For the Birds Radio Program: Roadside Birding
On August 1, I had to drive down to the Twin Cities, and about half way there, I saw a Sandhill Crane feeding in a roadside ditch right at the side of I-35. Normally this would have seemed incredible and novel, except that twice this summer I saw pairs of cranes feeding in ditches along I-94 near Necedah in Wisconsin.
The Sandhill Crane population in Minnesota and Wisconsin has been increasing, and little by little these magnificent birds have been losing some of their wildness. When I visited my aunt in south central Florida a couple of winters ago, I saw Sandhill Cranes strolling around in people’ s backyards. I’m finding them more and more often in the past few years. But I’m most intrigued with the possibility of them becoming another roadside bird, like Blue Jays along Highway 2 between Duluth and Grand Rapids, Cattle Egrets in the Southeastern U.S., and Red-winged Blackbirds everywhere.
The roadside habitat is actually a pretty dangerous one. Even after lead was taken out of just about all automotive fuel, there are still toxins in car emissions, and a lot of states and counties apply herbicides along roadsides to keep tall weeds from obscuring driving vision. Red-tailed Hawks and Great Homed Owls often hunt near roadsides, where they have a clear view of prey. And on top of all that, of course there’s the danger of the cars themselves.
In the event of a crane colliding with a car or truck, my money would be on the car, unless the crane was one of the kind manufactured by John Deere. Birds are just too fragile to do well against a car. One species in particular, the Red-headed Woodpecker, is declining dangerously, thanks in large part to the huge numbers of them killed by cars. For some reason, when red-heads swoop from place to place they set their altitude at the exact same height as your basic car’s grill or windshield. When I started birding in 1975, I saw more dead Red-headed Woodpeckers than any other species along roads. In the new issue of The Passenger Pigeon, the journal of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, William P. Mueller collected dead birds along Wisconsin roadsides in 1999. He found 1548 dead birds of 109 species. Of the total, there were only 4 Red-headed Woodpeckers–hardly a significant number, except that nowadays it’s getting harder and harder to find red-headeds at all, so four dead on roads in 1999 actually is a significant number. Red-headed Woodpeckers don’t feed near highways-it’s just their habit of flying low as they cross open ground between feeding and nesting areas that makes them vulnerable.
Several years ago I saw a dead Sandhill Cranes along a roadside, but overall, because they actually live in open areas and have more opportunities to actually observe highways to see the danger, they have the opportunity to learn that roads can be dangerous. I haven’t seen a dead Red-winged Blackbird on a highway in over 15 years, though I see thousands of Red-wings perched on roadside weeds on even the busiest, fastest interstates. I don’t know if seeing cranes alongside highways now means we’ll have a bigger or smaller likelihood of finding dead ones along roads in the future. But whatever the new-found habit bodes for cranes, it’s one more reason to slow down and pay attention as you’re driving in a car. Even a bustling traffic thoroughfare holds natural treasures if we only pay attention .