Herons may not like the most obvious household pet of choice… but in Amsterdam they’re part of everyday life.
One long-legged coastal bird has even struck up the most unlikely of friendships with a woman he has visited at her home twice a day for 17 years.
Filmed in cities across the world, a new documentary series, Cities: Nature’s New Wild, shines a light on the remarkable relationship between humans and animals living side-by-side in the newest and fastest changing habitat on the planet.
One of the lighter moments from the new series includes the amazing story of the sociable heron.
Producer Mark Wheeler says: “We see herons in Amsterdam. Here they’re shy, you might catch a glimpse of one if you see it flying away, but in Amsterdam they’re tolerated as part of the city.
“There’s this one particular heron who’s been visiting this lady’s house every single day for 17 years, twice a day. She comes out in the morning and she calls for him, he comes down, sits in the garden, and she puts food out and he comes into her living room to eat the food. It’s bonkers."
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A waddle of African penguins take their lives in their hands during rush hour, Cape Town
The series explores three different ways animals co-exist with humans in cities.
We see humpback whales breaching in New York’s Hudson Bay, African penguins nesting in Cape Town and alligators wandering around golf courses in Florida.
The first looks at animals who have become permanent residents, the second how some species commute in and out of our cities to get the resources they need, and the third on how we have competed for space with the natural world and the role we now play to house wildlife in our cities.
Filming any wildlife documentary comes with its challenges, but working in a city environment brought new difficulties for the team.
An alligator in Miami skyline
Mark explains: “We had to approach it from a classic wildlife film-making point of view. We were looking for animals and their behaviours and it brought a whole raft of challenges that we don’t normally encounter as wildlife filmmakers.
“We were having to navigate parking charges and one way streets, and all this kind of stuff you simply don’t get when you’re filming in the middle of nowhere in the jungle or on the Serengeti.
“The logistical challenges became more similar to a day’s shopping than they did a wildlife documentary.”
Alligator walking down a residential street in Miami
Filming in cities gave the crew incredible proximity to the animals, particularly with predators you wouldn’t want to come to close to in the wild.
In one scene we meet alligators up to five metres long wandering around a golf course in Florida.
“Alligators during the breeding season up-sticks and it doesn’t really matter where they are, they’ll wander off across golf courses and roads to find a territory and a mate of their own,” Mark says. “You get the young bruiser males who haven’t got their own big territory but they’re looking for love. And they’re wandering around getting into all sorts of mischief.”
Humpback whale breaches against the New York skyline
In places like Miami and Florida it can cause problems. The alligators have been known to attack people’s dogs and will go into gardens.
But on the golf course in Florida, the alligators don’t pose a huge danger to humans.
Mark says: “They’re given their own space and there are signs up saying respect the alligators. You’ve got alligators in the ponds but golfers in the fairways and it sort of works out nicely…apart from in Spring when all of the young males swagger around the place and get in the way of the golfers.
“They’re less aggressive and predatory towards humans than, say, Nile crocodiles.”
City penguins face daily dangers in Cape Town
Other animals include African penguins, whose populations are dwindling in Cape Town.
The penguins have started to commute into town where they are often found nesting in people’s gardens, helping the population to increase.
The crew captured nail-biting footage of the animals narrowly being missed by cars as they waddle along main roads and crossings.
“The penguins seem relatively good at using pavements and things like that,” Mark says. “The story with them in Cape Town is their population has been struggling, they’ve found it very very hard for various human-made reasons in the last half a century or so but have recently found they can go into town.
A wild elephant negotiates a busy highway in Sri Lanka
“It’s a sanctuary and there’s space for them to go and nest, so they kind of find an easier environment. They’re doing quite well in that area.”
In one scene, scientists from a penguin rehabilitation centre have to intervene when one of them starts to nest in a drain.
The crew are not able to intervene, something that is always a struggle.
Mark says: “It’s very tricky, as wildlife film makers you really have to resist that urge to intervene. It’s different for scientists to do it, they’re there for different reasons to us and we are very much observers. It is hard, there are those moments where all you want to do is help out but you have to take a back seat.”
Over in New York, incredible footage captures humpback whales feeding on fish with the Empire State Building in the back drop.
Manatee in crystal clear waters surrounded by snorkellers in Florida
After the city passed legislation to clean up the water over 50 years ago, more and more fish come towards New York which attracts the whales.
“There’s now a really healthy population of whales. They stick around nearly all near round and certainly throughout the summer feeding on these enormous schools of feed fish. We saw pods of dolphins of over a hundred strong within sight of the city, so it’s incredible. The whales are just off Coney Island. It’s a very recent phenomenon, they haven’t been there for decades and decades.”
Some of Mark’s memorable moments included filming elephants in Sri Lanka who often come into close contact with villagers.
A bear looks over a backyard fence in Lake Tahoe, USA
He says: “It’s the elephant’s environment that’s been taken up by farm land and they’re squeezed into these tiny pockets of habitat. They’re coming onto people’s farms and there’s these nightly battles where villagers go out on mass and try and scare the elephants off. It’s pretty tense. Lots of people get killed each year, lots of elephants get killed each year.
“It’s a proper battle. So we start the film with quite a big message like that.
“That was the challenge for a lot of the series. There are lovely positive stories but at the same time, it’s an uneasy thing for us to witness.”
• Part One of Cities: Nature’s New Wild begins tonight on BBC Two at 9pm.
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