It’s hardly surprising that I might begin a brief blog article with a trash can. Lord knows I’ve featured items even more banal as the central subject.
But trash cans in the era of COVID take on an added weight, even when they tend to remain unusually empty. (And COVID is a subject that at this point I’d love to jettison completely, but what can I say: it keeps surging back.)
Back in the spring, as many states’ lockdowns extended well past the original CDC recommendations of fifteen days to flatten the curve, city dwellers noticed an unanticipated side effect from all those empty trash cans: unusually activistic wildlife.
Not only did squirrels appear atypically aggressive in their foraging, they seemed more prevalent. It would be illogical to presume there were simply more squirrels during COVID; nothing would have prompted a sort of baby boom in the squirrel population outside of the elimination of a predator (which, to my knowledge, did not happen). But the squirrels were spending more time foraging and less time resting, all because of the dramatic reduction in food waste from both restaurants and fewer passers-by discarding their scraps in city supported trash cans. Synurbanized rodents like the semi-tame eastern gray squirrels of any major American city have become so dependent on food waste that they have had to scour greater territory to find sustenance, competing with other synanthropic creatures at the same time. This dependency on human detritus explains why city squirrels (like the ones seen here in Washington DC) are often comfortable getting within just a few feet of humans, and sometimes even willfully eating from their hands. This level of comfort around humans is unheard of even among squirrels in medium-density suburban ecosystems.
It’s not just rodents demonstrating newfound boldness: the unusually calm streets of formally bustling city centers have greeted sheep, deer, civets, boars, huge colonies of monkeys (heavily dependent on human food droppings), as well as formerly busy seaports teeming with dolphins.
But rodents, the most common order of mammals and the most ubiquitous in urbanized settings, are the ones who have developed the most conspicuously synanthropic characteristics. Like most rodents, squirrels are predominantly herbivorous but opportunistically omnivorous when necessary, and apparently spring is the season of greatest hardship, because the nuts they crave and store through the winter begin to sprout, rendering them inedible. This most likely explains the prevalence of fiercely foraging squirrels in April, when I took these photos—also the peak time of lockdowns. When desperate, squirrels may resist both their diurnal and herbivorous instincts and continue foraging at night, or even preying on smaller rodents like shrews. And while my own camera failed to capture such instances, I did notice—and others reported—an unusual prevalence of one of North America’s most sinister and intelligent of rodents: the brown rat. In the era of COVID, not only have I and others witnessed brown rats scurrying about in broad daylight (unheard of during normal conditions), but media covered the concern of resurgent rats showing unprecedented aggression during the springtime period of food scarcity—up to and including cannibalism. Cities like DC and Baltimore, notorious for their rat populations during the best of times, have witnessed a new nocturnal and crepuscular terror from the unloved plague-carrying creature that claims the cans and bins after charismatic, fluffy-tailed squirrels are finished at sunset.
Despite the fact that my photos and all references come from the springtime, I continue to write about this condition of opportunistic and aggressive rodents because it’s hard not to wonder what winter portends. With additional lockdowns in place across much of the country and cold weather imminent, what can urban America expect from squirrels and rats if the restaurants once again must cease all but carry-out and delivery service? What about other rodents? My own experience in the past, in a grimy apartment in a major Northeastern city, suggests to me that mice in particular grow more desperate to cohabit with humans during cold weather, even if synanthropic conditions that help them grow accustomed to human food aren’t necessarily worse in the dead of winter; people still eat out and carelessly throw half-eaten waste in trash cans (or on the ground) no matter how cold. But what will the combination of cold weather and a draconian lockdown yield? This remains to be seen, but if it translates to cannibalistic brown rats, ferocious eastern gray squirrels, or mus musculus invading homes that previously never experienced such infestations, it is not only likely to raise increasing doubt toward the benefits of lockdowns, but it could elicit a whole new array of public health concerns related to rodents. I don’t want to become a doomsayer, but it’s amazing what one can glean simply from looking down in an uncharacteristically empty trash can.