Nature Notes: Crossing the Road

In the human species, the funny season often lasts 365 days, so one always has to be on one’s guard.

   Friday afternoon I was driving my pickup along Daniel’s Hole Road passing East Hampton Airport when three healthy looking female deer jumped the low fence on the edge of the airport side of the road and bounded across in front of me to the mowed field beyond. I saw them from a fairly long distance and slowed accordingly.
    I hit my first deer in 1961 on my way to Cornell, and in the 38 years since then that I have been driving Long Island roads, I have hit two other deer, one on Cedar Street in East Hampton and the other on Ferry Road on North Haven. The one in 1961 caused serious damage; the other two, no noticeable damage. The North Haven deer was the last and left barely a scratch. It shouldn’t have taken me that long to adjust to deer, but these days I drive very differently and much more cautiously, giving the deer the benefit of the doubt.
    From September through December is the crazy season for deer, and that is when drivers should be the most cautious. When deer are preoccupied with breeding, they cast some of their customary cautions to the wind. While rutting, their movements are very unpredictable. Females with fawns along roads in the other months act responsibly, often waiting by the side of the road until approaching vehicles have passed, then crossing with their little ones in tow. In the human species, the funny season often lasts 365 days, so one always has to be on one’s guard. I think I trust deer far more than I trust humans in that respect.
    I’ve been tallying roadkills on Long Island roads since 1980, in which time I have clocked about 300,000 miles, everything from major arteries like the Long Island Expressway to the most minor ones, only a few hundred feet long, ending in a blind cul-de-sac. The species on the top of the road-kill list varies from year to year and depends a lot on the size of the population during a given year, the amount of available food for a given species during the year, and the season.
    Adding up the 32 years of roadkills, which I have yet to do in a scientific way, I can state authoritatively that gray squirrels are the species most frequently run over. Their killing season is maximal in September and October, mirroring the deer road-kill frequency, but for different reasons. The deer are looking for mates; the squirrels are looking for food. In the summer, as many fawns are killed on the roads as adult deer; not so for the gray squirrel. I have never encountered a baby gray squirrel roadkill. They tend to stay in trees, where they are safest, and away from roads.
    After squirrels come opossums and raccoons, including some young-of-the-year individuals. Squirrels, opossums, and raccoons are not fast runners, and take longer to cross highways and streets. Thus, the probability of one being clipped is much greater than for, say, a fox, which can run at speeds approaching 30 miles an hour. Opossums and raccoons are also very often active at night when they are less likely to be seen by motorists, especially on roads that are not street lighted.
   Then, too, and unlike deer and squirrels, there are years when raccoons, opossums, and foxes are few in number. Statistically, they are less likely to be run over at that point. One gets a rough idea of the population size of a given road-kill species in any one year by counting them and comparing the numbers to other years. In the early 1990s, for example, raccoon numbers fell dramatically. As the local population was beaten down by distemper, the raccoon road-kill counts throughout the South Fork in those years were very low.
    On the other hand, the red fox population, which hit a high in the middle to late-1990s, but then because of the mange, stayed low until 2010, when it started to build again. As of yet, it has not attained nearly the high numbers witnessed during those previous years. In fact, for the years 2000 through 2008, there were very few fox roadkills. The gray fox, although native to Long Island, has always been outnumbered by the red fox, and in 32 years I have recorded only one gray fox roadkill.
    In upstate New York skunks are among the most common of road-kill mammals, but not on Long Island, where for the past 60 years or so, skunks have been quite rare. It’s hard to miss a skunk roadkill, if you don’t see it, you almost certainly will smell it. Muskrat roadkills show up when fresh water ponds begin to dry up, at which time the muskrats look for more aqueous habitats. I count five or six every year. Long-tailed weasels are either very rare or very wary. I seldom record more than one dead on the road in a given year. In the last five years I have come across none.
    When I was a boy in Mattituck, in vegetable crop country, cottontail rabbits were the most commonly encountered roadkills by far. When you drove along a country road at night you would likely see four or five feeding along the shoulders in every mile. Not so on the South Fork. In the last five or six years, dead cottontails on the road have become quite frequent, almost as frequent as squirrels, apparently having to do with the scarcity of red foxes. But there are quite a few red-tailed hawks flying around out there, and more than a handful of great-horned owls, both of which are very fond of rabbits. Rabbits can be active throughout most of the 24-hour day. If the red-tails and foxes don’t get them during daylight hours, the great-horned owls are likely to get them at night.
    Songbirds that feed on the edges of roads, at times picking up insects and worms off the road surface, are the most common avian roadkills encountered. Catbirds and robins are the most common birds on my road-kill lists. Grackles, particularly just fledged grackles, are next. Then come herring gulls, a scavenger species that finds its goodies along the roads, but also one that drops crabs, clams, and other shellfish on hard surfaces, i.e., any paved road close to marine waters.
    Turkeys have become quite common, but in the 20 years since they were first reintroduced here in Montauk, I have tallied an average of less than one turkey roadkill per year. They walk around like they own the roads, more than any other mammal or bird, and are quite watchful of passing cars. It’s hard to miss a turkey on the highway; they are among the biggest of American birds and seldom travel alone. I have never come across a roadkill Canada goose, nor a black duck, but count several mallards, almost all males, among the recorded kills each year. They are the tamest and most trusting of the local waterfowl and, perhaps, it is their unwary nature that gets them into trouble.
    Among amphibians, bullfrogs are not uncommon as roadkills. Like muskrats, when their ponds dry up, they seek other waters and have been known to travel a mile or more over land for such purpose. As for reptiles, snakes are very scarce roadkills, while in some years turtles are as common as raccoons and opossums. They are very slow, yet determined. Big as or bigger than a brick or largish rock, and only afoot during daylight hours, one would think that they would be easily observed and watched out for. It is even possible that there are some motorists out there who make it a point to hit one once seen. I will say this, however, box turtle roadkills are becoming less and less common each year. Either their population is dwindling or drivers are more watchful and respectful of their presence. I hope it’s the latter.
    As animals have “cultures” just as we have them, let’s hope their cultures are progressing accordingly with each generation and that fewer and fewer of them will be crushed by radial tires than in years past. Let’s also hope that the human culture progresses as well. To some observers it seems to have come to a standstill.