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Many people enjoy the beauty of autumn, but it can be a dangerous time for wild animals, especially small ones such as chipmunks and squirrels. They are always in danger while crossing roads, and all the more so in the fall when they are trying to gather their food supplies for winter. This is largely due to their habit of changing their minds partway across the road when they see a car coming and heading back where they came from, only to be hit by the oncoming vehicle.

Why do they do this? Because cars are not their only problem, and they are less familiar with cars than with other predators in whose presence they evolved. A squirrel doesn’t like the bare surface of a road — that wide expanse with no place to hide and no tree to climb — but he may know of an oak tree with acorns on the far side. In need of the acorns, he starts across.

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When a squirrel sees a car coming, one thing he doesn’t understand is its speed. No predator in North America can run as fast as an oncoming car; nor do most predators rush toward you in full view at high speed from a great distance. The oncoming car seems far away, so the squirrel starts across the road.

In the blink of an eye, the car is almost on him. Oh gosh, he’s made a mistake, and he turns back. Why doesn’t he keep running forward? Because for all he knows, a predator is hiding in the woods on the far side. His plan had been to enter the far side with caution; if he dashes across thoughtlessly, he won’t know what he’s getting into. He only knows that the place he just came from is safe.

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I will never forget a squirrel I saw who did this and was hit by an oncoming car. In the nanosecond before this happened, she stopped in horror with her mouth open and her right arm bent, just as a person might do.

Nor will I forget a young racoon who had just emerged from the woods when he saw my car almost upon him. Racoons don’t run as fast as squirrels. As the car bore down, he covered his eyes with his hands, a habit I have noticed in other animals as well. I swerved my car to the left and missed him, and he went back to the roadside where he’d started.

It’s generally only small animals that have this instinct to turn back. A coyote or a mountain lion doesn’t need to worry about a possible predator on the far side of a road, and will seldom turn back as squirrels do when threatened by an oncoming car. Most large animals travel alone, and in comparison with squirrels and chipmunks, most cross roads relatively safely.

Yet deer are vulnerable, especially young ones. Female deer tend to travel in small groups, usually a mother with two or three of her offspring. When the group is about to cross a road, the mother is in the lead, and she stops and looks. If no car is coming, she crosses. But her younger companions are following at a little distance. They see her cross the road and mean to follow their leader, believing their safety is more or less up to her. But several seconds may have passed, in which time a car may have appeared.

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Of course, this problem exists mostly in rural areas. On country roads, the speed limit is often no more than 30 miles per hour, and rightly so. If you keep to the limit, you are much less likely to kill some innocent creature, particularly if you also watch the roadsides for animals who are thinking of crossing the road. Today, new dangers have appeared, such as eco-friendly hybrid or electric cars that make less noise and give no warning. With that in mind, the country drivers of fall, especially at night, will do well to pay extra attention.


Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a naturalist and the author of several books. Send questions about animals to syandlizletters@gmail.com.