For the Birds Radio Program: Slow Down!

Original Air Date: May 13, 2004

There is no excuse for running over a prairie chicken. (5:13)

Audio missing


I had to drive to southwest Minnesota this week, and coming home I saw a beautiful male Prairie Chicken—the only one I’ve ever seen in Minnesota—dead on State Highway 23 east of Marshall. Several miles farther along the same highway, I came upon a female Ring-necked Pheasant just starting to cross the road. I’m not a speedy driver, and what with gas prices over $2 a gallon, I had financial as well as other reasons to be going under 55, and it was early afternoon so there weren’t any cars behind me, giving me ample time to slow down. Considering she was an adult pheasant, alive for at least one full year on this planet crisscrossed with highways, she didn’t seem to have a clue about highways, so she stood still in my lane for several seconds, and would have joined the Prairie Chicken in that great grassland in the sky except that it just happened to be safe for me to come to a complete stop. She looked up at my car, and as her eyes met mine her head feathers went up in a Homer Simpson-like Doh!, and she turned tail and ran back the way she came. Stopping or veering into another lane for a pheasant isn’t safe when you aren’t absolutely certain that there are no cars behind you, so this bird was pretty darned lucky. I was lucky, too. Years ago, when I was going 55 down I-35 in Oklahoma, I hit a Bobwhite, a bird that weighs less than a quarter of what a female pheasant weighs, and the impact knocked my headlight completely out of alignment—to say nothing of dispatching the poor quail. Most animals are killed or mortally wounded when hit by a car. The faster the driver is going, the more likely the car will be badly damaged, too, and the more likely that people in the car will be hurt or even killed. Last month I saw two dead Wild Turkeys on highways. Birds that heavy can break a windshield, and sure enough, there was broken glass on the road by one of them.

Overall, I’ve been pretty lucky so far as far as hitting animals. I’ve killed that Bobwhite, a bird I think was an owl that I didn’t see before or after my windshield hit it on Glenwood Street in Duluth one dark night, a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the early 1990s during an autumn migration fall-out, and one 13-lined ground squirrel in the cloverleaf exit from the high bridge into Superior. Doesn’t sound like much until you consider that if everyone kills just 4 birds over a lifetime, that’s more than a billion birds taken out by the current U.S. population. I try pretty hard to not kill birds—when there are no cars about, I usually even slow down for butterflies. I’ve found that when warblers cover the ground as they did last fall, it’s easy to miss them when you’re going 25 or less, but impossible not to hit them when you’re going over 35. Last fall’s huge warbler fallout was so very noticeable that I really expected other drivers to slow down, too, but not many did.

Considering the price of gas, I was a little surprised at how many large cars and SUVs passed me on my trip this week. We got a new car in January—a 2004 Toyota Prius, with a hybrid engine which gets over 50 miles per gallon during highway driving, and more like 60 miles per gallon during city driving. As if to remind drivers that driving just a few miles per hour slower improves mileage significantly, there’s a computerized screen on the dashboard that shows my mileage every step of the way. I get about 10 more miles per gallon driving 55 than 70. So I save over a gallon on a round trip between Duluth and the Twin Cities, and even more on longer trips.

Of course, saving gas helps more than wallets. Extracting oil, transporting it, and refining it all cause various forms of pollution, and then when the gas is burned up in a car engine, it adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Slowing down saves oil, money, our environment, birds and other animals, and human lives. Seems like the right thing to do.