Here is a joke that a Cajun gentleman once told me at Louisiana State University: "Why did the chicken cross the road? - Answer: To prove to the nutria and the armadillo that it could be done."
OK, I admit it, I watch for road kill. The roads through the bayous of Louisiana sometimes seem littered with the two mammal species mentioned above. Plenty of other people who are associated with the museum watch for roadkill too. Wildlife does not fare well when there are millions of cars traveling at high speeds. But most people do not even notice. The only good thing for us is that it can sometimes mean a specimen with data. But of course, you have to notice it, and you have to stop, go back, and pick it up (and you have to hope it hasn’t been destroyed). That can mean picking the right time to make a dash in the break between the millions of speeding cars. One morning several weeks ago, as I was driving down Howard Street (Evanston/Chicago) taking my son Pete to the high school, I spotted something on the road. The snow had just melted so there was trash, but this looked like something small, with a big head. Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) immediately came to mind, but it was a quick look, I was driving, there was traffic, and Pete had to get to school, so I kept going. I dropped Pete off, but I decided it wasn’t out of my way to go back and check.
There is always a sense of mystery associated with going back. One Fall day in Tucson, Arizona, Steve Russell, my major professor at the University of Arizona and the curator of the U of A bird collection, there stopped when he saw something beside the road and went back to pick up one of the few specimens of Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) for the state (specimen #UAz015138). The state’s only record of Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) was a bird found on a highway outside of Yuma. I remember someone joking that if there were more roads maybe there would be more Sooty Shearwaters in Arizona.
Other stories end differently, like the time my Dad, brother and I were on a birding trip in Montana and my Dad thought he saw a dead Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) on the highway. What I remember is that we drove over a mile before he decided he had to go back and check if that is what it was. We all laughed when upon close approach, his grouse turned into a large cow pie. At highway speeds, it is always a challenge to correctly identify bird-sized objects along the road.
We have many specimens in our collection that were hit by cars. Without a doubt, the most amazing series is the more than 600 Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa) Dave Willard and Tom Gnoske have prepared. These were almost all hit by cars along roads and brought in to Minnesota Department of Natural Resource Offices during the winters of 2004-2005. It is a unique series of these magnificent birds that died during several invasion years where large numbers came south from Canada to cross into the northern parts of the border states. To me, it says something about Minnesotans that they cared enough about their wildlife to stop their cars, gather up the fatality and bring it to a DNR office. As a result of their efforts, and long hours of preparation by Tom and Dave, we now have specimens, as well as data on diet from the analysis of stomach contents. We have provided feather samples for isotope analyses to better understand seasonal movements. We also know that some years the birds are nearly starving based on their body condition, and this is probably because they couldn’t punch through frozen snow. As part of the Bird Division collections, these specimens will be available for all kinds of studies far into the future.
In the afternoon of my potential Saw-whet Owl sighting, Dave told me he had received a call about a dead skunk along Lake Shore Drive. The person who called had said it was in the center barrier so she had not stopped to get it, and of course, it was a skunk (a Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis), which has smelly implications far beyond other types of road kill. But events like this make me wonder, what kind of Striped Skunk was it? Was it an animal that had wandered into the area from far away, or was it a hardened city dweller. Is there a difference? These are the kinds of questions that series of such specimens can answer. On the way home, I saw the dead skunk against the center median as drove north on Lake Shore Drive. It was just past the curve at Oak Street, but I have to admit, it would take a major effort – dedication, to go get it. Late at night, that would be how to do it. I confess I did not go back.
But back to that morning on Howard Street, when I got near the area where I thought the owl had been I pulled over, parked and got out. I was off by about 50 yards about where I had seen it, but as I walked eastward, I could see it, and the suspense mounted. Then, just as I got near, I saw a car tire go right over it, argh, still something might be salvageable. I got closer, looked down, and realized it was part of a dead rabbit, not an owl and there really was not much left to salvage, so I headed into the museum, but next time could be different.