Road kill - defined as animals killed by motor vehicles on highways - may appear to be an insignificant finding, since road kill is a nuisance staining the road with blood and producing a foul odor. While examining road kill, I have found useful and interesting information.
Road kill can tell us what animals live in the vicinity. If one hosts foreign visitors who are curious about local animals, take them on a bicycle or an auto excursion in the countryside. One can point out dead animals just like I saw last week including an opossum, skunk, raccoon, woodchuck, white-tailed deer, and red and gray squirrels. Commonly, a fox will show up as road kill. This week, I discovered a dead long-tailed weasel on Route 394 in Ashville.
Just this past June, a mountain lion killed by a motor vehicle in Connecticut, 70 miles from New York City, was traced to a population in South Dakota. Imagine setting out on an early morning walk or jog along the route of that mountain lion; might one want to carry more than a water bottle in their fanny pack?
The author reassembled the bones of a fawn white tailed deer killed on the road near his house.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
My lifelong fascination with birds prompted me to collect road-killed birds during walks around my block in Busti, then store them in the freezer at home hoping to later create dissected bird skins to study field marks. This collection started 15 years ago with a great horned owl found near Sherman on Interstate 86. Feather-covered talons and a heavy weight were unexpected findings. Over several years a cardinal, mourning dove, chipping sparrow, hooded warbler, catbird, robin and blue jay were added. I almost added a colorful male ring-necked pheasant to my collection after retrieving the bird on my way to work one late fall day. The bird was in the opposite lane so I turned around, picked it up, drove home and asked my wife to check on it because it was not quite dead. Later, the pheasant started flapping, so she released it in the back yard. It was probably disoriented from a concussion, since it showed up at our bird feeder for three successive days instead of flying off to a field somewhere.
During a summer evening walk around my block, when I encountered a dead skunk on the road, two baby skunks crawled on my sneakers, probably looking for their mother. My veterinarian discouraged me from adopting the skunks, so, sadly, I left the babies to Mother Nature.
The birds in the freezer did attract the attention of my young teenage daughters who invited their sleepover guests to examine each one. Eventually, I learned possession of protected songbirds and raptors without a state Conservation Department permit was illegal. Proof that the birds were road kill instead of hunting specimens was difficult. Subsequently, a mass burial occurred in the back yard.
The "High Country News," February 2005, reported staggering statistics of 253,000 animal-vehicle accidents in the United States in one year, while an additional 50 percent of large animal-vehicle accidents went unreported. Recently, New York reported 75,000 road-killed deer and 220,000 hunter harvested deer annually.
Nocturnal animals see best in dim light. The bright glare of an oncoming vehicle at night blinds the animal feeding along the roadside. As a vehicle approaches closer to the animal, the headlight beam directed forward is less intense to the side. Now the animal can see motion of the vehicle and hear noise; it becomes frightened, bolting across the road in front of the vehicle or, hopefully, away from the road. In some countries, wildlife bridge crossings over or tunnels under highways are created to reduce animal-vehicle accidents.
This spring, while collecting road kill deer bones on the roadside near my home, I had a comforting experience. Since I was on my hands and knees placing bones in a cardboard box, a passing motorist and his lady passenger stopped to offer help because they thought I had passed out.
The next time you pass fresh road kill, consider a rewarding challenge by stopping to identify the animal.