Roadside Safari

Kieran Lindsey

Kieran Lindsey | Jul 06, 2012

Headed on a road trip this summer, and wondering what four-legged beast, flying friend or other wild resident you might glimpse in that thicket by the woods? Wondering how they came to hang out there, too? Car Talk’s Wildlife Guru, Dr. Kieran Lindsey is here to take us on a tour, and answer a few questions along the way.

From opossums to moose—with even a nauga thrown in—here’s what you might see if you keep your eyes peeled.

Car Talk: Why do animals hang out on the side of the road-- is it some kind of suicide wish?

What, you’ve never heard of roadside attractions?

No, I’m not talking about Carhenge (Alliance, Nebraska) or the Cadillac Ranch (west of Amarillo, Texas). I mean edge habitat formed by the creation of a road through previously undeveloped land… habitat that beckons like a billboard to all manner of curious wildlife.

I don’t have to gaze into the World’s Largest Crystal Ball to see what lies ahead once a new road gets the go-ahead. The first step, once the surveyors have done their job, is to scrape away a swath of native plant life from Point A to Point B. Next, remove some of the top soil and cart it off. Mix up what’s left by shoving it around with loud machines riding on very large tires. Add some fill dirt, construction debris, and various physical and chemical substrate stabilizers, then drive all over the dirt until it’s hard as a mechanic’s heart. Next, lay a nice rain-impervious strip of concrete or asphalt down the middle of the newly naked throughway and top-dress either side with topsoil from somewhere far away. While you’re at it, scatter some grass seed and straw or roll out some turf grass sod… then let nature take its course.

Nature’s course, of course, is to fill the vacuum with as much life as the area can hold. Seeds that have sat dormant in the soil wake up and germinate when disturbed. Others blow in on the wind or hitchhike on vehicles. Plants lucky enough to put down roots near the roadbed will receive an extra measure of water run-off every time it rains—an important advantage in arid regions or during periods of high temperatures or drought. Sure, they get an extra dose of chemicals and particulates too, but pioneer species tend to be a hardy breed.

As soon as there’s a little cover and some salad to consume the animals will begin their colonization efforts. Birds, bats, and insects will drop in from above. Other species will venture forth from the surrounding undisturbed landscape. In no time at all you’ve got a bona fide Speedway Safari.  Small creatures—grasshoppers, butterflies, spiders, turtles, lizards, rodents—may discover life along the boulevard offers everything they need to survive and even thrive… as long as they stay put and steer clear of the large steel-and-rubber predators that speed past. Medium-to-large species, including raccoons, skunks, opossum, deer, elk, moose, coyotes, and even bears, are more likely to lean on the road’s shoulder for a hand-out in the form of living plants and animals as well as carrion, then move along to rest in a less congested neighborhood. Everyone, not just the human animals, will use the right-of-way as a travel corridor. The result is that, like all edge habitat, roadsides have a greater level of species diversity and biological density than adjacent ecological communities.

I guess could bypass the explanation above with one simple sentence:  Highways and by-ways attract wildlife for the same reasons they attract people—fast food and the freedom to move on down the road. But I usually prefer the scenic route.

Car Talk: Is there a particular time of day that I'm more likely to see animals out and about?

Dusk and dawn are the times when many animals rise and shine. Unfortunately, these happen to be the hours during which drivers tend to be fatigued and visibility is low, so it’s especially important to scan the shoulders and median for signs of movement or headlight-reflected eye-shine.

I’m not suggesting you can zone out or text-and-drive during the rest of the day—far from it. One fun way to stay alert and aware (at least, I think it’s fun) is to scan from one side of the road to the other for potential wildlife hideouts. I do this even when I’m in a city or suburb—partly because I know how many critters call these communities home, partly to keep from losing the habit, but also because on more than one occasion it’s helped me spot and avoid one of the most common forms of urban wild life… a darting two-legged rug rat.

Car Talk: Any particular hazards in different parts of the country?

