Roadkill road trip
My son and I drove down to Rhinebeck last week to visit some family members and, as usual, took note of the land and animals we passed.
We like to drive through Columbia County, past the dairies, vegetable farms and orchards. We stop at farm stands when we can, but find the prices down there a little exorbitant. I mean, really — $5 for a pint of cherries?
But it’s nice to look. The corn fields are weeks ahead of our corn fields, and we saw a field of what looked like barley drying at a grain farm. The cherries are ripe at the pick-your-own orchards, the apples and pears look to be setting nicely, and we took note of a new vineyard and some new hop yards.
Then there were all the animals. On our drive we counted two opossums, one big raccoon, one huge raccoon, a couple of groundhogs, lots of squirrels, a young deer, a painted turtle, a baby snapping turtle and a snapping turtle as a big as my steering wheel.
Trouble is, all of those creatures were dead, flattened by cars. And we weren’t even on any major highways, just state roads posted at 30, 45 or 55 mph.
My son got sadder each time we passed roadkill on the shoulder or swerved to avoid something dead in the middle of the road. But that steering-wheel sized turtle really got him.
“Turtles are smart, and that one was so big it must have been really old,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
He was all for banning cars entirely, and maybe banning humans too until I reminded him that he was the one who requested this road trip, so that he could hang out with his human uncle.
“There’s got to be something we can do,” he said, shaking his head and dreaming up animal bridges and detours.
We talked about turtle crossings — tunnels or culverts built under roads to give turtles a better chance at getting where they are going. Fences along the sides of roads that are known crossings can help redirect animal traffic. And signs can alert motorists; the town of Wilton recently put up a “Turtle Crossing” sign on Ruggles Road to warn drivers to slow down.
Slowing down is probably the best thing you can do to avoid hitting animals. Unnecessary speed and aggressive driving increases the number of animals killed by cars. There are those who view driving as some sort of video game where you rack up points for taking out animals: I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen cars appear to hit animals on purpose, aiming directly at a goose, a squirrel or even a turtle. I saw a beautiful ring-necked pheasant taken out that way once.
Of course, even careful drivers can hit animals. Sometimes there is nothing you can do if you are the one in the 2,000 pounds of metal hurtling down a highway. A squirrel or rabbit or even a deer can dart out in front of you before you know it.
But vigilance counts for a lot. Where we live, there is so much wildlife that we constantly scan the road edges as we drive, looking for movement or eye balls. It’s definitely a learned trait, and it’s amazing how much you can see if you train yourself to look. And it’s not just about avoiding carnage — it’s a lot more pleasant to drive when you see birds and animals.
And my son and I saw live animals too on our drive, especially birds.
“Look, is that a plover?” I asked as a brown, grassland bird flew out of a field near the rehab hospital we were stopping at to visit my dad. We saw herons winging over swamps as we got closer to my sister’s house. There were hawks on the power lines, ducks in the streams and, on the way home, a bald eagle near the Mohawk River. I’m glad I’ve never seen an eagle as roadkill, but I’ve seen my share of birds, even big birds like hawks and owls.
My friend once had a summer job doing roadside maintenance for the state highway department, where they had a policy of cleaning up what were termed “emotional animals.” That meant deer and dogs, who are not necessarily emotional themselves but apparently cause an emotional reaction in drivers. That reaction can cause traffic snarls and even accidents.
“We could leave the cats and all the skunks, ’possums and groundhogs,” my friend said. “They aren’t ‘emotional’ enough.”
I guess it’s a good thing my son can’t drive. He gets emotional when voles scoot across the road.
The federal Highway Administration doesn’t keep stats on roadkill, but estimates there are 1.5 million deer hit each year. The California nonprofit group Culture Change estimates that 1 million animals get hit by vehicles every day, including “mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, but not insects and bugs” but I don’t know where they get their numbers from.
Who’s counting? Other than my son and me.
Maybe because my son is counting, he’ll be a safer driver one day. And being an inventor, maybe he’ll be the one to design a highway system that’s safer for the animals, or a mass transit system that would reduce the number of cars on the road. I’m counting on him.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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