(A Great Gray Owl hunts in tall grass alongside a road in Wyoming)
Last Fall I photographed a pair of Great Gray Owls along a road in Wyoming. It was a magical experience following them around along fence rails and roadsides watching them hunting, sleeping and preening. One was a larger owl (female) and the other smaller (male). I watched how they focused on prey in the grasses completely ignoring the people and photographers around them, and I watched as they flew close to and just over the road to other perches. I didn't think too much about their behavior around the road until I got home a week later and read my email. I found out one of the Great Grays had been hit by a car and was killed the week after I left.
I felt terrible. This beautiful wild animal that I had spent so much time with was now gone. And the worst part was that I couldn't believe it would fly into the path of a car! Why would it do that?
A month or so after that my Dad found an Eastern Screech Owl (rufous) dead on the road by our house. It had been hit by a car. My Dad remembered seeing it on the road in his headlights at that very spot even last summer. It must have had a favorite roosting spot near the street. After having watched a Screech Owl family fledge from one of my nest boxes last Spring and I photographed them in town, I felt terrible again, just like with the Great Gray. But I still didn't understand why this was happening. So I decided to read about it. Here is what I learned...
There are many reasons why owls get hit by cars. And not just owls. Alot of birds get hit by cars. Birds that eat roadkill, like Crows and Vultures are victims many times. But why owls, which hunt at night and only eat live prey and should be able to notice car headlights? Wouldn't headlights scare them? Apparently not enough, and here's why I think so...
My top 5 reasons why owls get hit by cars:
1. There is lots of prey along roads
- We litter a lot. This could attract mice, rats and voles to the grassy sections just off the road. Because owls are so focused on their prey items when hunting, they don't look both ways before flying into or across the road.
- We use street lights and lamps. This could attract moths, bats and other prey.
- We keep the grass along roads trimmed so snow can be plowed and rain runoff can collect and maintenance vehicles have room. This grass is home for a lot of creatures that owls eat.
2. We drive too fast
- Now we know there's a lot of prey near the roads. So, if we drive too fast and an owl is hunting near that road, it doesn't have time to react to the car! :(
3. Owls fly differently
- Most owls have a flight pattern that isn't straight. It's up and down a lot. This means that an owl may think he has room to clear a car but isn't used to avoiding moving objects and can't time his wingbeats. This is just my guess.
4. Owls don't use the Drive-Thru
- Most owls I've seen capture prey don't grab it on the fly and take off with it right away. They pounce on it, make sure they have a good grip and then take off, especially in the snow. So an owl may be on the road a few seconds longer than other raptors.
5. There isn't enough food
- Wait this doesn't make sense with number 1, or does it? What I mean is maybe where the owls usually hunt in the woods or edges of meadows there may be a shortage of voles or field mice so they move somewhere else. And the sides of roads is a pretty good place as I said in number 1.
OK so now that we know that what can we do about it?
1. Remember where you see them and show some respect!
- If you have ever had an owl fly in front of your car on a road you drive on normally, you should remember that spot and try to drive more slowly there. Owls especially in the Spring are in the breeding season and will be close to a nest site so where you see them you may see them again sometime soon.
2. Help out any way you can
- I know a road in Wyoming that has a lot of Great Grays on it and someone made some cool owl crossing signs out of metal, just like the Moose signs they have out there. These signs remind drivers that owls may be around at anytime. This would be a good idea in places where there are alot of owls and car strikes, like with Barn Owls in Britain.
3. Know what to do if it happens to you
- If you hit an owl with your car, you should call your local raptor rehabilitation center and follow their instructions. Do not try to pick the owl up. If you have a towel and a box or something like that you could put that on the owl and then try to pick it up. But only after you talk to the raptor rehab place. And if the owl is definitely dead, then you have to leave it alone. Taking a dead owl off the road is not allowed.
Well I hope you learned something. If you have a local Raptor Rehabilitation Center near where you live you should visit it and learn more about this. Also, support them however you can. Most of the owls in these centers are there because of car strikes!
What do you think? How do you think we can help owls avoid collisions with our cars?