Wild Neighbors: Roadkill Revisited

By Joe Eaton
Monday October 04, 2010 - 02:08:00 PM

The California Roadkill Observation System has been up and running for a year now. Maine recently got into the act, and I would expect additional states to follow. It’s straightforward enough: if you spot dead wildlife on the road, you can report your observations to a website where they will be tabulated and mapped. 

CROS, a joint project of the Road Ecology Center and Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis, has had 7783 observations reported to date, representing 217 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. A retired veterinarian named Ronald Ringen is credited with 1610 sightings. 

You will probably not be surprised to learn that the most frequently reported casualty is the raccoon (953 observations.) The remainder of the top ten includes the striped skunk, immortalized by Loudon Wainwright III, in second place; then the California ground squirrel, Virginia opossum, mule deer, western gray squirrel, desert cottontail, and black-tailed jackrabbit. The only non-mammals are number 9, the barn owl, and number 10, the common toad. 

That seems pretty representative. My own sightings on a recent trip from Berkeley to Sebastopol included raccoon, possum, skunk, and two deer. The only real surprises on the top ten list are the gray squirrel, which I think of as relatively uncommon, and the toad. I’ve never seen a road-killed toad in California, and I hope these are not the Davis toads for which highway undercrossings were being built. 

Scrolling down the raw list of species reveals some interesting outliers. There’s the odd fox, both native gray and introduced red, and coyote; even mink, river otter, and badger. Last month’s mammal reports also included black bear and feral pig. Occasional non-owls among the birds: mourning dove, spotted towhee, turkey vulture, red-winged blackbird, ring-necked pheasant, common moorhen, western scrub-jay, northern mockingbird, American crow (not that many), mallard, wild turkey. Gopher snakes, which have an unfortunate penchant for basking on roads, are among the reptilian victims, along with rattlesnakes, kingsnakes, and racers. Bullfrogs and newts are also reported. 

Not all users are taking the system seriously. The first time I visited the site, I noticed that the species list included “panda” and “large white bear.” These “observations” appear to have subsequently deleted. As far as I could tell, there have been no reports of hairy humanoids (Bigfeet? Bigfoots?) 

Identifying some of the victims must have been a challenge, especially at highway speed. When all you have is a smear of fur, it’s difficult to make species determinations. Props to Dr. Ringen and his wife Sara, who drive hundred-mile loops three times a month, recording GPS locations of their finds; obsessive, but in a good cause. Ringen claims he can spot a mouse while driving 50 miles an hour. According to the New York Times, though, he admits that he “regularly pulls over for bird remains only to find discarded banana peels.”