A voiding roadkills: Secrets of animal behavior that can save your life!

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1992:

You’re cruising near the speed limit late one night,
tired from a long drive. You catch a glint of eyes in your
headlight beams, a dark shape breaking from the shadows
to your right, an oncoming car to your left––
Do you jam on the brakes? Speed up to get past
before the animal bolts? Risk swerving? Take your foot off
the gas?
Combat pilots memorize silhouette cards and air-
craft specification sheets, in order to recognize every other
plane in the sky even if all they see is a fleeting glimpse of
something on radar. They need to know instantly what’s out
there: whether it’s hostile, how fast it can go, how far it
can shoot. At Mach 2, there isn’t time for second-guessing.
But at 60 miles an hour your car is outracing the
focal distance of your headlights even faster than a fighter
pilot outraces radar range. And like most other drivers, you
haven’t had any training in how to respond to an animal in
the roadway.

Approximately 130 people per year die in ani-
mal/car collisions. Animals in the road cause one accident
in 10, and after drunk driving are the leading cause of sin-
gle-car accidents. Deer/car collisions alone kill 100 people
per year, injure 7,000 more, and leave 350,000 deer dead
or fatally wounded. The annual roadkill toll also includes
1.5 million cats, half a million other animals whose remains
are big enough to be removed as road hazards by highway
departments, and uncounted millions of other creatures––as
many as a million a day, according to the Humane Society
of the U.S., although the estimate is based on data now 35
years old.
But you can avoid roadkills!
Despite the frequency with which roadkills occur,
they are not inevitable. The key to avoiding them is to iden-
tify the habitat in advance of an incident, so as to anticipate
what might bolt in front of you and what you might be able
to safely do; then identify the species as soon as you see an
animal, with a clear understanding of the animal’s behavior.
The highway behavior of different kinds of animals does
significantly vary, and the avoidance tactic appropri-
ate with one may only lead to squashing another.
What to watch out for
Habitat requires first attention, because
most of the time it dictates what you’re going to see.
Every now and then you’ll see an animal who logical-
ly shouldn’t be in the road, like the time I nearly hit a
thousand-pound pig on a highway in Quebec or the
time a buddy of mine found himself facing down a
moose a long way from anywhere any had ever been
reported, but those are the exceptions, the animals
you’ll either hit or miss by luck. The rest, you can
miss by skill.
If you’re driving in a residential area, expect
small children, bicycles, skateboards, birds, dogs,
and cats. Often the dogs and cats are in blind pursuit
of the children, cyclists, skateboarders, and birds.
If you’re driving in a high-density urban
area, expect homeless cats, pigeons, and squirrels.
If you’re driving amid cultivated fields,
expect grain-eating birds, raccoons, deer, and small
If you’re driving where people keep live-
stock, look out for cattle, sheep, and horses.
If the road is lined with stone walls, trees,
or hedges, expect all sorts of birds and small mam-
mals, who prefer such edge habitat even if it’s right
beside the busiest route in the region.
If you know there are roadkills on the route
already, beware of opossums, crows, raccoons, and
other scavengers.
If you see any kind of animal killed on the
road, assume you might soon meet a live one.
How to look out
Don’t assume you’re going to see whatever’s
out there just because you’re a careful driver. There
are special techniques to detecting animals, and you’ll
need to adapt them to your own abilities. For
instance, like many other men, I’m red/green color-
blind, which means in practical terms that at dusk
(and sometimes at high noon) I’m often unable to rely
upon my color vision and sense of contrast to detect
red-brown animals such as deer, foxes, squirrels,
and some dogs against either brown grass or green
foliage. Not infrequently my wife sees a red-brown
animal cross the road in front of our car that I never
see at all. On the other hand, I’ve never hit a red-
brown animal, or any ground-traveling animal in day-
light, even though I’ve done most of my driving in
rural areas with plentiful wildlife. Instead of relying
on sensory input I know I can’t trust, I use analytical
skills. I look most intently for anomalous movements
of trees and grass, a clue that an animal is slinking
through, just out of sight. I also look for horizontal
ines in wooded areas, where tree patterns normally
create mostly vertical lines. I look for unusual behav-
ior on the part of oncoming drivers and the drivers
ahead of me, who may notice an animal first. I fur-
ther pay attention to surroundings that might attract
animals––fruit trees, berry bushes, water sources.
The only ground-traveling animal I’ve ever hit was a
raccoon who chose the wrong moment late one night
to pop out of the open end of a culvert on a narrow
road between two cornfields.
