Bird Watcher's General Store

Why Owls Get Hit By Cars - 03/07/08


Dear Bird Folks,

As a big-rig truck driver I've smacked a few birds over the miles. I have hit everything from pigeons to starlings. What's confounding, however, are the owls. Everybody knows that owls have incredible eyesight and hearing. So, why do owls insist on flying into my truck? Can't they see me? Can't they hear me? Or are they, in fact, kamikaze owls?

- Walter, San Luis Obispo, CA

That's right, Walt,

The owls that are smacking into your truck are kamikaze owls trying to commit hari-kari. I would bet most of those suicidal birds are Spotted Owls. These large owls, with those piercing jet-black eyes, are so depressed over the loss of the old growth forest that they just can't face another day. In the past, the despondent owls would put an end to things by drinking a potion of hemlock mixed with Diet Moxie. However, most of the hemlocks have been cut down so the birds have had to come up with an alternative way of offing themselves. It looks like jumping in front of your truck is the alternative they've chosen. This is surprising because even without the hemlock you would think drinking Diet Moxie alone would be enough to kill any living creature. Maybe somebody should tell the owls.

Like you, Walter, I'm astonished at the number of ways birds can get themselves into trouble. Their extraordinary hearing and vision should alert them to every conceivable danger. Yet, they are constantly hitting our windows, buildings, and towers or getting trapped in garages or sheds. Of all birds, owls probably have the best vision, at least in dim light. It is thought that some owls' vision is so acute that they can actually see into the future, although this theory has yet to be proven.

Good ears. Good eyes. What's the problem? Maybe owls are just stupid. Perhaps they aren't so wise after all and that's why they get hit by your truck as often as they do. I'm not sure I subscribe to that theory because the smartest creature in the entire animal kingdom also has a problem with trucks and cars. The Eastern Gray Squirrel could outsmart a chess master, yet we constantly see them flattened in the middle of the road. I think it simply boils down to the fact that our vehicles are too challenging for many creatures to figure out. Nowhere in the natural world are owls exposed to anything with the speed and size of your "big-rig." Add to that the brilliance of your headlights, the roar of your diesel engine and the ever-present sound of C.W. McCall singing Convoy, and you have the recipe for confused little owls.

There are several factors that contribute to the owls' problem with our vehicles. One has to do with food shortages. Lack of prey will sometimes drive owls out of the deep woods into more populous areas and thus expose the birds to more cars, which they've had little experience with. In some years the lemming or vole populations in Northern Canada crash and we get a migration of hungry owls heading south looking for food. In Canada, where everyone rides around on the backs of Muskox, the owls have little trouble coping with traffic. But when the birds arrive here, they aren't prepared to deal with us crazy Americans zipping around in our oxless carriages and they become victims of busy roads.

Another factor is that we are slobs. The edges of our highways are lettered with bags of chips, half-eaten Big Macs and unopened cans of Diet Moxie. Little creatures of the night love to snack on our leftovers, and the owls love to snack on the creatures. Once an owl locks onto its prey, it doesn't notice much else. If it has to cross a busy road to snag a meal, it may not notice or properly judge any oncoming traffic.

Not only are collisions not good for the owls, they're not much fun for the drivers either. Late one night after a long day of birding, a friend and I were driving on a back road in the boonies of Arizona. This particular road must have had more than its share of bad accidents because there were white crosses on every curve. After a while the endless string of white crosses started to creep us out and my friend said, "I think we should get off this spooky road." Two seconds after the words were out of his mouth a Barn Owl shot across our windshield. The underside of a Barn Owl is white, ghost white. The scream that came out of me sounded like my Aunt Mary in a roomful of spiders. (I would appreciate it if you wouldn't mention that last part to anyone else.)

There's no doubt that the birds can hear and see your truck, Walter. Unfortunately, many owls have yet to develop the skills needed to avoid our vehicles. Probably the only way you could prevent future collisions is to trade in your big-rig for a team of Muskox. That may seem a little silly right now, but the way the cost of fuel keeps going up, you may be the smartest truck driver in San Luis Obispo.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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