If you want to see bats, bears, and bighorn sheep, you don’t have to travel too far from the city to find them. Yes, bighorn sheep can see downtown Los Angeles from their clifftop hangouts in the San Gabriel Mountains, one of LA’s wilder spots but still close by.
Believe me, when you read Wild LA, you’ll want to tuck it into your backpack and explore the 25 field trips listed there to observe urban wildlife you never knew was so close to home.
For some years now, the Natural History Museum (NHM) has added a new focus to its interpretation of the planet’s past: the present…in particular, urban nature and the LA community’s relationship with it.
Under NHM’s auspices, four authors set ground rules that make Wild LA an easy, enjoyable read.
“Our ‘area’ includes most of LA County, some of Orange County, and slivers of Riverside County and Ventura County,” the writers explain. “Our focus is on most of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and all of the main Los Angeles Basin from Malibu to northern Orange County,
“This is not a beach or tide pool book (although we do explain how to see wild sea turtles in Long Beach). Instead, we’re interested in nature on land—in our creeks, rivers, ponds, and air—all the plants, bugs, and other animals you can discover from high in the mountains all the way down to the sand.”
PUT YOUR “NATURE EYES” ON
Wild LA has three parts: It starts with ten easy-to-read chapters on the ecology and natural history of LA, the roles of fire and water, and an exploration of wildlife after dark. Second is a field guide of more than 100 species that are important to the nature story…the plants and animals you’re most likely to see on your nature tours. Third is 25 field trips that are easily accessible.
There are also stories of NHM’s “community scientists,” a collaboration between scientists and the general public. They discovered bats at a football game feeding on moths drawn to the stadium lights. They see “coyotes cruise the tree-lined streets of Los Feliz and Silver Lake; Mule deer ramble about NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada-Flintridge, just steps away from where the Mars Curiosity Rover was built; Red-tailed hawks perch on light poles along the 101 Freeway; And then there’s the most famous furry Angeleno, the mountain lion dubbed P-22, who crossed two of the nation’s busiest freeways and survived to settle in Griffith Park.”
There is also the story of Leo Politi Elementary School, located in one of the densest parts of the city, whose principal decided to grow a garden on campus.
“Not long after the garden grew in, wildlife turned up—the students counted dozens of species of birds in the garden, and hundreds of insects—but that was expected. The surprise was that student disciplinary issues dropped to almost zero and science test scores skyrocketed.”
LOS ANGELES IS FULL OF NATURE
Many people don’t know that LA is one of 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Called the California Floristic Province, it stretches from southern Oregon to Baja, California.
To qualify as a hotspot, an area must have at least 1500 endemic (found in one place and nowhere else in the world) plant species (it’s easier to count plants than animals) that are also indicators of endemic mammals, fish, birds, fungi, insects, and other groups. The second qualification is at least 70 percent of the area’s original habitat must have been lost (the hotspot part of the definition).
“Much of LA has been trampled by cows in the early 1800s, plowed under for the agricultural booms of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then hidden under pavement, houses, and skyscrapers through the 1900s. The area’s unique biodiversity—whether plants, animals, or fungi—is at risk of disappearing forever.”
The authors say, ““LA is an area of astounding biological diversity where our main message is that nature is everywhere.”
For more information: nhm.org.
The book is dedicated to “…all the people curious about nature, whether they find it in a national forest or their own neighborhood, especially to those whose passion has inspired them to become community scientists, helping study urban nature in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.”
About the Authors:
Lila Higgins grew up on a farm in the United Kingdom, where she had lots of time for unstructured play in the wild. It led to her study of entomology and environmental education. Currently, she oversees NHM’s community science program and loves getting people involved in studying the plants, animals, and fungi that live in Los Angeles.
Dr. Gregory B. Pauly is curator of herpetology and co-director of the Urban Nature Research Center at NHM. He is an advocate for community science and believes partnerships between professional scientists and community members can revolutionize scientific research.
Dr. Jason G. Goldman is an award-winning science journalist, expedition leader, and public speaker. As a founding member of the Nerd Brigade, he works to democratize access to and promote literacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Charles Hood grew up in Atwater beside the Los Angeles River. He is the author of A Californian’s Guide to the Birds Among Us. Three of his books won national poetry awards.
“Wild LA” was published by Timber Press, Inc. in 2019. Cover design by Adrianna Sutton and Martha Rich.
Reviewed by Flavia Potenza