Conserve Wildlife Blog

New Jersey’s Wildlife in the Time of COVID-19 – Part 1

May 29th, 2020

by David Wheeler

COVID-19 has changed our lives in virtually every possible way over the last few months. Our relationship to wildlife is no different. This three-part series will explore the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown on wildlife in New Jersey and across the world. Be sure to also check out our podcast on COVID-19 and wildlife.

From my car window, I observed as many red foxes in a recent week as I had seen in the previous year combined. And it wasn’t just fox I was seeing more of. Wild turkeys, raccoons, migratory songbirds – I was seeing them all in greater abundance since the COVID-19 pandemic restricted most of us to our homes for nearly all of our waking hours.

A red fox kit with his mother.
Photo from

Of course, my own observations are purely anecdotal – as are most of the observations out there right now about human quarantine’s impact on wildlife in New Jersey and across the world. After all, it’s only been a few months now, though it certainly feels far longer!

Some trends are showing themselves nonetheless. The most apparent is also the most basic one: with human activity at a fraction of its normal level, wildlife appears to be moving more freely through areas they had for so long deemed too risky or unsafe.

In examples like my own, we hear of observations like bald eagles feeding on carrion much closer to a normally busy roadway without the passing cars to send the raptor on its way. Coyotes have been spotted trotting across the Golden Gate Bridge, while a mountain lion was observed napping in a tree above Pearl Street Mall, the busiest walking area in downtown Boulder, Colorado. Yosemite National Park is reporting more bear observations than ever, and sea turtles are suddenly being disturbed far less as they dig their nests in the sand of beaches in Florida and Brazil.

Coyotes were spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in April.
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Across the globe, similar sightings capture our attention in ways that reflect our outdoor-deprived mindsets finding joy in these viral wild encounters. Kashmiri goats strolling through a downtown in Wales. Dolphins swimming close to shore in the industrial Istanbul megapolis of the Bosphorus Strait, and a pair of fin whales spotted just off the busy port of Marseilles. Wild boar running through cities like Haifa and Barcelona. Reports of flamingos, pelicans, jackals, and dugongs being found in unprecedented numbers in different preserves around the globe.

Many of these cases could simply be one-off coincidences of timing, while other wildlife will likely revert to their more customary ranges once human activity starts getting closer to normal. Yet as long as the human footprint remains much fainter than it had been, we are seeing a less dramatic example of what more scientific studies have supported in great detail: generally speaking, more human presence equals less wildlife.

Nowhere is this seen more remarkably than some of the worst places on earth – former disaster sites. The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown now serves as a nature preserve featuring wolves, European bison, lynx, and Przewalski horses in far greater abundance than the surrounding countryside.

The area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident now boasts higher numbers of raccoon dogs, Japanese serow, palm civet, and macaques. The demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea may be a true no-man’s-land home to unexploded ordnance, but it also offers a lengthy wildlife corridor for Asiatic black bears, white-tailed eagle, red-crowned cranes, and long-tailed goral.

Even in New Jersey, some of our own off-limits places like military bases and Superfund sites tend to hold more wildlife than the surrounding and often highly developed areas.

That isn’t to diminish in any way the potentially serious impacts on wildlife from radiation and other contaminants, but rather to point out that removing or reducing our presence has been shown to give wildlife freer rein.

We see this in New Jersey on our roadways, most poignantly in what is not on those roads nearly as much as it typically is: roadkill. The shutdown overlapped with much of the amphibian migration season this spring, reducing the deaths of countless frogs and salamanders crossing the roads from their wintering hibernation areas to their spring and summer breeding ponds. While we are still measuring impacts here in New Jersey, similar counts in Maine have shown that the rate of successful road crossings by amphibians has doubled in comparison with those killed by cars.

Greg LeClair, who coordinates the Maine Amphibian Migration Monitoring project, helping to move a spotted salamander across a roadway. –Greta Rybus / The New York Times

Evenings have brought the greatest reduction in our driving. Driving on occasional early evenings in April delivered the eerie realization of being the only car on a four- or six-lane dual highway, seeing not a single headlight or taillight for miles through the windshield and rear view. I am fascinated to know if this had any noticeable impact on nocturnal wildlife – with owls, nightjars and nocturnal mammals potentially avoiding fatal road impacts, suddenly able to travel more freely by the light of the moon.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of New Jersey’s Wildlife in the Time of COVID-19, which will explore our increased ability to watch wildlife from home during quarantine. Part 3 will examine the threat of COVID-19 to wildlife globally, and lessons learned about the connection between habitat loss and human health. You can also listen to our COVID-19 podcast here.

David Wheeler is the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

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