Friends drove the SR 67 and I-69 route on their way here to sample local birding hotspots but were treated to 52 raptors before they even arrived. Beyond the 37 red-tails, they tallied 12 kestrels, two rough-legged hawks, and a Cooper's hawk--all at 70 mph.
What's with the hawks' highway fascination? Maybe not what you think. They aren't watching for the latest vehicle models. They aren't basking in the warm sunshine of open spaces. They aren't watching for your leftover hamburger and fries. And they aren't waiting for road kill (although they wouldn't necessarily turn it down).
Instead, they're enjoying a habitat we've created.
But let's back up.When we build highways, be they single lane or many, we cut a serious swath through wildlife territory. Hawks patrol an average territory of 2.2 square miles, soaring to check for intruders and to hunt for prey. When a highway cuts through the territory, it creates the perfect conundrum. Here's why:
But there's more. Highway rights-of-way stretch well beyond the road's shoulder; and most states mow the entire right-of-way, up to the boundary-marking fences. Frequently, the mowed strip then abuts pastures and agricultural fields, both of which host rodents and small mammals.
In addition, medians--which are sometimes wider than the multiple-lane highway itself--are usually mowed, or at least mostly so.
Traffic, however, often generates litter. Passengers toss out everything from French fries to apple cores and grain sometimes spills from trunks. While hawks have no interest in the trash or grain, rodents do. When rodents go for the litter, hawks go for the kill.
But here's the conundrum: While we've created the perfect hunting habitat for highway hawks, we've also created the perfect hawk hazard. In fact, some claim that the number-one "predator" of these big hawks is big trucks. Hawks swoop down to snag a rodent, maybe one munching roadside litter, and find themselves at one with a vehicle barreling toward them.
As Mike Cox, director of the raptor center at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science notes, "If you had to cross the road every time you went to your refrigerator, chances are you'd eventually get hit by a car."
Nevertheless, the smart ones learn the drill and survive. They account for the additional 45 raptors our friends tallied on their trip home.