Sports stadium closures and restrictions haven’t only kept humans away. A lack of an audience means a lack of concessions, and the trickle-down effect has impacted urban ecosystems across the country in ways that are yet to fully be explored.
More than a year after COVID-19 restrictions began in the United States, ecologists are only just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how wildlife was affected by societal changes.
One of those changes, even as more arenas begin to open up, is how animals have adjusted to losing one of their feeding options: Food waste coming from concessions at sports stadiums.
“A lot of people are flocking to parks and beaches and those are areas that have been overrun by visitors,” said Mikko Jimenez, an outreach biologist at the National Audubon Society. “So the Barclays Center, where the Brooklyn Nets play, that was closed last year when the NBA bubble was a thing, and that means no games and fans and no excess trash for wildlife to eat.”
A team of international researchers has called this decrease in human activity an “anthropause."
The relative lack of sports activity has trickled down to urban wildlife in a variety of ways. Animals adapt to their environments, and losing one food source means they’ll find it elsewhere. Even while arenas lack concessions, they’ll find something.
Some of those areas, though, are parks and other outdoor spaces where more people have spent time during the pandemic while indoor entertainment and large crowds have been shut down.
Vaccination campaigns and states and cities lifting COVID-19 restrictions have meant ballparks and stadiums have been inching towards normalcy. Some have had restrictions dropped entirely for some time; others have slowly added fans and concessions. Major League Baseball teams are looking, generally, to reach full capacity by June, which will be a welcome return for wildlife foraging for food.
“They’re opportunistic,” said Jimenez. “They look wherever there is trash, so that could be in some alleyways, backs of restaurants. Wherever there is trash building up. Wherever trash goes, they’ll follow.”
Restrictions across restaurants and other dining options have made it a bit more difficult in the last year as well, but reopening measures have given birds and other urban wildlife another option once more.
On the second day of the baseball season, a cat ran onto Coors Field in Colorado. That’s just one indicator of urban wildlife—as much as a stray cat can be categorized as that—finding its way back to the giant food-waste opportunities laid open by human congregation.
“It’s also not like all wildlife reacts the same way to these things,” said Jimenez. “Different species are going to react differently based on how their biology is and how comfortable they are in an urban environment.”
Sports and wildlife have been intertwined long before COVID-19. The Milwaukee Bucks had to make their arena bird-friendly by limiting the amount of light pollution and putting markers on glass windows so birds couldn’t fly into them. The Minnesota Vikings fell into the same category after opening their stadium, which Jonathan Franzen wrote about for The New Yorker at the time.
“Stadiums don’t only offer a benefit for wildlife, especially migratory birds,” Jimenez said, referencing how stadiums have had to work to become more bird-friendly. “They can also provide these negative things.”
Jimenez cited birds spending more time at open parks where more humans go as a concern, since when birds are migrating they need to stop and refuel, and crowded areas—the kind parks have become as people have tried to stay outside and distanced—aren’t ideal.
Adaptability is the key word. Just as humans have had to adapt to a less accessible world during the pandemic, animals have also had to find a way to get by. The return of humans—and food waste—to sporting events is a welcome sight for any urban wildlife that has been doing so.