Western Roadkill Observation System. List your observations. : 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Springtime Skunks: Amorous, Odoriferous and in the Road

Springtime Skunks: Amorous, Odoriferous and in the Road
March 28, 2016
host at  Northern Woodlands

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Driving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won’t be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it’s also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.
I’ve been paying close attention to roadkill lately, and while most of the abundant species like raccoons and squirrels seem to be struck and killed by vehicles regularly throughout the year, with maybe an uptick in fall when the young of the year disperse and food sources get concentrated, that doesn’t seem to be the case with skunks to the same degree. These attractive-but-unpopular animals seem to meet their end on roadways most often in early spring.
March is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk, the striped skunk, whose black-and-white fur and pungent aroma make it unmistakable. The species lives in a variety of habitats, including mixed woods and brush, and it often forages in fields, lawns, and other clearings. An omnivore, it feeds on a wide variety of insects, grubs, berries, and carrion.
Although skunks will sometimes den up together in winter, for the most part they live solitary lives. During the breeding season, they may travel great distances to seek each other out. This often requires road crossings. Because skunks are largely nocturnal and most wildlife is struck by vehicles at night, they are a common casualty. Young skunks seeking to breed for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
Despite their stink, skunks have a closer relationship with humans than most people realize.
In earlier times, skunk pelts were a valuable commodity in the fur trade. During the Depression, when they were made into hats, gloves, and coats, one skunk pelt could sell for $4 or $5. Their value hasn’t changed much since then, making the animals hardly worthwhile for trappers to bother with. There is a niche market today for their scent glands, which are used in commercial animal lures. One state biologist equated skunk essence to “a long distance call with universal appeal” among many animals, especially fishers.
The decline of skunk trapping may mean there are more skunks today than existed a century ago, but few states conduct skunk population surveys so it’s hard to verify this. One thing is certain, however – skunks undoubtedly benefited from human development of the landscape. Based on roadkill surveys and nuisance complaints, there are believed to be many more skunks per square mile of urban and suburban area than in more natural settings. But their proximity also means the animals are more apt to being struck by vehicles.
Which brings us to one more reason why skunks become roadkill so often in spring – their brazen nature. Skunks just aren’t as cautious as many other wildlife species, especially when love is in the air. Because of their ability to spray a noxious liquid from their scent glands, there are few predators that will attack them. Coyotes may occasionally prey upon them, and great horned owls are expert skunk killers, but the risk of a burning nose and eyes, even temporary blindness, keeps most other predators at bay.
And who would blame them for staying away? The scent was described by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton as a combination of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, and sewer gas "magnified a thousand times."
Because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there.
In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk almost never wins.
Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018



