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)

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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).

Leftovers

foraging raccoon by Kara Allyson CC

One man's trash is another creature's feast (Photo: Kara Allyson, Creative Commons license)

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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw out 34 million tons of food each year—an average of 93 thousand tons per day, and some experts estimate the amount triples on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food for thought, while making another trip to the garbage can following our national day of feasting. Waste not, want not… so the proverb goes. But does anything digestible really ever go to waste? Only if you think food is wasted when humans don’t consume it.

red squirrel in trash can by Rémi Lanvin ccWe live on a planet where, if someone can eat it, bet your bottom dollar someone does eat it. Within a biotic community there are three basic trophic (feeding) levels:  producers, consumers, and decomposers. Producers transform energy from the Sun into sugar (i.e. food)—that’s the work of green plants. Primary consumers eat the plants, secondary or tertiary consumers eat the animals that eat the plants. Decomposers transform both dead plants and animals back into their abiotic components (e.g., water, nitrogen, CO2). All three groups work together to create food, move it through the community, and return the abiotics back to the environment for another trip through the system.

Food travels through the community in food chains and food webs. A food chain is a simplistic model, a subset, for illustrating the relationship between a community’s trophic levels. For example:

Sun > violets > caterpillars > black-capped vireo > sharp-shinned hawk > black vulture > bacteria

The food web is a more realistic and complex model of the relationship between members of the biotic community. It takes into consideration the fact that most consumers eat more than one thing—vireos don’t just eat caterpillars, they eat a variety of insects, insect larvae, and spiders; sharp-shinned hawks eat all kinds of songbirds, plus some small mammals, and an occasional large insect; black vultures will eat almost any kind of meat, although they seem to prefer it well “aged.” A species can, and usually does, belong to more than one chain within the web. Very little is wasted, and everything that lives eventually takes a turn at eating and being eaten (with the exception of modern humans in the “developed” world, primarily due to our funereal laws and customs).

herring gull at landfill by Jerry Oldenettel ccA large portion of the human population may have disentangled themselves from food webs, but we remain an indirect source of nutrition for many non-human animals, and not just those we feed intentionally, such as our companion animals and livestock. Easy access to consistently plentiful human-produced food waste is a primary reason behind the success of many wild species in urban and suburban habitats. Garbage is also one of the main sources of conflict between wildlife and humans. This is due, largely, to the fact that—and I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this—the human race has some definite control issues when it comes to food.

The concept of owning food seems to be uniquely human, as is the idea that we should be able to stipulate who gets access to calories that we think of as “ours,” including future-food (crops and livestock), faux-food (from Petco or Wild Birds Unlimited), and former-food (garbage).

Skeptical? How many times have you heard a bird-feeding acquaintance complain when squirrels invite themselves to dinner? Or even when the wrong kind of bird drops in for a snack? How about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which spends millions of dollars annually on research and other efforts to reduce or eliminate wild species that like to avail themselves to a helping of the harvest? Consider, also, the time, money, and energy spent trying to keep wild creatures out of garbage cans and dumpsters, so their contents can be transported to the landfill and buried to prevent other non-humans from turning it into a meal.

Of course, there are valid reasons for managing food waste, including aesthetics and hygiene. Garbage stinks, and no one wants to live in the middle of a kitchen midden. You may be willing to share your cast off cuisine with resourceful furred and feathered recyclers, but human neighbors tend to be less than forgiving about garbage-strewn lawns. Picking chicken bones and greasy bits of aluminum foil out of the Zoysia grass isn’t all that fun; even less so when you’re running late for work. It’s mornings like these when homeowners begin to formulate battle plans.

opossum in trash can by Gary Oppenheim ccIt’s a war we’ll never win. At its core, this is a first-come-first-serve, finders- keepers-losers-weepers kind of world, especially when it comes to food. Sure, a brief détente may be achieved through an exclusion technology arms race. Some may even seek vigilante justice against an individual opossum or raccoon, a flock of seagulls or crows.

Victory will be short-lived. There will always be more where those came from because our leftovers are the raw materials from which the next generation of wild dumpster divers are created. Urban wildlife are adaptive, creative, resourceful, and fecund. They are adept exploiters of the humans with whom they live.

Still, in most ways it’s a symbiotic relationship. They take the food we no longer want and, in exchange, add to our quality of life in ways that are easy to recognize and hard to measure. Moreover, by refusing to accept that we are masters of the universe they keep us humble. And for that, I am thankful.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available for use through a Creative Commons license: Rémi Lanvin (red squirrel); Jerry Oldenettel (herring gull); and Gary Oppenheim (opossum).