What to do when you see an animal depends
entirely upon what the animal is. This can’t be empha-
sized too hard or too often.
Animal behavior
BIRDS probably account for the majority of
roadkill victims, but there are contributing factors. For
a dozen years I jogged every morning past acres of
corn fields. I noticed that the road was littered with
dead birds on the mornings after pesticides had been
sprayed, investigated, and discovered that the birds
were apparently becoming intoxicated from the fumes,
which in turn reduced their ability to avoid oncoming
vehicles. I also noticed that songbirds were killed dis-
proportionately often after a rain, because the water
brought worms out of the soil, many of whom then
crawled into the roadway, where they were easily seen
by the birds, who in turn became so intent upon break-
fast that they didn’t look out for traffic. I’ve killed four
birds myself, one of them a Baltimore oriole who
started out of tall grass into the spokes of my bicycle,
and was instantly decapitated; two of them a couple
of unidentified species who dropped into my wind-
shield from somewhere above while apparently copu-
lating in flight. The fourth was a finch who tried to
ride the windstream in front of my car, miscalculated
his dive, and was clobbered by the passanger side mir-
ror. The latter accident brings up an important point:
many birds don’t have the acceleration to take off and
get clear of a car simultaneously. They depend upon
the push they get from the wind moving in front of the
car to help them. This is why birds often seem to court
their own destruction by flying directly ahead of an
oncoming car for some time before veering to one side
or the other or pulling up to let the car pass underneath.
When you have a bird doing this, don’t either speed up
or slow down too suddenly. If you slow down sudden-
ly, the bird will lose the push you’re providing, and
may fall into your windshield. If you speed up, you
may push the air current past the bird and collide.
DOMESTIC CATS are among the animals
most often hit, not only because lots of cats are around
but also because also they respond to cars as if they
were predators. When contemplating crossing a road,
they hunker down in the grass beside it, or beneath a
parked car, trying to keep as low a silhouette as possi-
ble in an effort to avoid being seen. When they do bolt
out, moreover, they tend to spring into mid-road at a single
low bound, like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks.
They then race in a crouch to the opposite side, still main-
taining the low profile. Typically, drivers who hit cats don’t
see them until after they dart out. By the time a cat is in
mid-road, it is often too late to do anything but brake. If
you can swerve, however, swerve in the direction the cat
came from. Cats usually run a straight line across a road;
they rarely stop and double back. Two other quirks of cat
behavior bear mention. First, cats frequently hunt in road-
side ditches, especially at night. A cat who is hunting won’t
pay a car any attention, unless the cat suspects she’s been
seen––which may happen if you abruptly slow down. In
that case, if she thinks she has better cover on the opposite
side of the road, she may bolt. If she does, she will typical-
ly identify the danger from a car with where the headlights
hit the pavement. She’ll wait until the focal point of your
headlights pass, then spring out, right in front of the tires.
Either slow down gradually when you spot a cat off the
road, or maintain your speed.
though not closely related, share behavioral characteristics
that get them killed by cars in disproportionate numbers.
All three species like to travel on or beside highways. Both
armadillos and skunks scavenge litter. All three are primari-
ly nocturnal. All three, being well protected agaainst most
predators, mind their own business, except when a car
approaches and slows down. This makes them curious.
They turn their heads toward the sound, which involves tak-
ing a step into the roadway; see the headlights; and
momentarily freeze. As with cats you see hunting beside
roads, don’t give them the chance to think themselves into
trouble. Decelerate gradually or not at all if a skunk, porcu-
pine, or armadillo isn’t already directly in your path.
BEARS, COWS, and MOOSE likewise are not
closely related, yet pose similar problems for drivers. All
are large, slow-moving, usually dark-colored, and excep-
tionally hard to see at night. What’s more, their eyes don’t
reflect much. And if you hit one, you’re almost as likely to
be killed or seriously injured as the animal. Because each of
these animals is usually the biggest thing around, each
tends to hold position and study a potential threat––like a
car––before taking decisive action. Then the animal usually
moves away from a confrontation, but by then, at highway
speeds, it ‘s often too late. Bear in mind that if you see a
bear in the road, there’s just about a 50/50 chance there’s
another bear or two in the vicinity––that you’ve come across
a mother and cubs. Expect to meet bears at night where
there are berry thickets in the roadside ditches. Look for
cows anywhere they’re pastured, but especially in the vicin-
ity of dairy barns where the herds stand in bare dirt yards
before milking. That situation gives a cow a lot of incentive
to push through the fence to sample the grass alongside the
highway. Bet that if you see one cow on the wrong side of
a fence, you’ll meet more. Moose are usually met in
swampy areas among steep mountains, where highways
offer the easiest travel between feeding areas. Warning:
bears and cows don’t attack cars, but sometimes a bull
moose will. In Canada several years ago, a charging bull
moose derailed a locomotive, then bolted away into the
woods. In the rare event that a bull moose charges you,
respond as if you’re about to be in a head-on collision with
another car. The aftermath of the impact can be as danger-
ous as the impact itself, due to flailing hooves and flying
glass, if the moose isn’t killed outright.