Cyclists can now help scientists by reporting animals flattened by automobiles.
An organization that pairs data-collecting outdoor enthusiasts with researchers launched a roadkill-observation project this week. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is calling on everyone from commuters to expedition cyclists to record information about wildlife carcasses on their route and enter the data online.
“The tens of thousands of people that are outside every day can now be mobilized to do more with their time, to be citizen scientists,” said Gregg Treinish, who founded and directs the non-profit group.
So far, the most extensive roadkill-counting projects have been the California Roadkill Observation System and a similar project in MaineFraser Shilling, the University of California, Davis ecologist__ __behind these networks, will add the global data from cycling citizen scientists to his roadkill research.
“I think that cyclists and the pedestrian world have this weird connection to roadkill because of the risk we’re always facing,” said Shilling.
Before transportation planners can help prevent costly collisions, they need the kind of data that cyclists are uniquely positioned to collect.
Commuters and recreational cyclists who regularly ride the same routes are important observers because their contributions will help track change over time, Shilling said. Expedition cyclists on long trips can provide snapshots of roadkill over a large region.
Sonya Baumstein, the founder of Epoch Expeditions, an adventure and environmental education non-profit__, __inspired the call to the cycling community when she contacted Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation looking for projects. Baumstein is on her organization's first trek — a 13,000-mile rowing, biking, kayaking, hiking, education and data collection extravaganza that she plans to complete in less than 400 days, sometimes traveling solo. She and another team member are currently biking north along the West Coast, adding to the 300 athletes that Treinish has paired with about 80 scientists since 2011.
During her ride, Baumstein is helping Treinish and Shilling pilot the project to record flattened fauna. Cyclists who don't want to stop can make a voice recording on the fly noting the location of an ill-fated animal, or they can remember observations and write them on a notepad. They could stop and take a photo as well, which is the best way to help researchers confirm identifications.
Shilling has already learned a lot by asking California drivers to log dead animals into his database. So far, 708 people, including wildlife experts, have entered over 17,000 observations into the California Roadkill Observation System.
Half of California’s land-dwelling vertebrate species have appeared in the system, identified with 95 percent accuracy, said Shilling. He’s learned that installing wildlife crossings over or under roads won’t be enough to reduce roadkill, because animals are hit everywhere, and there aren't many specific hotspots.
Shilling’s take on the easiest and least expensive solution to wildlife collisions is one every traffic-weary cyclist can appreciate. Drivers should slow down.
“We take for granted our right to drive these fast-moving metal objects wherever we feel like, at whatever speeds we feel like, until we get caught for speeding,” said Shilling.
His group has developed an Android app for its California database and plans to release it in about a month. They're also looking for help creating an iPhone app. Technology development for the roadkill projects happens on volunteer time, just like the data collection.
“People are investing their time in the hope that it’s going to result in a conservation benefit,” said Shilling. “That they won’t even get recognized for it necessarily, but they are helping to make it happen, I think that’s a really big deal.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

27 ways to avoid hitting animals

27 ways to avoid hitting animals that may save your life too!
(Beth Clifton photo)
by Merritt Clifton
Half an hour before this writing,  I struck and killed my first deer in more than 40 years
of driving in heavily populated deer habitat.  
A half-grown fawn,  she bolted into the road from the inside of a curve on an uphill
grade,  while my headlights were pointed away from her.  By the time the light
swung toward her,  she had already crossed the center line.  
Even though I was driving about five miles an hour below the posted speed limit,  
and got my foot off the gas pedal,  I was unable to hit the brake before I hit her
and most likely broke her neck on impact.  
She flew 20 feet through the air,  hit her head on landing,  and was already dead
when my wife Beth ran to her side moments later.
Creeping vole––neither “threatened” nor “endangered,”
but rare. (Merritt Clifton photo)
The good news
That’s the bad news.  The good news is that 10 minutes later,  following some of
the same advice below that I have offered for decades about driving with constant
awareness of the animal habitat alongside roads,  I was able to brake in time to
give Beth her first-ever sighting of a rare creeping vole,  who scurried across the
road unharmed at about half the pace of the typical rodent.
Avoiding animals may not always be possible,  but the average driver can save
many animal lives by becoming above average in just one respect:  recognizing
what animals are likely to appear in each place that he or she drives,  and correctly 
anticipating what those animals’ behavior will be when they are startled by an
oncoming car. 
(Beth Clifton photo)
1) The most important tip of all:
It is easier and safer to anticipate animals in the road than it is to miss them once
they are in front of you. Watch for motion in roadside grass and shrubs. Remember
that most lines in the woods are vertical. If you see something horizontal, it may be
an animal.
2) Usually the safest thing to do, upon suddenly meeting any animal in the
road, is to calmly slow down, and if necessary, stop.
Don’t honk or try to outguess the animal, and don’t slam on your brakes. Just slow
down as quickly as you can without risking a skid, and stop, if necessary, as gently as
you can. Allow the animal time to react and move aside, and proceed with caution.

(Beth Clifton photo)
3) Should you try to rescue an animal from the road, use your car as a
shield against oncoming traffic, with your four-way flashers on.
4) Look for the second deer––and the third!
A record 210 Americans were killed in deer/car collisions in 2003, according to the
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The annual toll has remained around 200 per
(Beth Clifton photo)
Studies indicate that up to 70% of all deer/car crashes occur when a driver slows
for one deer, then steps on the gas and hits another. Fawns soon grow as big as their
mamas, but continue to follow mama for a year or more. A doe will often have two
fawns, so if you see one deer, slow down and look for two more.

