For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Flattened Fauna---A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways

Original Air Date: Nov. 23, 1987

Laura reviews Roger Knutson’s new book, which is stronger in some sections than those about birds.

Audio missing


Flattened Fauna

(Recording from “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead”)

One of the most delightful books I’ve read in a long time is Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways, by Roger Knutson. You wouldn’t think a book about roadkills could possibly be entertaining, but this one is not only packed with information, it also presents it in an amusing, intelligent manner. It begins, “This is a book about animals which, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, are not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead.”

Unfortunately, Roger Knutson is confusing the Wicked Witch of the West with the Wicked Witch of the East–if you remember, Dorothy liquidated the witch of the West at the end of the movie with a dousing of water, melting her to nothingness. The Munchkins had celebrated the demise of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, who was flattened in the aftermath of a tornado by what could be considered a mobile home. But this really most sincerely dead witch is a most appropriate image with which to open a book about flattened creatures.

Knutson states, “A guide to the animals of the road has a specific reason for being: In becoming part of the road fauna celebrated in this book, an animal loses not only its life but also its third dimension…Why an animal is on the road and what it was doing there a few hours or days earlier are recorded in its flat remains as surely as the history of a tree is recorded in its annual rings.”

His book is strongest in its discussions of road mammals and reptiles. He does a passable job with some flattened birds, but they are clearly not his strong suit. He assumes that all gulls on the road are Herring Gulls, which isn’t true in the central states, including Iowa, where he lives. Ring- billed Gulls are the species drawn to fast food joints and grassy roadsides–any gulls plastered on roads in Duluth are doubtlessly Ring-bills. Knutson also writes that female robins are spotted, which they aren’t, and that young starlings are speckled, when they’re solid brown.

Fortunately, these errors are eclipsed by the wealth of sound factual information. Because everyone eventually runs into animals on the road, literally or figuratively, we might as well learn to make the best of it. Knutson suggests keeping a death list, which, if morbid, may provide data about some creatures too secretive to be easily found alive. Most birds are seen or heard in living form more easily than on the road, except Saw-whet Owls, but reptiles and amphibians are often more likely to be discovered as road-kills than in living color.

Knutson discusses what was perhaps the first documented roadkill in America, a large snapping turtle which was flattened under the steel-rimmed wheels of several loaded wagons in North Dakota in 1897. He warns about identifying animals at high speed and how to avoid joining them on the pavement. He also gives guidelines for serious photographers and painters. You might not think that roadkills are aesthetic artistically, but according to Knutson, “The sense of serenity, even peacefulness, conveyed by a completely flattened animal provides an often startling, possibly meaningful, contrast to the barely controlled highway violence that produced it.”

(Recording) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”