Ecologist Amy Witt of Forest Park Forever was leading a nature walk through the John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest, a wooded habitat on the park’s southwestern edge. There are trees here that are older than the 1,300-acre park, which the city of St. Louis opened in 1876.
“They’re awesome. Right? We have some really old trees. We have some really young trees. That’s the natural regeneration of a forest and of a habitat,’’ Witt said. “We are called Forest Park for a reason.’’
On this toasty July morning, the walking trail was shaded by massive oaks that block out the sun — and also the view of high-rises just across Skinker Boulevard. Calling birds and humming cicadas muffled the noise from the roadways. This paved walking trail can seem farther removed from the bustle of city life than it really is.
We were here to answer a question submitted to St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis feature by Barb Doshi of Fenton. (And, honestly, it was a good excuse to go to the park.)
Doshi asked: “How do the Forest Park grounds crew keep the deer from eating those beautiful flowers in the park?”
Doshi said she’s been trying to keep deer out of her home garden, and she just assumed that since deer are so prevalent in the region’s parks, they were probably at Forest Park, too.
But according to Witt, the Forest Park gardeners don’t have to worry about deer munching on the landscaping because deer rarely visit.
“We don’t have a population of deer, but we do have individuals that occasionally come in here,’’ Witt said. “So, every year we see deer a couple of times within the park. A lot of times they’re bucks that are dispersing into new territories. But last year, we had two mothers and their fawns that were moving around throughout the park.”
Witt says there’s an upside to having few deer visitors.
"It does help our habitat restoration efforts because they’re not eating the supple young shoots or younger saplings that we’re planting,’’ she said.
The park’s location in the center of a busy urban area makes it less accessible for deer than many of the region’s parks. Witt says the few who do show up, probably come by way of MetroLink.
“Actually, the MetroLink is one of the corridors that they may travel to get within the park,'' she said. "So it’s funny — they’re not on the train, but oftentimes wildlife may use the corridors that are created by train tracks.”
Other wildlife visitors have been observed crossing Skinker.
“We’ll hear from somebody who lives in the community that ‘I saw a turkey crossing Skinker,’ ’’ Witt said. “Wildlife that is trying to get to a new location sometimes have to take a risk.’’
If you have a question about the wildlife at Forest Park, Witt has probably heard it. That critter you spotted in a park waterway was either a mink or a muskrat. The park's rat snakes and midland brownsnakes are nonvenomous and aren't looking for a fight. Coyotes occasionally wander into the park, but if you want to see a large predator, you’ll have to go to the Zoo.
“I think a lot of people are surprised that we have fox that reproduce in the forest,’’ she said. “For the last three years we’ve had a vixen, which is a female fox, and kits, which are the babies.
The 60-acre Kennedy Forest was established in 1964 and was the first area of Forest Park to be set aside for environmental conservation. It’s a prime spot for area bird-watchers, especially during spring and late summer when warblers and other migratory birds stop by as they make their way along the Mississippi River. Cooper’s hawks and red-tailed hawks hang out at the park year-round, feasting on small mammals — creatures like mice and voles. Witt said the hawks do their part in keeping the park’s ecosystem in balance.
Bird-watchers have recorded sightings of 216 different species of birds within Forest Park, ranging from migratory birds to those commonly found in St. Louis backyards.
There are 170 acres of natural habitats scattered around Forest Park. With the help of volunteers, park employees have been eliminating invasive plants like honeysuckle, while encouraging the growth of native plants — which are food sources for native wildlife, Witt said.
An example is the eight-acre savanna that’s tucked away in the Kennedy Forest — where colorful Missouri wildflowers host hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.
“Part of our restoration process is thinking about what type of wildlife can we support and do we want to support,’’ Witt said. “We sometimes choose different species to support goals, such as trying to get more milkweed so that we have a larger area for Monarchs or trying to plant sassafras because that is specific to a butterfly species.’’
Thirteen million people visit Forest Park every year, but most of them have what Witt calls a “focused intent.” They head straight to the Zoo or museums, or to catch a show at The Muny. But the park’s natural habitats can offer a quiet respite from the pace of urban life, she said.
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