5) Be extra careful in hunting season.
In spring and summer, deer hide from danger. In fall, when the leaves are down, they
run. More than half of all deer/car collisions occur in October and November.
(Beth Clifton photo)
The rut (mating season) is one cause of this, but the peak for collisions coincides
more closely with the peak days for hunting than with the peak of rut.
If you see hunters’ vehicles parked by the road, watch for frightened deer running
from gunfire, or hunters driving deer. At night, look for disoriented deer who have
been driven out of their home range by hunters, and are trying to find their way
6) If you collide with a deer, duck!
Driver deaths tend to result from a deer flying through the windshield after having
her legs knocked out from under her. The lower you are, the safer you are when this
Barn swallow babies. (Beth Clifton)
7) Brake gently for birds.
Many birds cannot rise fast enough to evade an oncoming car without using the air
current the car pushes to provide extra lift. If you brake too abruptly for a bird flying
straight ahead of you, you may take away the push he needs and send him crashing
into your windshield. Lift your foot off the gas and slow down gently, gradually, until
the bird rises above your car or peels away to one side.
8) Watch for intoxicated birds!
Birds may fly into the road when close to potentially intoxicating food sources, such
as pyracantha berries, any sort of fermenting fruit, or freshly sprayed fields, where
dying insects may become a lethal temptation.
(Beth Clifton photo)
9) When you see anything enter the road that a dog might chase, look for the
Several hundred thousand dogs are killed on U.S. roads each year. Most are chasing
something–a ball, a child, a cat, a squirrel, a bicyclist or jogger, even the cars that hit
(Beth Clifton photo)
10) Cats know cars are dangerous, but make the wrong moves.
Most roadkilled cats are hit at night. Typically cats know cars are dangerous, but
appear to confuse the beams from a car’s headlights with the car itself. This may be
because outdoor cats are mostly nocturnal, and perceive the danger as being from
exposure by the headlights, rather than from being crushed by the tires.
(Beth Clifton photo)
Accordingly, cats usually hunker down in roadside ditches or among vegetation and
try to avoid being caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. When the lights go
by them, cats think it is safe to dash out––just as the car reaches them.  Expect cats
to make this mistake and you will be prepared to react if they do.
Cars killed about 5.4 million cats per year in the early 1990s––more than were killed in
U.S. animal shelters! Since then both the roadkill toll on cats and the shelter toll have
plummeted, to about 500,000 and two million, respectively, but only because the
advent of neuter/return programs has markedly reduced the feral cat population.
(Trish Conner photo)
11) Opossums play possum.
Opossums feast on roadkill, a habit that gets about 8.3 million opossums a year
roadkilled. A large object in the road at night may be roadkill plus an opossum, who
may either freeze in your headlights or try to run away.
Opossums don’t run very fast, and sometimes play possum in front of cars, pretending
to be dead in hopes of not being disturbed. Slow down until you have positively
identified any situation involving an opossum.
Armadillo. (Trish Conner photo)
12) Armadillos jump.
Armadillos “seem similar in habits to opossums,” says Pat Hayes, an ANIMALS 24-7
roadkill prevention tip sheet user who has a lot more experience with them than we
do. “They are slow, short-sighted, and cannot run out of the way fast. They seem to
be attracted to the grass verges of roads, often several together, and wander onto
the highway at night.“Judging from the roadkills one sees, which are usually intact
corpses at the edge of the highway,”  Hayes says,  “I would guess that most of them
are side-swiped because they cannot get out of the way quickly enough.  Watch
for ‘bumps’ near the road, especially at night.  If you see an armadillo, slow down
and expect others nearby.  You will have to drive around them, particularly on the
highway,  as they are not fast enough to avoid a moving vehicle.”