DEER aren’t hard to miss if you see them and they
see you. Although they do freeze in headlights, most deer
tend to look carefully before crossing a road during the
months December through August; if they see cars coming,
they wait. From September through November, however,
the bucks are in rut, the females are excited, and the fre-
quent presence of hunters has them further on the verge of
panic. More than three-fourths of all accidents involving
deer occur during this time. Tip: if you see one deer cross
the road in front of you, look out for another. Does typical-
ly travel with one or two fawns, who may not have car
sense yet, and may dart out after mama even though it’s no
longer safe to cross.
DOGS don’t follow any real pattern. Some have
car sense and some don’t. You can reduce your chances of
hitting a dog by double-checking for canine pursuit any time
you see a cat, squirrel, chipmunk, ball, or another dog race
across the road. When chasing something, even dogs who
have car sense tend to leave it behind.
are among the hardest animals to avoid if they actually do
get into your path. All three species evade predators, when
on the ground, chiefly through their ability to rapidly
change directions. The surest way to avoid a rabbit, chip-
munk, or squirrel is to stop and wait until the critter is safe-
ly out of the road. As long as you’re still moving forward,
the rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel will continue to assess
your car as a threat akin to a dog or fox, only bigger, and
may keep switching and reversing course. Fortunately, it is
easy to anticipate when you’re likely to see one. Rabbits are
most plentiful in lightly wooded areas or alongside brushy
ditches, toward the end of spring through the end of sum-
mer. They may be seen either day or night. At night they
freeze in the glare of headlights. Chipmunks and squirrels
take to the roads in greatest number at the end of summer,
when windy weather at the onset of fall litters roadsides
with edible nuts. Chipmunks and squirrels will remain plen-
tiful on the roads in tree-lined areas until after the first
snowfall. They are usually out only in broad daylight.
OPPOSSUMS are among the hardest animals to
miss because they have no car sense at all. Frequenting
highways because scavenged roadkills are a major part of
their diet, they will stop and look up at the approach of a
car––and then either freeze or turn back to eating the road-
kill that drew them to where they are. It is possible that
since the headlights are above their heads, they think the
threat will fly above them. As with cats, skunks, armadil-
los, and porcupines, if you see an oppossum beside the
road, try to pass without attracting the animal’s attention,
which can bring a fatal misstep. Also, watch for others, as
they tend to travel in family groups. And don’t be unduly
rattled if an oppossum actually runs right under your tires; s
it happens. If you do hit an oppossum, stop and examine
the body for surviving young. Oppossum young,, who ride
on their mothers until old enough to walk alone, are rela-
tively easily rehabilitated––and despite their fierce-looking
teeth, all oppossums have a gentle, friendly disposition. I
once rescued an injured oppossum from a trap who had
every reason and opportunity to bite me, but didn’t even try.
Finally, even if an oppossum does bite you, you don’t have
to worry about rabies. Oppossums have the least suscepti-
bility to rabies of any known mam mal.
RACCOONS, like oppossums, usually travel in
family groups. If one member of a raccoon family is hit by
a car, others will attempt to assist the victim until they too
are hit. I’ve seen as many as seven members of a raccoon
family die in this manner. It’s always a good idea to move
roadkills out of the highway, if you can do it safely, to
avoid luring scavengers into danger, but with raccoons, it’s
an especially good idea. Also like oppossums, raccoons
are scavengers, who may freeze in headlight beams; and,
like skunks, porcupines, and armadillos, they are very
slow. Follow the same rule of thumb: slow down if you see
one before he or she sees you, but not so abruptly as to
draw attention to yourself. Warning: although raccoon
babies are reasonably easy to rehabilitate, it’s not a good
idea to pick them up from around a roadkill site in the east-
ern third of the continent, due to the mid-Atlantic raccoon
rabies pandemic, which now afflicts raccoons from Florida
to upstate New York. Disorientation due to rabies can be a
reason why a raccoon wanders into a road in the first place.
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