Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)


Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.


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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

Bearly spring

black bear

American black bears sleep through much of the winter, setting their alarm clocks for April (Photo: Pat Gaines, Creative Commons license)


Obviously, she hasn’t looked at the calendar recently or Mother Nature would know the vernal equinox has come and gone, and there should not be tiny snowflakes drifting past my window on this grizzled April morning. It’s enough to make a gal want to hibernate a while longer. Crawling back into my quilted den, thoughts turned to ursine sleepyheads cautiously probing the air with a fur-covered nose, vacillating, as I am, between warmth and a grumbling stomach.

The abdominal alarm clocks of American black bears (Ursus americanus) are beginning to clang. Further north and west, the bears settled in to snooze 6-7 months ago. Because fall foods such as acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts, and other high-calorie treats are usually more abundant on my side of the continent, East Coast bears don’t tend to head for bed until November or December. The night owls of the family, they may be light sleepers as well; Virginia winters are comparatively mild, so during warm spells bears may rouse and emerge to forage.

There used to be some debate over whether or not bears actually hibernate, although that particular argument seems to have been put to rest. When ground squirrels and other small mammals hibernate, their body temperature drops to near freezing. When hibernation was defined solely in terms of temperature reduction, bears did not qualify as “true hibernators.” Once researchers discovered it’s a depressed metabolism that drives the temperature loss, and that bears do undergo significant metabolic changes that allow them to den for over 7 months without eating, drinking, or producing liquid and solid waste, our understanding—and definition—of hibernation changed; it now includes bears.

Dr. Michael Vaughan, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Bear Research Center in Blacksburg, dreamed of learning even more about hibernation and how it might offer clues to improving human health. When people are sedentary due to an injury, illness, or even space travel, it can lead to osteoporosis. Bears, on the other hand, experience some bone loss during their long periods of inactivity, but they also continue to create bone. By examining the hormones that play a key role in bone formation and breakdown, Dr. Vaughan and his team are trying to unlock the bears’ secret to keeping bone cell production on autopilot during bed rest.

How can bears nap for so long without heading to the refrigerator (which, in the case of a bear, would be the great frozen outdoors beyond their den) with a case of the midnight munchies? By following the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared! Many Homo sapiens have to work hard to keep from gaining weight, but it’s a different story for Ursus. They can’t just saunter up to the counter at McDonalds® and start super-sizing. Even for urban bears, who have access to restaurant dumpsters, it can be a challenge to pack on enough fat stores to survive the deep sleep. A male black bear needs to gain as much as 30 pounds per week, so autumn preparation consists of attempting to consume 10,000 to 12,000 calories—the equivalent of 18-21 Big Macs®—per day.

Compared to that, motivating myself to throw back the covers with the promise of French toast for breakfast sounds downright… slimming.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.