Maryland man wants to count road-kills

December 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Books have been written on how to identify road-killed critters and how to cook them for the table.

But now a Taneytown, Md., man, Richard Van Vleck, wants to give muskrats, raccoons, skunks, snakes, turtles, frogs and other creatures that have succumbed to the superior weight and speed of the automobile their due: He wants to count them.

Mr. Van Vleck, of Carroll County, is seeking 100 volunteers to walk and drive roadways for a one-time, year-long census in urban and rural Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida and North Carolina. He already has sufficient volunteers in Pennsylvania.

This idea might seem a bit out of plumb, but Mr. Van Vleck, a 55-year-old retired biologist, maintains the effort is genuine. Three years ago, Mr. Van Vleck founded the Home Habitat Society, which has about 1,400 members nationally and is interested in restoring wildlife habitat, primarily for song birds, in the vast acreage devoted to yards in the United States. It also publishes a twice-annual magazine, Home Ground.

Each year, the society has 6,000 people take a bird census in their neighborhoods, looking for annual fluctuations that relate to habitat in their yards.

"The main thing is to take a second look at your yard and do more valuable things in it than growing and mowing grass," he said. "Many people are interested in saving rain forests and have no idea what is in their back yard in terms of species of birds and turtles. Our view is that if there is not much there [in a yard] we should do something about it."

Mr. Van Vleck's long-time interest in conducting a road-kill census was rekindled when a story in the last issue of Home Guard mentioned keeping a habitat diary and recording road kills in front of society members' homes.

"We got a big response -- a lot of people said they were concerned about this," he said. "All the response was positive . . . nobody is for a road kill."

According to Mr. Van Vleck, the road-kill census could identify "hot spots" where large number of animals are killed, and explore the relationship between wildlife populations and roadside habitat.

"There are animals whose populations are falling and are frequently hit and one is the barn owl. The reason is the nature of its hunting is to swoop low and it gets hit frequently," Mr. Van Vleck said.

"We've also noticed a lot of medium-size animals are killed while they are eating another road-killed animal . . . surprisingly, the real scavengers, turkey vultures and crows, are good at avoiding cars because they make their living on the road," he said.

Most states, Mr. Van Vleck noted, keep track of deer killed on highways, but not smaller animals.

People who volunteer to count dead critters from their car will be restricted to large and medium-size animals such as skunks and raccoons because it too difficult to identify other animals on the move, Mr. Van Vleck said. Those who walk and count will look for smaller creatures, he said.

WANT TO HELP?

People who want to participate in the road-kill census may write to the Home Habitat Society at P.O. Box 412, Taneytown, Md. 21787.

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