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NORTHWOODS WILDLIFE RESCUE: Melting snow increases risk of wildlife colliding with vehicles

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This mature bald eagle had severe injury to its right shoulder and wing. It was transported to The Raptor Center at the U of M for treatment.
Photos by Julie Dickie
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The snow is melting. That means that all the roadkill that has been buried under the snow will become exposed.

After a very hard winter, lots of hungry critters will be feasting on these buffets.

We will start with the eagles. The couples likely have eggs or eaglets in their nests. So they are very territorial and will be fighting with or chasing away the younger unmated eagles or other pairs they feel are a bit too close to their nesting site.

Eagles are gorgers in that they eat so much they need to let the food settle before they can take off and fly. The risk of getting hit by vehicles is very real and often ends very badly.

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This mature bald eagle had both shoulders dislocated when it was struck by a vehicle. After treatment and a long recovery, it was successfully released back into the wild.<br/>
Contributed/ Julie Dickie

Gail Buhl of the U of M Raptor Center expressed it very well when she explained that eagles take off like airplanes, not like helicopters. They need a runway, as they do not go straight up.

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Deer and other mammals often get hit when there are tree lines near the road so when the eagles take off it is usually toward the roadway. Unfortunately, this puts them at about bumper or grill height.

The good news is that we can help them. The more runway the eagles have, the better their chances are of getting airborne high enough to clear the roof of most vehicles.

If you are physically able and it is safe, it helps if the deer is moved a little further away from the roadway. If the carcass is further from the roadway (closer to the tree line), the eagle can hop into the woods if it senses danger and wait safely while the danger (vehicle) passes. If it does take off, it has more opportunity to gain altitude allowing it to clear the vehicles on the roadway.

Slowing down when you see eagles feeding on the sides of the roadway will also help. It may provide a better opportunity to stop if the eagle is taking off in front of your vehicle. Higher-speed impacts cause more injury, so by slowing down, if the eagle is struck, there is a better chance that the injuries will not be as serious.

Other birds attracted to roadways

It is not just eagles that feast on the newly exposed carcasses. Everything from insects to wolves take advantage of easy to find food, especially after they have struggled with all the snow this past winter.

The insects bring the nighthawks, swallows and other birds down to scoop them up while in flight. This means they are flying back and forth above the roadway.

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This nighthawk was struck while capturing insects near the highway. It suffered wing and leg injuries.
Contributed/Julie Dickie

The nighthawk population has been dwindling, causing them to be on the radar for special concern.

Little rodents come in for the buffet as well. That means the red-tailed hawks that generally hunt in the farm fields come over to the roadways to take advantage of the easy pickings. The rodents like the warmth the road edge offers, which means the hawks in the daytime and the owls at night will be hunting that same road edge. That certainly brings them in the path of vehicles.

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Foxes, coyotes, vultures, ravens and other animals also feed on the carcass (and sometimes the critters that are feeding on the carcass). This puts them crossing the roadways more often and with their attention focused on their meal to come, they are not as cautious as usual and may dart directly in front of your vehicle.

Pay closer attention

Collisions between vehicles and wildlife are going to occur. We all understand and accept that it is sometimes completely unavoidable. But by paying closer attention to the road edges and slowing down when wildlife is present, we can all save animal lives.

We, as rehabilitators, often get called after these collisions. Sometimes it is the striking driver that calls. Moore often, it is a compassionate and alert person that spots the injured animal in the ditch or along the roadway.

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This barred owl suffered a broken wing in its collision with a vehicle. A passerby spotted it in the ditch and contacted Northwoods Wildlife Rescue.
Contributed / Julie Dickie

First and foremost is the safety of the people that choose to intervene or take action. Remember that other drivers may not know what you are doing and the risk of being struck by a distracted driver is always a top concern.

Once it is safe to access the condition of the animal a wildlife rehabilitator, the DNR Conservation Officer or DNR Wildlife Management personnel should be consulted. They can all offer instruction on the best course of action.

Unless a person is trained in the safe capture of wildlife attempting to capture an injured, scared wild animal or bird can be very dangerous to both the rescuer and to the injured animal.

While the animal may be quiet and seem “calm,” it is most certainly terrified, and it's already injured body is now subjected to major emotional duress.

The quicker the injured wildlife can get to a rehab facility the better the chances of successful rehabilitation. Injured animals are also likely to become another easy food source for other predators.

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Sometimes everything possible can be done to help the wildlife, but the result is that the animal dies or is humanely euthanized. Being humanely euthanized by a permitted person is better than being eaten alive, dying a slow agonizing death from non-survivable injuries or slowly starving to death because they cannot hunt for or capture food.

The positive news is the snow is melting, so spring is coming. Food will become more available, and our wildlife will thrive in these beautiful Northwoods.

By staying alert and slowing down, these carcasses often give us the opportunity to see, enjoy and appreciate some of this wildlife a bit closer than normal.

Related Topics: NORTHWOODS WILDLIFE RESCUE
Julie Dickie is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator in northern Minnesota. Her nonprofit organization, Northwoods Wildlife Rescue, captures and releases all manner of wounded creatures. Julie and her husband, Jeff, are unpaid volunteers.
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