The raptor unfurls her wings and glides across Fifth Avenue. As life in the city rumbles on below, her feathers glow walnut-brown in the sun. Scanning the scene with the clarity of an apex predator, she spies a pigeon on the edge of Central Park. So she dives, past criss-cross fire escapes, past yellow cabs and hawking hot dog stalls; in a feathered blur, her claws strike, securing a meal. She is a red-tailed hawk and Manhattan is hers. Hasta la vista, pigeon.
A small but canny number of birds of prey have exchanged their elevated perch sites in the countryside for the cliff-like façades of Upper East Side apartment blocks, building nests on air-con units and window ledges. New York City is no stranger to urban wildlife, of course — the local skunks enjoy a spot of dumpster-diving, deer live in the Bronx and humpback whales have been sighted in the Hudson River — but it makes the encounters no less vivid. This is by no means exclusive to the Big Apple.
Every city on the planet now has its own roll call of wild residents. Forget Venice’s apocryphal lockdown dolphins. Animals are a permanent part of our urban fabric: pine martens and peregrine falcons, house geckos and hedgehogs, possums and parakeets. It would be quite a stretch for a city break to rival the drama of the Serengeti — although leopards do stalk the outskirts of Mumbai — but for wildlife-lovers with their wits about them, the metropolis can often hold far more activity than first meets the eye.
New York City from above
But why do our exotic neighbours seem suddenly so widespread? Many species have simply been encircled, or forced to improvise, as our cities have expanded. Others have been drawn by the easy food sources (discarded fried chicken requires minimal hunting prowess), the prospect of shelter and warmth, and in some cases the relative safety from predators. You can try explaining the difference between city and countryside to a mob of Jaipur monkeys, but they won’t listen. And in the logic of a London fox or a Calgary bear, our lands and waterways are their lands and waterways. They’ve got a point.
These city slickers have often had to show impressive skills of adaptation to survive. Small mammals have found homes in rooftop spaces that mimic the trunks and rock crevices of the woods. Birds have begun to sing more loudly to be heard above the traffic hum. Owls have narrowed their hunting ranges, coyotes have figured out that crossing a road is easiest on a red light and some raccoons have even perfected the art of operating doorknobs. On which note, if you’re staying in Chicago, keep an eye out for the small masked bandits.
Spot raccoons in the city
Two years ago I wrote a children’s non-fiction book, Wild Cities, about our planet’s urban animals. Some of the creatures it covers are less than warmly welcomed — Capetonians are not, as a rule, fans of baboons— but there are also many that provide a genuine, safari-style thrill. Thor, the firework-cancelling walrus who made a recent stopover in Scarborough, appeared far too late for inclusion, but he definitely fits the bill: a mighty special presence in a mighty unlikely place. So pack those binoculars. You never know when you might be glad of them.
Penguins on Boulders beach
1. Penguins in Cape Town
A city might not be the obvious place to find a colony of endangered African penguins, but these white-bellied waddlers have been a common sight on Boulders and Foxy beaches since the 1980s and show no sign of moving on. Local conservation efforts have swelled the birds’ numbers into the thousands. As with all urban wildlife, of course, keeping your distance is always prudent.
Details Eight nights’ B&B at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa from £2,798pp, including flights (virginholidays.co.uk)
A seal swims near Vancouver Island
2. Harbour seals in Vancouver
Wander the city’s Stanley Park Seawall and there’s a good chance of seeing a pair of brown eyes and a whiskered snout emerge from the water — often at close quarters. Harbour seals frequent the area, which in turn has led to sightings of transient killer whales. The orcas have even been spotted in the downtown dock of Coal Harbour, most likely in search of their own seal meal-deal.
Details Five nights’ room only at Opus Vancouver from £1,225pp, including flights (britishairways.com)
Nairobi National Park, Kenya
3. Big beasts in Nairobi
You won’t find giraffes wandering the streets of the Kenyan capital, but they’re surprisingly close by. More than 100 wild mammal species still roam the 12,000-hectare grasslands of Nairobi National Park, where the corporate towers of the business district cluster in the middle distance. Zebras, black rhinos and even lions are among the creatures that still neighbour the city. Of course they are: they were here first.
Details Five nights’ B&B on the Kenya Family Safari from £5,197 for a family of four, including transfers, game drives and park fees (trailfinders.com). Fly to Nairobi
A goshawk in flight
4. Goshawks in Berlin
The German capital is home to everything from raccoons, the descendants of escapees from a 1940s fur farm; to wild boar; as well as the world’s largest population of urban goshawks. These powerful birds of prey — slate grey above with stripy underparts — seem to thrive in the city’s many parks, cemeteries and suburban forests. Their strength and speed mean they can pluck smaller birds from the air mid-flight.
Details B&B doubles from £61 at the Aletto Potsdamer Platz in Kreuzberg (aletto.de). Fly to Berlin
5. Otters in Singapore
A few decades ago, your chances of spotting an otter in Singapore were slim to none. But as the city’s canals and rivers have been cleaned up, families of smooth-coated otters have appeared in numbers, adapting to urban life by snaffling tilapia from the waterways and setting up home under roads and bridges. Footage from 2022 showed the police halting traffic outside the presidential palace to let a group of them cross the road.
Details Six nights’ B&B at Orchard Hotel from £1,537pp, including flights (awayholidays.co.uk)
Sugar gliders are often found in western Sydney
6. Flying foxes and sugar gliders in Sydney
You’re rarely far from wildlife in Australia, even in the cities. This is especially true in Sydney, where a few years ago a wallaby hopped its way across the Harbour Bridge. Things can get especially lively at dusk, when large bats known as flying foxes flap out from their tree roosts and — in western Sydney — tiny sugar gliders start soaring through the gloaming.
Details Five nights’ room only at the Langham from £2,502pp, including flights (expedia.co.uk)
Meet the team
Experts from the Times Travel team will be at Destinations: The Holiday and Travel Show in London, which takes place February 2-5 at Olympia (destinationsshow.com). Subscribers to The Times can claim two complimentary tickets (a booking fee of £1.50 per ticket applies) using the code TIMES+ when booking here