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Levin: Roadside Raptors

Susan Tiholiz
This snow-capped barred owl has puffed-up its insulating feathers and is remaining still to conserve energy.

Whenever I drive the interstate after a heavy snowfall, I scan roadside maples and oaks for perched raptors, grimly hunched and staring at the highway — a redtail or a Cooper’s hawk, perhaps; or maybe an immature bald eagle, as brown as dirt and big as a grocery bag. It competes with my focus on the road; but I can’t resist. The interstate, wide, dark, and more or less straight, gathers raptors, particularly in winter, the way a magnet gathers iron filings.

First: there’s the promise of food. Second: if the sun’s out, waves of heated air rise off the blacktop, offering an avian version of energy conservation.

Once meadows and pastures are buried in snow, plowed highways are one of the few reliable stretches of open ground . . . and sources of salvation for hungry raptors. The day after a recent wet, heavy snow, I spotted three red-tailed hawks perched in roadside trees, waiting for a vole or a squirrel to scurry into the open lanes.

Deer too are drawn to the highway and many wind up as carnage on the shoulder of the road or frozen in snowbanks that run parallel to it. Clouds of ravens and crows that fill nearby trees or hop along the verge, barely flinching when a car passes, often attend these. For bald eagles hunting along the river valley, a roadkill is a feast that may last for days or longer.

All this roadside activity presents a couple of problems for drivers. As I’ve said, taking our eyes off the road is never good. But we have to stay alert, in case a swooping hawk drops from a branch to fly low and very close to the windshield.

I’ve never actually hit a hawk in pursuit of a meal, but I’ve come so close on several occasions that the birds have been buffeted by the wind displaced by my car. And every winter barred owls are struck in pursuit of mice.

Hawks you have at least a chance of seeing. Owls not so much.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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