Relatively few rabbits and hares stop, look,
and listen before entering a busy roadway,
but this one did.(Beth Clifton photo)

Partially contradicts Rea Cord,   executive director for the Humane Society of
Elmore County in Wetumpka,  Alabama,  “Armadillos are surprisingly fast––not
slow at all when they don’t want to be.  Unfortunately,  armadillos have an odd,  
but devastating reaction to fear when it comes to cars.  When armadillos are
startled they very often spring straight up into the air.  Many are killed that way,  
as a driver tries to straddle them and they spring straight up into the undercarriage.”

13) Rabbits run in circles.
A rabbit scared out of the road by the car ahead of you may circle right back into
the road. This is especially likely with varying hares, the rabbit species most often seen
throughout the U.S.
A quick tap of your horn as you approach where the rabbit went may freeze him out
of harm’s way––but not always.
A rabbit racing out in front of you might also be under pursuit by a fox or coyote, who
will usually stop, or a dog, who may not, or a hawk, owl, or eagle, who may already
be in mid-strike, at approximately your eye level.
(Larry Caine photo)
14) Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits zig-zag.
Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits are among the hardest species to avoid. All three
evade predators, when on the ground, chiefly through their ability to rapidly change
The surest way to avoid a rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel is to stop and wait until the
critter is safely out of the road. As long as you are 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, or as a hawk, owl, or eagle, and keep switching and reversing course.
This explains why some fairly extensive studies have discovered that speed is not a
factor in killing squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks: they are as likely to get hit by a
slow-moving car as one going like a bat out of hell, simply because they zig-zag in
the wrong direction, mis-guessing which way the driver will swerve.
Rabbits,  and probably squirrels and chipmunks too,  will also often wait at a roadside
until a car has come too close to stop,  then run directly at the car to try to escape
underneath it to the presumed safety on the other side.  This apparently suicidal
behavior actually saves many a rabbit’s life when a hawk,  owl,  or eagle swoops:  
once the raptor is committed to a strike path,  and is descending too rapidly to
change it,  the rabbit runs straight toward the swoop so that the bird cannot strike
without slowing down,  pulling up,  and reversing direction,  all of which gives the
rabbit getaway time.
Unfortunately,  cars are supported not by the rush of air beneath wings,  but by tires,  
which unlike a raptor’s talons extend all the way to the ground,  and which rabbits
often fail to see straight ahead of them because their eyes are set on the sides of
their heads.
(Beth Clifton photo)
Fortunately, it is easy to anticipate when you are likely to see rabbit, chipmunk, or
squirrel. Rabbits are most plentiful in lightly wooded areas or alongside brushy
ditches, from the end of spring through the end of summer. They may be seen either
by day or by 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 tends to litter roadsides with edible nuts.
Chipmunks and squirrels will remain plentiful on the roads all year in tree-lined areas
where there is no snow cover, and in snow country will continue to appear until after
the first snowfall that stays down. They are usually out only in broad daylight.

