestic pet or exotic garden plant will do, but if you can find a wild thing, so much the better. Going to a safe green space and touching the grass is worth a go if other senses don’t help you much.
Try to imagine how the space you are in looks, feels, smells etc from the perspective of the wild thing you are observing. It lives here too, it will be relating to this urban space as its home, its habitat. Contemplate how that works.
You are also a wild thing living in this space.