Nourishing Nature: Who are parks for?

It was a sweet morning scene: parent-child pairs of crows foraging on the freshly dewed ballfield. The youngsters, even two whole months after fledging, were following their parents, pleading with their baby voices to please be fed.

Young crow begging from parent, who has captured a bee

Suddenly the crow voices changed to loud squawks, and I turned to see a young Cooper’s Hawk fluttering among the crows. The Coop flew back to a nearby tree, and the young and grownup crows went back to feeding. A few minutes later, squawk! as the Coop dove again towards a young crow, talons extended. The target flapped out of reach and again the Coop retreated.

It was a young hawk, unbanded, perhaps one from the nest I was following this spring and summer.

Young Cooper's Hawk in fir, watching prey

To my eye, crows look just as big as Cooper’s Hawks, and they’re remarkably intelligent and feisty to boot, so I was pretty surprised to see this hawk continue to try to pounce on them. But the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that Coops actually prefer medium over small birds; maybe the potential nourishment available from small birds isn’t worth the trouble?

A squirrel was foraging nearby, but since I’d heard that Coops feed almost entirely on birds, so at least here was one critter I didn’t have to worry about.

Until now.

A flurry of brown wings at ground level, and I held my breath.

Cooper's Hawk attacks squirrel

In a couple of moments I could see the squirrel nonchalantly poking at the ground a couple of feet away from the hawk, apparently not only unscathed but barely bothered by the Coop’s attack. After trying once more, the hawk gave up and returned to crow hunting. The parent crows finally got tired of her harassment and began to pursue her, and finally she left without catching any breakfast.

Young Cooper's Hawk sneaks up on unsuspecting parent-child crow pair

Young Cooper's Hawk and crow face off

Young Cooper's Hawk and crow fighting

(You can see more photos of the Coop and crows on my Flickr site.)

Was this young bird particularly hungry, going after the difficult prey of crows and squirrel in desperation? Is there enough nourishment in this urban place to sustain fledglings?

Lincoln Park comprises 135 acres of mixed forest and meadows, along with a mile of shoreline. It’s apparently enough habitat to provide steady support to the nesting Cooper’s Hawk pair, along with a pair each of nesting Barred Owls and Bald Eagles, and millions of other creatures that fly and flitter and forage here.

But this urban green space also provides nourishment to the thousands of humans in its vicinity. Human nestlings and fledglings, as well as the adults of the species, need convenient green areas—parks, playgrounds, greenbelts—for play and peace. We’re nourished by natural spaces in ways that are critical not only to our physical health, but our psychological health as well. If we’re going to sustain ourselves psychologically, particularly in urban settings, we need nearby nature.

My city’s Parks and Recreation department has created a “gap map” of open spaces throughout the city, in which neighborhoods are characterized by how close they are to a public open space, and which areas are in need of increased access to green spaces:

Seattle Open Spaces Gap Map-2009 (click on the map for a larger image on the city's official website)

Proximity of urban natural areas is an environmental justice issue. One of my students conducted an important research project assessing the distribution of playgrounds among neighborhoods of different income levels in my city, and found that the average density of parks in the highest-income areas was more than triple the average number in the lowest-income areas.

People struggling financially may need local natural places even more than those who are more comfortable. Yes, my city is between three of our country’s most glorious national parks—

Seattle's regional setting

—but getting to those requires a significant effort in time and transportation, commodities not plentiful to everyone, humans or other. We need everyday parks for everyday nourishment.

If you live in Seattle, how close is the nearest green space beyond your yard? Does it provide enough nature to nourish your human and nonhuman neighbors? If you live elsewhere, how good a job does your city do at providing these places that are critical for both humans and the more-than-human world?

Young Cooper's Hawk flies off in search of better hunting grounds

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8 responses to “Nourishing Nature: Who are parks for?

  1. Wow, interesting observations about the coop! Who would have thunk it? Great piece; sad facts at the end, but I’m betting that’s the case in my hometown, too.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. At least Seattle is working to remedy this.

  3. Nice piece of writing with great descriptive details and facts that kind of sock the reader in the stomach. I have become quite interested in urban green spaces and the impact that they have on people (as well as the environmental justice issues of where there are not parks). I have been fortunate to live in great rural areas – along Lake Superior, and now along the Appalachian Mtns. But a few years ago, I heard a talk by Bernadette Cozart who was responsible for starting the “Regreening of Harlem”. I was riveted by her raw honesty about children who never had seen beauty in their lives, who didn’t know what a flower or bee was…She had recently moved to our area and was going to do the same to the depressed city of Allentown but died suddenly of heart problems. Way too young and way before her wonderful story had been told.
    Have you read the work on “just sustainability” by Julian Agyeman?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Diane. I have Agyeman’s book and have used some of its chapters in my courses. I’ll have to find out more about Cozart, since she’s a new name for me.

      The “extinction of experience,” as Robert Michael Pyle calls the loss of direct childhood time in nature, is such a looming issue. One study by a pair of junior-high English teachers indicated that teens’ lack of experience with the natural world and natural rhythms meant that they could not really understand many of Shakespeare’s most meaningful metaphors. The loss of nature has many more implications for our psychological life than we might have expected.

      • You will have a difficult time finding out very much about Bernadette…Someone needs to write her story. I have the address of her partner who lives in our area, Thinking about seeing if she would do an interview.

  4. Fine, insightful post. With splendid storied photos. Love your stuff. And your trenchant observations.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree that parks are an essential ingredient for a healthy community. We are blessed in West Seattle to have beautiful parks that give us the opportunity to connect with the natural world, both terrestrial and aquatic. Thanks for your sharp photography and story telling. The more I know, the more I appreciate where I live.

    • I agree about how blessed we are, Marie! Not only for our parks, but for our shorelines and our many wonderful views that expand our lives. I’d love to hear more about your own experiences.

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