Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wild Animals & Birds

Roadkill Avoidance Tips

Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People 

Many birds cannot rise fast enough to evade an oncoming car, unless they fly directly ahead of the car, using the air current it 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.

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 and an opossum, who may either freeze in your headlights or try to run away. Opossums don't run very fast, so slow down until you've positively identified the situation.

Common in late spring through early fall, a rabbit scared out of the road by the car ahead of you might circle right back into the road. A quick tap of your horn as you approach where the rabbit went may freeze him out of harm's way.

Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits 
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 directions. 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'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, or as a hawk, and may 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. 
   Fortunately, it is easy to anticipate when you're 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 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 tends to litter roadsides with edible nuts. Chipmunks and squirrels will remain plentiful on  the roads in tree-lined areas until after the first snowfall. They are usually out only in broad daylight.

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're driving near wetlands, expect them. They typically try to cross roads at culverts.

Raccoons often travel in family groups of up to seven members, so if one raccoon is hit, the rest may stay beside her and get hit, too. Raccoons also scavenge roadkills. They'll turn to face a sudden danger, often stepping into the path of a speeding car. Try to avoid getting their attention. Don't jam on the brakes, don't accelerate; just ease off the gas and cruise casually by.

In spring, so many turtles are hit by cars as they migrate between breeding ponds that many species have become regionally endangered. If you're near wetlands and see a rounded lump in the road, assume it's a turtle until you know otherwise. 

More than 100 Americans are killed each year in deer/car collisions -- and 70% of the time the driver slowed down for one deer, then stepped on the gas and hit another. Deer babies are as big as their mamas in October and November, but they are still babies, and they still follow Mama. Mamas often have two fawns, so if you see one deer, slow down and look for two more.
   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. If you see hunters' vehicles parked by the road, watch for frightened deer running from gunfire, or hunters and/or dogs driving deer.
   If you see a deer bolt right in front of you in daylight or twilight during hunting season, too close even to brake, try to duck below the dashboard with a shoulder between your head and your airbag, if any, if you hit the deer hard. Driver fatalities tend to result from a deer coming through the windshield after having her legs knocked out from under her. The lower you are, the better-protected you are from this type of accident -- but no strategy is perfect. You may get hurt no matter what you do.
   If you miss the deer, keep your head protected by your headrest and the door post as you drive across the deer's path. We get several reports a year of drivers being killed or wounded by hunters who (illegally) shoot across roads at deer.

Skunks newly awakened from winter hibernation are slow to recognize danger. When threatened, their defense is to turn their backs and spray. If you see a skunk beside the road, don't slow down abruptly. The
skunk may think you've seen him and will attack. Act as if you're minding your own business and he'll go on about minding his. 
   In July and August, a skunk may be leading four to seven kittens across the road, and they may trail up to 20 feet behind her. If you see one skunk, look for more before assuming it's safe to pass. 

Cold-blooded snakes will warm themselves on pavement in late summer, but they often can't move away quickly when a car approaches. If you see a straight object that looks like a stick in the road, assume it's a
snake until you know it isn't.

Woodchucks dart out on the road much like cats, hunched low to the ground to avoid being seen. Drivers, who often mistake them for cats, tend to allow enough time for a cat to cross in front of them; but that
fat brown cat in the road ahead may actually be a woodchuck, a woodchuck at best moves only half as fast, and 5 million woodchucks a year get hit by cars.

In wet weather, if you're near a pond or ditch and it's not yet cold weather, you'll likely be seeing frogs. They'll freeze in your headlights, so don't expect them to move. Slow down and try to drive around them.

In winter, moose will lick road salt and travel along ploughed roads. At night, moose are almost invisible because they are dark, don't make sudden moves, and are tall enough that your tired eyes, fixed to the headlight lit roadway, may not recognize them. Slow down in moose country, and keep your eyes moving up and to the sides. 
   In case of impact, duck under your dashboard, with a shoulder between your head and your airbag, if any. As with deer, fatalities usually result from the animal coming through the windshield--but any moose/car collision can be fatal, no matter what you do.

Bears feast on roadside grass or berries, especially in remote country, so beware of thickets close to the road. When bears bolt across roads, they often do it at a dead run, and babies follow Mama. If you see one bear, look for two more. And look out for bear-watchers who have stopped their cars in the roadway.

Because I have never lived anywhere that armadillos occurred, I have had no opportunity to observe their behavior around cars and develop appropriate avoidance tips. Statistical data indicates, however, that
armadillos rank among the 10 mammal species most likely to be hit. If anyone has armadillo avoidance tips, I'd like to add them to this roster.

Cars kill about 5.4 million cats per year--more, by a million-plus, than are killed in U.S. animal shelters! Most of them are hit at night. Typically cats know cars are dangerous, but confuse the beams from your headlights with your car itself. When the lights go by them, they think it's safe to dash out. Expect them to make this mistake and you'll be prepared to react if they do. 

1.2 million dogs were killed on U.S. roads last year, and most of them were likely chasing something -- a ball, a child, a cat, a squirrel. When you see anything that a dog might chase enter the road, look for the dog coming close behind. 

All Species
It's easier and safer to anticipate animals in the road than it is to miss them once they're in front of you. Watch for sudden movement in roadside grass and shrubbery. Remember that most lines in the woods are vertical -- if you see something horizontal, it may be an animal.


Compiled by Merritt Clifton, editor, ANIMAL PEOPLE. (Thanks to the North Shore Animal League, Ark Trust, Michigan Humane Society, Society of Environmental Journalists, Brewster Bartlett a.k.a. Dr. Splatt, and Animal Protection Institute for publication and distribution of previous editions of these tips, which I have been developing and reissuing at least annually via ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1992.)


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