Rescued young beaver.
(Dave Pauli photo)
15) Watch for beavers near culverts.
In spring and early summer young beavers leave their parents to seek their own pond.
They move slowly, usually at night, and can be hard to see but if you are driving near
wetlands, expect them. They typically try to cross roads at culverts.
16) Raccoons travel in families.
Raccoons often travel in families of up to seven members. If one is hit, the rest may
stay beside her and get hit too. Raccoons also scavenge roadkills, so watch for
raccoons around any roadkill site.
(Beth Clifton photo)
17) Raccoons often turn to face danger.
Raccoons may respond to an approaching car as they would to a predator they
cannot outrun, turning to try to face the threat down, and thereby often stepping i
nto the path of a speeding car.
18) Raccoons, skunks, and porcupines prefer to mind their own business.
If a raccoon, skunk, or porcupine is directly ahead, you will have to stop to let the
animal escape.
Otherwise, the safest tactic around raccoons, skunks, and porcupines is to avoid
attracting their notice. Don’t jam on the brakes, don’t accelerate; just ease off the
gas and cruise on by. Raccoons, skunks, and porcupines who do not feel threatened
will just mind their own business.
(Anthony Marr photo)
19) Beware of large dark animals: feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose,
and bears.
Feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose, and bears are all most often hit in hilly
and partially wooded areas where broken fences are not easily visible and even
large animals can be unseen as they cross roads at dips. Dips tend to coincide with
streams, which are natural animal corridors.
Feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose and bears are all hard to see at night,
because they tend to be dark, and except for pigs, tend to stand above the driver’s
visual focus, which will be where the headlights meet the pavement.
This bovine wears white at night.  (Beth Clifton photo)
If a cow or bison is standing where the headlights meet the pavement, the car will
move forward eight to 10 feet before most drivers see the cow, and if a horse, elk, or
moose is there, the car may move forward another 12 feet. This markedly reduces
stopping time, especially when driving fast.
Car collisions with pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose, and bears are frequently
fatal to the driver. Hitting any of these species results in significant impact; knocking
the legs out from under the taller species typically results in the body of the animal
going through the windshield of the vehicle, crushing the occupants.
20) Beware of herd behavior.
Cattle and bison will usually break through a fence as a herd. They will stand their
ground at the approach of a threat. This increases their likelihood of being hit, if not
seen but cattle and bison are predictable, and once one member of a herd starts to
move in a given direction, chances are good that they all will.

Grizzly bear.
(Beth Clifton photo)
The responses of horses, elk, and moose are harder to anticipate. Some act like
cattle; some bolt like deer.
21) Pigs and bears forage along roadsides at night.
Pigs and bears are often not seen at all, until too late. If you see a dark mass where
you should see road, think pig or bear. Fortunately, pigs and bears rarely linger in
roads. Pigs, however, often eat acorns alongside roads, and bears forage for berries
in roadside ditches. Both pigs and bears may be hit on narrow roads because they
are focused on the acorns or berries, not the traffic.
(Brooke Freimuth photo)
22) Pigs and bears cross roads on the run.
Where traffic is fast and frequent, pigs and bears usually cross roads on the dead run.
Females tend to be followed by their offspring, so as with deer, if you see a pig or a
bear, look for several more.
23) Frogs like wet weather.
In wet weather, if you are near a pond or ditch and it’s not yet cold, you’ll likely see
frogs. Some frog species will freeze in your headlights. Others will just keep hopping.
Slow down and try to drive around them.
(Beth Clifton photo)
24) Turtles look like rocks.
If you see a “rock” in the road that looks larger than rocks in roads usually are, or
seems to move even just slightly, think “turtle.”
Turtles tend to try to look more like rocks when they perceive danger, by pulling in
their heads and legs to hide inside their shells. As most drivers try to avoid hitting
rocks, this would seem to be a good survival strategy. However, research by
Western Carolina University psychology professor Hal Herzog and Clemson University
student Nathan Weaver indicates that about one driver in 50 hits turtles deliberately.
(Faye McBride photo)
Small wonder, therefore, that roadkills appear to be among the major reasons for
drastic declines in turtle populations throughout the U.S.
25) If you stop to rescue the turtle, use your car as a shield against traffic,
with four-way flashers on.
Always move the turtle to the side of the road that the turtle is heading toward, as
they tend to migrate along rigidly set routes.
(Beth Clifton photo)
26) Coldblooded snakes often warm themselves on roads.
If you see a straight object that looks like a stick in the road, assume it is a snake until
you know it isn’t.
Late in the day, as the temperature drops, snakes may go into torpor and be unable
to move quickly without help.
For the story of the road rescue behind this photo,

(Beth Clifton photo)
27) Watch for falling birds & squirrels.
If trees arch over a road, fledgling birds may fall from nests into the road in late spring.
If power lines cross a road, squirrels may fall off while trying to use the wires as a
corridor from tree to tree. Animals who fall into roads usually survive the fall itself, only
to be hit by cars moments later.

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