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Petaluma wildlife sightings increase during shutdown

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On a recent morning shortly after sunrise, naturalist Susan Kirks stood at the corner of Paula Lane and Sunset Drive, unsheathed her binoculars and trained them on a single black-tailed deer.

As she anticipated, she soon spotted two more moving languidly through waist-high grass inside the 11-acre Paula Lane Open Space.

“Seeing them out here is just good for the soul,” Kirks whispered. “It’s why I’m always out here this early.”

After more than 20 years in Petaluma and nearly 16 years as board director chair of the Paula Lane Action Network, Kirks has developed a keen eye for local wildlife, focusing especially on the elusive and protected American Badger. But over the past two months of shelter-in-place, she’s found a new army of fellow nature-watchers also keeping tabs on wildlife, as Petalumans confined to their homes and neighborhoods turn amateur naturalists.

Social media posts tell tales of coyote, deer and bird sightings and west Petaluma residents marvel over near-nightly coyote yipping and howling.

Petaluma’s North Bay Animal Services has seen a nearly two-fold increase in wildlife calls during shelter-in-place compared to the same period last year. Executive Director Mark Scott said these range from a report of ducklings crossing a busy road to deer sightings and dead or distressed animals. Between this March 1 to May 1 period, Scott received 96 wildlife calls, averaging more than 1.5 per day.

“People are definitely seeing more wildlife, including a lot more coyotes cruising around,” Scott said.

Both Kirks and Scott speculate this rise in reported wildlife sightings across Petaluma is the result of the shelter-in-place regulations, as residents spend more time in their backyards, neighborhood sidewalks and trails.

Contrary to some viral social media posts that assert “nature is healing” amid a slowdown in human activity by returning to spaces or rebounding, Kirks contends people are simply noticing animal behavior in a way they didn’t before.

“This has always been here,” Kirks said, looking to a gaggle of wild turkeys and a hawk flying overhead. “With fewer people out and about, now we’re sitting still more and seeing, sensing, listening more to this wildlife.”

An increase in wildlife sightings isn’t specific to Petaluma, with scientists and experts weighing in on the phenomena taking place throughout California and the country. Notably, in cities such as San Francisco and Barcelona, some wildlife is indeed venturing further into urban spaces recently filled with traffic jams and noise.

While there could be a slight shift in animal movement locally, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Executive Director Doris Duncan also hypothesizes that the uptick in sightings in Petaluma is because people are spending more time outdoors.

Families and professionals no longer spend their mornings on long commutes or inside gyms, and days in the office are now days at home. Duncan said she’s hearing her neighbors in Cotati slide open their backyard doors more often than before, drawn to the respite of an outdoor space. Kirks said several bird-watchers and wildlife watchers in town describe hearing more birds and less freeway noise.

“Many people are getting the chance now to slow down and focus on what’s around them,” Duncan said. “Maybe they’re bored and spending more time in their backyards, and everyday they’re seeing that same bird and develop a curiosity about it.”

As opposed to Petaluma, Duncan said Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue has noted a slight drop in wildlife hotline calls and intakes between March and May this year. She has also noted a drop in reports of animals hit by cars across the county as many heed orders by public health officials to engage only in essential travel.

While a resurgence of outdoor time and awareness of local wildlife is undoubtedly a positive to come from sheltering-in-place, the profusion of dog-owners pounding sidewalks and trails has spawned a concerning new statistic. Mark Scott of Petaluma’s North Bay Animal Services says he has seen a spate of dog bite incidents and urges residents to keep their pets on a leash while out for walks.

Despite this alarming new trend, Scott said the majority of wildlife calls are from residents seeing creatures they’re not used to seeing, whether it be a coyote or a nest of baby birds.

“It’s also the right time of year for this, deer just gave birth and there’s fawns around, same thing with baby possums,” Scott said, whose team responds to all calls to ensure the animals are safe.

Whether the lockdown is having any lasting positive effects on wildlife or their habitats is unclear, however, many Petalumans are observing more of the world that exists beyond their windows.

Overlooking the Paula Lane Open Space from Lavender Hill Lane during the recent early morning, Kirks pointed to the hills that stretch into the horizon and traced a wildlife corridor into Helen Putnam Regional Park a five-minute drive away. It’s one of a handful of invisible highways that connect Petaluma to surrounding natural spaces, a parallel world that naturalists like her notice everyday.

“Sheltering in place is stressful on so many levels, but it could also be an opening for people to appreciate the natural world we have around us in Petaluma,” Kirks said.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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