by Robyn Gillam

Over the past couple of months, I have seen more animal activity in Pier 4 Park than usual. Apart from the poignant contrast to humans confined to their homes, it seemed that the ducks, geese, swans and various land birds were more relaxed, mostly ignoring the few people that ventured out.
After time spent frolicking in early March, the water birds vanished for a while, before reappearing with their young ones. First came the Canada Geese, with their greenish yellow goslings, to feast on the fresh new grass, the baby birds almost growing while you watched. Later, the Mute Swans shepherded their families across the water, the cygnets peeping in fear and excitement. Male Redwing Blackbirds in their red security vests patrolled their homes in the tall reeds plants, and while Robins and swallows rushed around looking for building materials, the little swallows were already sitting on their nests in the Pier Pavilion roof. Catching insects over the water, they kept up endless conversations with each other. Even less visible animals had been busy, like the beavers felling small trees in the park. All this led me to reflect on how the world goes on without people so much in evidence.
Although the environment around the bay is nothing like it was before the city existed, the current situation shows how quickly other animals can take advantage of temporary human absence. However, with warmer weather and the easing of restrictions, the birds are far less in evidence. Motor boats create new wave patterns as they speed through the cormorants’ feeding ground and there are human rather than goose families on the grass. The other day, I noticed a van from Wildlife Protection with flashing lights, from which came loud bird-like noises. The driver explained that it was a digitized recording that combined distress calls from gulls and birds of prey. The intention was to dissuade Canada Geese from using the lawns and relieving themselves. I remembered that the geese had complained about this kind of human activity to me last year and wondered if it would have any lasting effect. Of course, humans made the park, but the animals were there before that and the issue is how to share it, which raises some larger questions.
The temporary absence of humans from the outdoor environment, due to quarantine shows dramatically their effects on it. It is much quieter and cleaner, with air pollution levels dropping by as much as 30% in some places and noise levels greatly diminished. Places apparently devoid of all life are suddenly populated. Of course this comes at a huge human cost– fear, impoverishment and dislocation, but the pandemic was able to spread due to expanded human activity and penetration of the surrounding environments. Among many calls to rebuild the economy and heal society, we should listen on those that ask us to consider building a more sustainable, environmentally friendly economy and infrastructure. Bike sharing and lanes, retrofitted buildings and community gardens should be expanded. More support for enhanced public transportation, cleaner air travel, sustainable energy and conservation and repair of our environment are too important to ignore, and as the efforts of the community and government in the last two months have shown, anything is possible.