March 26, 2006


Last Tuesday, March 21, following on the heels of a snow storm, I drove east on US 34 from Greeley towards Wray, Colorado--perhaps the prettiest of the High Plains towns, in its almost-hidden valley along the North Fork of the Republican River--then jogged south to US 36 and east into Kansas via St. Francis.

The fields on either side of the road were covered with snow, and snow lay right up to the edges of the paved road. Passerine birds clustered along the roadway: meadow larks and smaller birds (horned larks? longspurs?). Harriers cruised low over the fields, and at one point I saw one flying off with a small bird. An occasional cock pheasant stood near the road.

Traffic was light. Every time I encountered one of these flocks, the birds swirled into the air. Usually, they cleared the car or were swept into the slipstream, up and over. But I hit at least three, which sickened me. I thought of stopping to see what kinds of birds they were, but because of the snow (and the mud under the snow) pulling off the road seemed doubtful. I was less concerned with being a field naturalist than with Keeping Going like a good 21st-century mechanized man.

Finally, one bird hit the base of the windshield in a splatter of blood and small bones. I almost retched, quickly wondering what to do. I let the machine take care of its death: I flipped it away with the wiper and turned on the windshield washer until the smear of blood was gone. And I kept hurrying on towards dusk and Phillipsburg, where I stopped for the night.

I see road-killed rabbits and other small animals all the time; they bother me, but not so much as birds. (But this writer's compassion moves me.)

But then again I was coming down I-35 toward Emporia on Saturday morning, somewhere after crossing the Marais des Cygnes River (how do you say that in Kansan?) when I saw an irregular red streak down the center of the right-hand lane. It went on and on, gradually diminishing, but then reappearing. Finally, after five miles or so, it stopped. The road surface was grooved concrete—durable, but it makes for louder tire noise. Sometimes when there would be a rough spot, I would see the red streak again.

Probably what happened was this: a trucker hit a deer at night. Maybe he thought the battered body had been knocked to the side of the road. The deer certainly wouldn’t survive meeting the front bumper of an eighteen-wheeler at 65 mph. But its body jammed underneath the Peterbilt or Freightliner somehow, like a big bloody paintbrush. Then, occasionally, the jar of hitting a rough patch would shake it back into contact with the road, what was left of it. The trucker would not have heard or felt anything up in the cab. The only question was whether the carcass eventually fell free or whether he found it the next time that he checked his tires.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

The birds were probably Horned larks.

Once our friend Sharon-- I think you know her-- and I were driving out Route 60 to Jim Weaver's ranch south of Portales to pick up a Peregrine. It was just after a snowstorm and the roads were full of larks. Counting a few killed by other cars we picked up about TWENTY, enough to feed the Peregrine for more than two weeks (a lot less traffic than you road, nedless to say).

The High Country piece was great. That naturalist Babb featured there did an amazing illo for Dave Brown's vampire bat book "Vampiro" of a giant Pleistocene vampire clinging to the neck of a ground sloth.