Volume 12, Issue 39 ~ September 23-29, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

When Species Collide

Good idea, but would anyone take it seriously?
—The late Hal Williams, then-editor of the Sunday Baltimore Sun

That assessment of a story I suggested for the old “brown section” of the Sunpapers more than 40 years ago sure deflated me. I was hoping for some extra pocket money by writing for the popular Sunday supplement about a reported new concern in aviation: air strikes involving waterfowl and commercial flights.

Such encounters weren’t much heard of back then, though not too many years thereafter a passenger jet went down in Frederick County when some of a flock of geese ended up in its engines. I got the story idea while flying with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service across Canada to monitor waterfowl hatches, part of the customary procedure in establishing duck- and goose-season regulations.

After I’d told some Canadian waterfowl managers a harrowing experience I endured a few days earlier involving sandhill cranes, one of them let me in on a piece of fresh news. A North American conference, the first biggie ever, would soon consider means to lessen the impact of waterfowl on human flights.

More than 40 years later, I read in the daily press last week that a conference in Baltimore revealed bird-aircraft collisions are easing off globally, thanks mainly to keeping fowl away from airports. So far this year, the U.S. strike count is 2,237, and just last week a commercial airliner returned to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on one engine after the other ingested a cormorant. Last year’s count was 6,819. There have been nearly 200 passenger or pilot deaths due to bird-aircraft encounters in the U.S. since 1990.

My Snowstorm of Birds
It was in the early 1960s that I feared I was about to be a statistic, flying in a light, single-prop plane with the late J.D. Smith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We were no more than 100 feet over Saskatchewan and checking a massive number of cranes when they suddenly flushed. There we were, with at least a couple thousand fowl all around us, in a plane with a wooden propeller and thin skin covering its wings.

I knew a bird in the prop meant big trouble — the same for a few birds slamming into the wings — and we were in a snowstorm of birds: cranes ahead, behind, under, above and to each side. Sandhills are big birds; the Cessna 206 is a small plane. Even if we survived a crash landing, we were a couple hundred miles in the boondocks south of Regina. We wouldn’t even have been missed until late the next day.

Ever try to run through a blizzard without getting a flake on your coat? That’s how I assessed the situation as some of the fowl came close enough that I could see their eyes. I was tempted to close mine; after all I was only the passenger, and I had to trust the pilot — and hope. Somehow, we made it through all the fowl. We decided we’d leave checking cranes to others, for a few days at least.

Deer on the Road
While air strikes by waterfowl can be as frightening as it gets, surface strikes with a landlocked wildlife species are no picnic. Just ask any of the countless thousands of Maryland motorists who have had a deer dart from out of nowhere into the path of their car or truck. At last count the annual tally reported to DNR was just under 4,000 — and police, insurance companies and Department of Motor Vehicles get the large majority of the reports.

Professionals who drive the big rigs tell me they can do little to avoid whitetails; to swerve sharply risks more than a few dings on an 18-wheeler. A tractor-trailer can jackknife quickly in a sharp emergency maneuver, jeopardizing the driver as well as those in other vehicles.

“I have no choice but to keep on going and hope,” the driver of a trailer rig transporting Toyota Camrys on Route I-68 at Keyser’s Ridge in Western Maryland told me after an encounter with a deer during last year’s modern firearms season. He stopped only because he hadn’t struck the deer a glancing blow; instead, he hit head-on at the middle of the big chrome radiator, which had been slightly damaged.

In a year, he said, he strikes about 35 deer, most of them in Pennsylvania. The whitetails are always the losers. The truck driver has the size of his rig going for him with the windshield high and back from the hood.

Those in traditional family-type autos aren’t so lucky. A running deer can bound high enough that it rides over the hood, sometimes ending up inside the vehicle with serious consequences.

Rarely does a deer meander onto a road. More often it is going at full gait when it darts out of a hedgerow or the forest into the path of a motor vehicle. The driver has no more than a second or two to react.

Most deer-vehicle collisions occur from dusk to dawn, but motorists should be cautious whenever driving during the modern firearms season. Forests and fields are busy with hunters, many of whom flush a deer or possibly a small herd. Wildlife gives no thought to traffic; it just wants to get as far and as fast as possible from humans.

Defensive Driving
I’ve been lucky over the years. Much as I travel deer country, especially during the season, I’ve never so much as taken a hair off one, though there have been more than a few close calls. I attribute my good fortune to driving cautiously in deer country; defensive driving, I call it. You might say I expect a deer to dart into my path in areas I know from experience to host many whitetails. When I see the standard yellow signs with the black deer silhouette, I pay attention. The signs are there because of their road kill history.

For many years in Maryland as well as in many other states, there was a third party inconvenienced by highway deer kills: game wardens. In the old days when there weren’t as many deer around and wildlife officers weren’t restricted to eight-hour days and five-day weeks, frequently they were phoned at home (their numbers were listed in hunting booklets issued with licenses) to take care of a severely injured or dead whitetail.

By “take care of,” I’m referring to putting down an injured deer. When that was done, or if the whitetail had already expired, the job was just beginning. By department rules, the wildlife officer was obliged to dress out the deer, then deliver it to a hospital, jail or such where it went on the menu.

That was a messy job in the middle of a cold night by the headlights of a patrol car, and more than occasionally, I’m sure, a game warden’s wife took the phone off the hook once he had gone to bed. He wasn’t even allowed to take home a steak or roast for his troubles. Not that many would have been interested; they’d seen enough of venison.

Even the motorist whose vehicle was banged up by a deer wasn’t allowed a share of the “harvest,” but that has changed. Now drivers are entitled to the whole shebang, a sort of compensation for damages. But that can be an expensive way to put food on the table. Prime filets of beef, or even caviar, is a cheaper way to go.

Drive carefully in deer country. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.