Slaughter on the Highways

🕔Apr 07, 2010

“Do you see many birds?” I asked my friend, Wayne, a logging truck driver.

“A few ptarmigan, including the ones without any black on them at all. And, of course, the suicide birds,” Wayne replied.

I knew immediately what he meant: flocks of common redpolls had been fluttering to the road and then moving on, ahead of the truck, all along our route. They seemed to prefer sitting in the middle of the road to any perch in the 1,000-square-mile forest we were passing through.

Redpolls, pine siskins, pine and evening grosbeaks, and sometimes crossbills (red or white-winged) are the most common “suicide birds.” They form small or large flocks during fall and winter and consider our highways prime habitat during the worst of the year.

They are after grit. Being toothless, birds swallow food, temporarily store it in their crop and grind it up in a muscular gizzard. Hence the need for gravel, sand, stones: Grit. (For those who have worked in the mining industry, the rock crushers use steel balls as grit to grind the ore in great big tumblers that are the gizzards of the operation.)

They also like the salt that we spread on the highways for safety. Salt? How much salt can a bird need? I’m not sure about birds, but I know that salt is essential to human health. Human beings in sophisticated, wealthy kingdoms like those of ancient Ghana knew how important salt was: they traded gold for salt. (They had no Windsor salt mine nearby, apparently.)

Pine siskins also nibble on plaster, “ashes, freshly set Portland cement, chimney mortar, and a blue clay spoil pile from a cellar hole,” according to the authoritative The Birds of British 
Columbia (IV).

That same book mentions 1,000 siskins killed along Highway 1 in Glacier National Park in one winter, and 120 killed along a 30-metre stretch of road near Enderby.

Suicide: not really. Intentional slaughter: no. But slaughter it remains.

Once I rode in the front seat of a bus between Terrace and Smithers. I heard some thumping and saw a bird or two bounce off the windshield. This particular bus driver was not taciturn and told me how he hated killing the birds. He said, “Sometimes the grill is covered with feathers by the time I get to Smithers.”

When I drive the same section in winter by car I try to scare away the birds by honking the horn (I suppose the bus driver wouldn’t make too many passengers happy if he honked that many times.) The birds usually fly away before I get there, then settle down on the road again behind me.

Not that highway-killed birds are ‘wasted.’ I’ve watched coyotes sitting on the shoulder waiting for traffic to pass, then darting out and grabbing dead and dying birds. Ravens consider highways to be snack bars. They sit on a snag and clunk down on the road after each bird strike, pick up a small bird and strain to swallow it whole. A big gulp, then wait for the next meal. But occasionally they, too, meet a vehicular fate and become fare for other scavengers themselves.

If you live near a freeway, the number of dead birds may not be as immediately apparent. With thousands of cars on a freeway, you may not find big flocks of siskins, but in some places you may see flocks of horned larks or snow buntings along the shoulder in winter.

Freeway rights-of-way are superb wildlife habitat. Where they are not mowed, they provide grassy, shrubby, or forested habitat. But birds cross roads. They fly across roads. Mother ducks try to lead their young across the highway. Young birds making their first flights land on roads. Swallows swoop after insects and encounter Toyotas, Chevies and Macks.

Intentional slaughter? No. But slaughter it remains. The best-intentioned efforts to help wildlife often cause death.

Swerving to avoid a killdeer and causing human death is not an option. People are more important at some point. But death by highway is much more common than we think. Our convenience, our human necessity for transportation, has a cost.

And I have no answer to the dilemma. Drive slower? Overpasses for birds? (That’s called air.) Training and educating people probably won’t work in high-volume traffic areas. Training and educating birds doesn’t seem possible. There is always survival of the fittest, I suppose.

As a sometimes grouse-hunter, I wish to testify that I have seen more grouse flattened on our light-volume, backwoods roads during the past two years than I’ve shot.

Outside of making scavengers happy, I don’t know what to say about the slaughter on our highways. I only know that the siskins and redpolls, grosbeaks and crossbills, pheasants and grouse, are not really suicidal.