When most St. Louisans want to see wildlife in Forest Park, they head for the St. Louis Zoo.
But Forest Park Forever ecologist Peter VanLinn says there are plenty of animals in the rest of the park, too.
Not long after dawn on a brisk fall morning, he met up with St. Louis Public Radio's Véronique LaCapra in Forest Park’s Kennedy Forest, to look for some.
LACAPRA: What kind of wildlife might we see in the Kennedy Forest?
VANLINN: The most common thing that we’ll see out here is definitely a variety of bird species. I think we have over 210 species of bird that have been documented in the park over the years. And so probably quite a few more than that use it and just haven’t been documented yet.
In this part of the woods especially we have a pair of mating great horned owls.
LACAPRA: Tell me about those: what do they look like, tell me a little bit about their behavior.
VANLINN: The great horned owl is a pretty large, predatory bird. One of the reasons we’re really impressed to have it here in the park is because it’s a sign of the good ecosystems that we have here for that type of species. It’s a high-level predator, and so it’s sort of at the top of the food chain here in the park.
LACAPRA: What kind of things is it eating?
VANLINN: It’ll eat just about anything that it can pick up. A lot of mouse species, or squirrels, possibly even small raccoons or foxes, if it can get its claws on it.
And then, some of the other things, so, speaking of the prey for owls, one species that we’ve noticed recently in Kennedy woods and successional forest is a mink species.
LACAPRA: And how easy is it to see something like a mink?
VANLINN: It’s easy at times. I mean, it’s all about luck, kind of, out here. We had a group that [was] enjoying some of the watering that we were doing this summer. We were watering a stretch of plants right near the waterway up by Grand Drive near the visitor’s center up there.
And we had four or five newly born minks that were out there playing in the water, when we were watering the plants. So that was unique.
LACAPRA: What other animals might people be surprised to learn are in Forest Park?
VANLINN: A lot of people don’t realize that we do get some pretty large mammals in here. We have seen evidence of deer in the park. We’ve seen coyote, quite frequently in the park at different times of year. We even get turkeys in the park, wild turkey. And so, a lot of species that maybe aren’t established here in the park, they don’t live here permanently, but they do kind of find their way here and forage through the park, and then eventually make their way back out.
LACAPRA: You mentioned coyotes, I saw one of those, I think, a few weeks ago. And thought it was a dog, actually, I pulled over to see if it was a stray dog, and then I realized, no, that’s no dog!
VANLINN: Yeah, that’s the case. Especially I think the last two or three weeks we’ve had quite a few sightings.
It’s kind of funny thinking that they find their way into the park considering it’s surrounded by the bulk of St. Louis.
One thing that we think probably happens is the Metro Link runs through a corner of Forest Park, and the Metro Link corridor sort of acts as a wildlife corridor of sorts. You know, it’s kind of shaded-off, or blocked off with trees, and so maybe the deer and the coyote can kind of kind of walk down that corridor and find their way into the park.
LACAPRA: Are there any benefits to having a place like this, right in the heart of a city, and having all this wildlife right in the middle of a very urban area?
VANLINN: Yeah, I mean the immediate benefits are the educational opportunities. We do a lot of outreach to the local schools and the local communities to get kids to come in and learn about what a natural ecosystem is and how it works, without having to travel miles outside of the city to see some of that.
The other positive of it is, being that we’re this close to the Mississippi and the Missouri River, there’s a huge migratory bird flyway that comes through this portion of the country. And to be able to provide another stop on that flyway for a lot of those bird species is [a] pretty substantial thing, I think, especially in such an urban area.
LACAPRA: All right, let’s go look for some wildlife!
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience