Ask residents what wildlife they’ve spotted in Needham and you get the full spectrum of answers: bobcats, turkeys, bald eagles, coyotes, foxes, river otters and even white-tailed deer. Some folks have seen critters a bit too up close and personal, like the guy who had a turkey crash through a window of his house. Other people seek out wildlife, looking to capture rare photos of birds and animals seemingly new to the area. Whether or not we’re looking for it, wildlife is here in abundance. The question seems to be, “Is this something new?” And if so, why?
Mass Audubon’s senior naturalist for our area, Tia Penney, says we tend to think anecdotally: “Oh, I’ve never seen that before so it must be something new.”
Penney says when Covid forced people to stay home, they started noticing more things. But without specific data, we can’t know for sure that some animals are new to the area.
We do know, though, that things do change over time, and some animals such as fisher cats are showing up in places where we don’t expect to see them.
“There are houses that provide woody space between a couple of pieces of property,” Penney says. “That will provide habitat for an amazing assortment of organisms, including some good-sized mammals we wouldn’t think we have.”
There are also abundant food sources in the area: rabbits, mice, squirrels and, of course, trash. The animals appear to have figured out how to get what they need to survive and live near humans without being terrified of us.
Needham Animal Control Officer David Parsons says most people don’t mind having wildlife around as long as it’s not in their backyard. “The animals have every right to be here,” Parsons says. It makes sense to keep dogs and cats indoors, though, so those small animals don’t get attacked by larger predators such as coyotes.
Parsons says we’re fortunate to have a smorgasbord of interesting animals around, such as the bobcat that was recently reported in Cutler Park, and we need to understand that property development is partly the cause. “Space is tighter,” he says, “and there’s nowhere else for them to go.” Some wildlife can be annoying, however. Deer thrive on our landscaping. They reach as high as they can and nibble their way down our trees, leaving them bare. “The deer think you have planted it just for them,” Penney says. And those turkeys? They’ve been known to hold up traffic, challenge humans, and seem a little too comfortable here. Penney says turkeys are not out to get us, they’re just defending their territory, and they are very hierarchical.
If you are challenged by a turkey, Penney says, you need to appear as the more dominant creature. She once advised a woman who felt threatened by a gaggle on her way to the train station each morning to carry a broom. It’s not us vs. them, although it might feel that way sometimes.
Local photographer Suzi Fresco Johnson seeks out local wildlife during her walks on conservation land behind her home. She’s seen barred owls here and once captured a photo of one diving for crayfish. She’s also had multiple bald eagle sightings.
Mass Audubon’s Penney says many raptors, such as bald eagles, are making comebacks now that we don’t use the pesticide DDT anymore. Eating organisms that were covered in DDT made the eagles’ eggshells so weak they would be crushed during incubation. Since we stopped using DDT, bald eagles have grown in number and are no longer considered an endangered species by the U.S. government.
Johnson says she’s been frightened by an animal only once — when a deer leaped right in front of her, catching her by surprise. The speed and grace with which it travelled created both shock and awe. Mostly, Johnson appreciates the wildlife and takes pleasure in photographing scenes such as a river otter fighting with a fish in the town forest.
Like Johnson, you, too, can chronicle Needham wildlife. The app “INaturalist,” a partnership between National Geographic and the California Institute of Science, is a great way to report what you see and help create data for researchers.
Animal Control Officer Parsons encourages residents to think of their children and the educational opportunities that come from seeing wildlife in town. And Mass Audubon’s Penney concludes, “We need to co-exist no matter how we feel about it. We fear the unknown, so the more we know, the less adversarial wildlife becomes.”
By the way, that turkey that crashed through a window into a house? Officer Parsons tells me he created quite a mess but wasn’t hurt. He ended up flying back out the same way he came in.