Red Asphalt

I’ve often wondered why I see so many birds of prey dead along the road

By Rob Breeding

I’m old enough to have been forced to watch the original version of “Red Asphalt” during high school driver’s ed. It was the driver’s ed shock film popular back in the day.

I don’t know if these films are still a part of driver’s ed curriculum, and I’m also not sure if we learned much from them. I do know that cars are a heck of a lot safer today. Those American cars of the 1960s and ’70s relied on the physics of tons of steel, along with sheer luck, to keep people safe in the event of a crash.

Modern automobiles with air bags, crumple zones and reinforced passenger compartments do a much better job protecting drivers and passengers in a wreck.

That’s not the case for the critters we run into in our modern automobiles. Driving through the oil fields of southern Wyoming last week we crossed a lonely stretch of asphalt we named “Picket Pen Alley,” after the small ground squirrels that lined the highway. Some were squished, while others appeared to be auditioning for the role of road kill, the way they lingered at the highway’s edge.

Picket pen, by the way, is a new one for me. My navigator and road trip companion assured me that’s what everyone calls them. They’re a bit of a nuisance apparently, digging holes around corrals, or more eerily, graveyards. Picket pen plinking with a .22 is apparently both a fun, recreational activity, good for the whole family, as well as a necessary chore to protect farm animals from injury.

As the light waned, rabbits began to appear at the road’s edge, small cottontails that sat at the shoulder, their backs turned to the roadway. At first I’d slow a bit, but it quickly became apparent there was a bunny about every mile or so, and you only drive across the oil fields of southern Wyoming if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere else. Soon I slowed only for the bunnies resting in the middle of the road.

That mostly worked, except for one suicidal rabbit that scurried off to the side as we approached, only to whirl back in our direction at the last moment. We heard the dull thud of steel meeting bunny as we motored on.

I’m not sure what causes this odd, suicidal behavior, but more than one bunny tried the same move, though the rest were spared. It’s probably a function of brain size and panic in the face of threat. The fight-or-flight reflex gone mad I suppose.

I’ve hit only one deer, and considering the number of times I’ve driven the Swan that’s an achievement. I was on Highway 93 south of Lakeside, and that deer pulled the same spin-back-into-danger move as the suicidal rabbit. In the deer’s case I’d slowed to the point that I barely knocked the dang thing over before it brushed itself off, gave me a nasty look, and ran off.

One thing I never do is swerve to avoid critters. I slow. I may honk my horn, but I never swerve. Swerving leads to more serious collisions with oncoming traffic, or a loss of control that can land you in the borrow pit, or worse. Even if collision is imminent, I keep my vehicle pointed straight ahead.

I’ve often wondered why I see so many birds of prey dead along the road. I got my answer just after dusk when we flushed an owl from where it had been dining on picket pen road kill. It takes a bit for an owl with a tummy full of squirrel jerky to get off the ground. Fortunately, that bird was in the opposite lane of traffic or it would have had an intimate experience with my grill.

I’ve always imagined owls were too noble a bird for road kill scavenging. Apparently, the lessons of driver’s ed never end.

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