Members of the Cervidae family—white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk (aka American wapiti), and moose—have become a routine road hazard across much of the country. Over the past several decades deer populations have grown by leaps and bounds as Bullwinkle and Bambi have learned to tolerate human neighbors. I guess it hasn’t been too hard to swallow, given that people often inadvertently put out the welcome mat by landscaping with all manner of tasty plants. In some cases, we purposely invite the hooved-set over for a backyard picnic of grains, apples, and/or hay in exchange for a close encounter.

Combine a well-stocked 24-hour free buffet, with fewer predators (all of whom find it much easier to feast on Fido and Fluffy than take down a much larger well-armed animal) and you’ve got what amounts to deer nirvana.

On average, a full-grown white-tailed or mule deer is 3-4 feet tall (shoulder height) and weighs between 100-300 lbs., depending on gender. Moose typically stand at least a foot taller and tip the scale at 450-1,500 lbs. Elk stats fall somewhere in-between. There’s no way a car can hit something that size, even at relatively low speeds, without collateral damage to the animal, the car, and often the passengers as well. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports there are about 1 million deer-vehicle collisions that result in 200 human deaths, over 10,000 personal injuries, and about $1 billion in vehicle damage annually.

The next most common large wildlife species trying to dance through traffic would be the black bear. Coyotes count as mid-sized. Large owls, hawks and vultures can be especially difficult to avoid since drivers tend not to search the skies for incoming as they motor down the road.

It may be even more important to note, however, that even small animals can create big hazards when drivers attempt evasive maneuvers.

Car Talk: Who comes out at night, and how can we not end up with them between our wheels and the road?

The nightlife is the right life for wildlife… with only a few exceptions.

Amphibians aren’t necessarily attracted to roads but the water sources necessary for breeding definitely are… so if froggy wants to go a-courtin’ s/he may be forced to attempt a crossing. I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen lizards and turtles crossing a road in the dark. Snakes are another story—out and about when their prey species (primarily rodents) are active. That’s commonly (but not exclusively) after dark. Additionally, snakes will often gravitate to sun-soaked pavement as a nighttime heat source.

You really shouldn’t have to worry about most birds at night, with the exception of owls. Mammals… I’m having a hard time thinking of species that are never or rarely active at night. Tree and ground squirrels come to mind… as well as big-horned sheep. Just about everyone else—from shrews to skunks, jack rabbits to jumping mice, opossums, beaver, deer, coyotes and cougars—all of ‘em are known to burn the midnight oil.

More important than who may be where, and when.  The Federal Highway Administration says the majority of wildlife-vehicle collisions occur on rural two-lane, low-volume roadways. Nearly all are single-vehicle crashes, and they happen most often in early morning or evening.

Car Talk: Do the animals we're likely to see on the side of the road change during the course of the year?

Yes, at least to some extent.

Of course, we see less wildlife in general during the winter months so there are fewer near roads. On the other hand, road-kills can be harder for scavengers to resist because calories are harder to come by. The mid-summer is another time when we are less likely to see wildlife along travel corridors… at least during the heat of the day.

In spring, adult animals are looking for mates and establishing territories, so they’re not only moving around, they’re also distracted (and who among us has not experienced the hormonal fog?). During the fall months young, inexperienced animals are beginning to leave the homestead and disperse—a dangerous time of life under the best of circumstances, but even more so when setting off on your own entails crossing multiple lanes of traffic.

If you want to reduce the impact of roads on wildlife, the best guidelines I can offer are: 1) stay alert; 2) scan the shoulders and median for movement and/or eye-shine; and 3) slow down. Luckily, the same three rules make the road safer for people, too. Instant karma!

Car Talk: What's the strangest animal you've ever seen by the side of the road?

A nauga.

Actually, all I saw was the hide, repurposed as a recliner. I’ve waited over 50 years to see a wild nauga in its ambulatory form. I haven’t given up though—after all, I lived in Texas for nearly 20 years before I saw my first un-dead armadillo.

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