What came first, the wildlife or the road?
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
This might be a statement of the obvious, but it is important this time of year to watch out for wildlife when you are driving a vehicle. Northwoods residents are likely accustomed to watching for wildlife crossing the road any time of the day or year; however, I think with the leaves off the trees and a blanket of snow it is easy to become a little complacent about looking around for animals.
Why does wildlife seem to frequent roadways? There was a popular recording on the internet a while back that featured someone complaining that the powers that be were putting deer crossings in bad locations and that’s why deer were always getting hit by cars. Naturally, the caller failed to realize that the deer crossing was likely there long before the road was constructed, and it was due to some kind of natural funnel or feature, not the deer crossing signs. Many of our roads were put in place because they followed some kind of natural feature that existed originally.
It could have been a wildlife trail between lakes, or an old railroad line or wagon trail that followed a particular contour or elevation. Maybe it was a trail that Native Americans used or an old military road. Usually, whatever led our ancestors or early engineers to place a road in a location was as appealing to animals as it was to the people that eventually put their road network there; this forces wildlife to face the unnatural obstacle and figure out how to cross it.
Another reason wildlife frequents roadways might be orientation. Many roads, especially our major highways (like 51 and 41) run north and south, frequently travelling near rivers or lakes. This means they make good corridors or landmarks for migrating wildlife. I routinely observe migratory birds flying directly over me while travelling on some of these highways. Also, the larger state and federal highways usually have a right-of-way that is cleared of trees and mowed. The result is an area of shallower snow; beneath that snow is likely a mix of quality fibrous root grasses and native flowers. Up the hill or away from the road, there is a nice forested edge for escape cover. This is appealing not only for deer, bear and turkeys but even skunks and badgers. There is quality food, good visibility, and safety is just a leap and a bound away.
Another attractive feature of roadsides this time of year is road maintenance. There is usually some kind of ice melting brine or salt spread along many roads at some point, which is then plowed over along the edge of the road shoulder on the edge of the vegetation. This means there will be some delicious salt available for animals like porcupines, rabbits and deer that crave it. The grasses that grow along the edge of these shoulders will also take up some of the excess minerals, making them desirable for grazing and browsing wildlife species.
Road shoulders are also appealing because they can provide grit for bird species. Birds tend to swallow their food whole or in chunks, storing it in their crops. After that it enters the gizzard, where extremely powerful muscles use grit to grind the food into a paste they can digest. They need to ingest sand and small gravel to make this happen; when there is a blanket of snow or a crust, finding the sand along roadsides and the exposed gravel gives them what they need.
Finally, predators and scavengers are attracted to roads because of the animals that tend to get hit by cars. Ravens, crows, bald eagles and a variety of other creatures take advantage of the banquet our vehicles lay out for them.
So, watch out for wildlife this time of year.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.