Despite urbanization, Viennese wildlife is thriving

Vienna may be best known for its grand imperial architecture and cosmopolitan center, but it has another side to it not usually fea­tured in guidebooks: With the city limits extending deep into Lower Austria, more than 50 percent of its area is green spaces, making it one of the lushest capitals in the world. The many parks, meadows and the storied Wienerwald forest host a veritable animal kingdom: from weasels, rabbits, hares and foxes to snakes, turtles and liz­ards; birds like the kingfisher and common kestrel or even the mighty wild boar or red deer, they all call Vienna their home.

However, while an expanding public transport network and shiny new suburbs create more space for its citizens, native wild­life might be negatively affected by the drastic changes that come with urbanization. Some animals are actively adapting to fit into the cityscape. For example, the common swift used to inhabit only cliffs as it roamed the Northern Hemisphere during the summer months, but nowadays, it builds its nests al­most exclusively on tall buildings. In other cases, endangered wildlife can even interfere with city planning – Zieseln, a type of ground squirrel related to the prairie dog, routinely derail big construction projects as they’re protected throughout the EU.

“The fact that wild animals are seen so often within the inner districts indicates that we’re not affecting their ecosystem too harshly,” says Dr. Richard Zink, head of Stadtwildtiere Wien (wild city animals Vienna), a project run by the University of Veterinary Medi­cine. “For example, we wouldn’t have such a big number of squirrels inhabiting the various parks of Vienna, if those zones were too noisy or polluted.”

Within the city limits is a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals, including turtles, woodpeckers, deer and foxes. // © MA 49

Not all animals stay however – beavers were nearly extinct in Austria just 30 years ago. But after some colonies were carefully reintroduced to the wild, a large population now builds their dams freely – even within the city. “The fact that there have been multiple sightings of beavers as far from the Danube as Hütteldorf means that their paths lead them through many inner districts, likely along the Donaukanal and even the Wienfluss (Vienna River),” according to Zink. “Nocturnal animals like foxes or badgers also enter human territory a lot, often wandering along railroad tracks during nighttime. They seem to have adapted, they don’t shy away as much from urban areas.”

Of course, a shared habitat does contain potential for conflict. Stadtwildtiere Wien offers lots of advice on how to behave around certain animals on its website, where visitors can also record sightings and upload pic­tures. “We aim to avoid conflicts of interest between wildlife and the citizens of Vienna,” says Zink. He sees the reason for most prob­lematic encounters in humans feeding wild animals: “If an animal learns that approach­ing a human will result in receiving food, it will likely lose its timidity over time – and might even become aggressive if it doesn’t get what it came for.”

Town and country

Günther Annerl of the MA 49, the city’s forestry and agriculture department, sees it similarly: “It’s very unlikely that any animal in Vienna might actually be dangerous in any way. Foxes, for example, have a reputation of being much more dangerous than they really are.” While rabies used to be a concern, sight­ings of infected foxes are extremely rare now­adays, and Austria is essentially rabies-free. “However, if they’re used to being fed they might actively approach humans, which can be very intimidating,” says Annerl.

In addition, some local animals can be quite territorial, like the wild boar. A few years ago, the MA 49 had to deal with no less than 35 of these big game animals in the outer rim of Donaustadt. They were getting closer and closer to human dwellings, looking for left­overs in gardens and garbage bins and causing damage. “First and foremost, it’s our job to look after the citizens of Vienna – and people were scared, so we had to intervene,” Annerl states. “Shooting is always our very last resort. We used traps instead, and moved all the boars back to the woods, where they resettled.”

Animals like the beaver have staged a comeback after nearly disappearing. // © Nationalpark Donau-Auen, Kracher

Our beloved pets can also cause friction, especially cats and dogs. In the inner districts, cats are mostly kept indoors and dogs remain almost always on a leash – further afield however, people tend to let them roam more freely. “Dogs can indeed scare and chase wildlife, but it’s rare for a dog to actually hunt and kill a deer, for instance,” Zink points out. “On the other hand, cats are far more likely to leave their owner’s property on their own to stroll around the neighborhood. As opposed to dogs, they also hunt and kill smaller animals just for fun.”

For Annerl, the impact of pets on wildlife in urban areas is negligible. In Vienna’s various parks and the Wienerwald, however, dogs unleashed can cause significant trouble. City authorities have already established a no­-pets policy in the well­-known Lainzer Tiergarten and recommend it in other areas. “I strongly appeal to our citizens to stay on the designated paths within parks like the Lobau, with their dogs on a leash,” Annerl says. “That way, stress can be avoided for yourself as well as for wild animals.”

A mosaic of habitats

The Lobau, a floodplain on the east bank of the Danube mostly in Vienna’s 22nd district, marks the beginning of the Nationalpark Donau­-Auen (Danube floodplain national park), a nature preserve right on the city limits. It is the only place in Austria where the Danube still flows freely.

To keep it that way, a national park center was established inside Orth Castle, roughly 30 kilometers to the east of Vienna. Erika Dorn, spokesperson for the Nationalpark Donau­-Auen, has a gorgeous view over the wetlands from her office on the second floor.

Vienna and its environs enjoy considerable biodiversity, including several endangered species like the Ziesel and the mighty white-tailed eagle. // © Nationalpark Donau-Auen, Kovacs

The rise and fall of the water levels define the local flora and fauna, creating a mosaic of habitats and a home for many rare species. It is the last refuge of the European pond turtle or the white-tailed eagle, which was extinct in Austria for many years. “They sometimes entered Austrian territory to hunt, but didn’t build any aeries here for a long time.” Eagles need very calm surroundings to breed; if they feel disturbed in any way, they abandon their eggs rather than risk staying in the area. For Dorn and her colleagues, the return of the white­-tailed eagle is one of their biggest success stories: “If it weren’t for the national park, that would have never been possible.”

Still, it is very unlikely for any of their up to 1.5 million annual visitors to actually spot such exotics in the wild. “The Donau-Auen national park is not comparable to the African Serengeti, where you can see many different animals from a distance. Because the vegetation is so heavy around here, you will most likely see… foliage.” Dorn chuckles. Therefore, several sightseeing areas are scattered around the park where native animals are presented in enclosures. Dorn explains: “We try to inform visitors about native wildlife, while also keeping them concentrated in those zones, to leave the majority of the park for animals.”

Overall, Vienna is teeming with life, often unseen. While sharing a habitat with wild animals can sometimes cause complications, most of them have adapted to the sprawl and go about their business unperturbed. With lots of green areas within city limits and an exotic, diverse ecosystem next door, the wilderness is actually really close, waiting to be explored – but please keep your pet on a leash.