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Backyard jungles

Stuart Pimm explores today's collision between bears, beavers and US suburbanites.

Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds

Crown: 2012. 368 pp. $26, £17.99 9780307341969 | ISBN: 978-0-3073-4196-9

It's a spring Monday morning and the departmental office puts a phone call through. I can already guess it's someone calling to ask for “an ornithologist”. I know the caller will be irate and expecting me to solve his problem. Yes, I have the answer; no, he's not going to like it. So, I listen to the tirade about how woodpeckers drum on his home at 5 a.m. at the weekend. Will I remove them? No. Can he shoot them? No. What can my distressed caller do?

With insight that makes him think I'm a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I tell him he lives in a cedar-clad home (such homes resonate to woodpecker drumming better than trees). It is surrounded by forest (that's where woodpeckers live). He probably also has Canada geese on his lawn and white-tailed deer eating his vegetable garden, I confidently suggest.

A bear raids a vegetable patch in Rutland, Massachusetts. Credit: T. RETTIG/WORCESTER TELEGRAM & GAZETTE/AP

Jim Sterba's Nature Wars is about the extraordinarily inconsistent attitudes to the natural world harboured by Americans today. We love nature, hate nature; want it near us, but not too close; want it to be not, well, too natural. As Sterba writes: “This book tells the story of how we turned a wildlife comeback miracle into a mess.” The book covers the relatively familiar tale of how we tamed and cleared the wilderness, and details how the forest returned and how, after the Second World War, we moved into it.

“We love nature, hate nature; want it near us, but not to close; want it to be, well, not too natural.”

The singular fact is that for more than a decade, most Americans have lived in suburbia, and those east of the Mississippi in suburban forests. As Sterba puts it, “we are essentially forest dwellers”. Drive the 3,000 kilometres north from Florida to New England along Interstate 95 and it is forest almost all the way. By contrast, on the drive north on the M1 from London, England's green and pleasant land is still mostly cropland and pasture — as is much of western Europe.

The fact that the eastern United States was radically deforested more than a century ago is obvious. The trees are still too small to be “old growth” and they get larger each year. Heading north in the direction of Sterba's weekend home, and well inside New York City, forests have reclaimed fields still delineated by stone walls. The low point of US forest cover occurred in about 1870. By then, young men were moving west, where they and their families were to almost completely and permanently convert the prairie ecosystems into rich croplands. In the depleted forests that they abandoned, wildlife had taken a beating.

Some forest species, such as the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker, dwindled to extinction. Others became merely rare, but recovered as the forest returned. Some did very well indeed. Bears, deer and turkeys had close calls. Beavers — “North America's first commodity animal” — which were hunted for their fur, disappeared across much of the country. It is ironic, as Sterba notes, that their comeback has reminded us of their immense destructiveness.

By far the best part of this book is its catalogue of our responses to such species. Yes, my phone caller wants his nice forest home, but he doesn't feel he signed up for the deer, coyotes and black bears that come with it. Deer carry ticks that spread Lyme disease. Yet he might post cheques to an animal-rights group campaigning to stop official annual deer culls, even as his gun-toting neighbour burns to join the cull.

Meanwhile, trendy restaurants serve venison — nearly all of it imported from New Zealand, Sterba tells us. The blood and guts involved in killing a deer and cutting it up for the freezer is just too much for many. And whereas taking out young females would be the most effective way to control deer populations, many hunters think that killing males is the only sporting thing to do.

It isn't all one way, of course. Pet cats wreak havoc on millions of small birds — many lured in by bird feeders. The stores that sell the feeders and the food to go in them thrive: bird feeders have even altered the wintering ranges of several species.

My most unwelcome advice to my phone caller? I love woodpeckers; I think beavers are extraordinary animals, the quintessential ecosystem engineers; and I eat the venison my graduate students shoot. Bears demand respect, but are not quite as terrifying as the lions that sniff around my tent in Africa when I'm doing fieldwork. So, I advise my caller to lie back and enjoy his home, woodpeckers and all. He hangs up in fury.

As Sterba so ably explains, the great majority of Americans are now disconnected from nature and live mostly indoors. Viewing “a goldfinch on the bird feeder outside the living room window” is perfection. The outside, itself, is altogether too messy, too threatening and too noisy at 5 a.m. on a spring morning.

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Correspondence to Stuart Pimm.

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Pimm, S. Backyard jungles. Nature 491, 188–189 (2012).

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