Thursday, December 16, 2010

Living and Dying on State Road 29 - Part I - The Barred Owl

State Road 29 slices through the Big Cypress Swamp portion of the Western Everglades in South Florida. The two lane highway is also known as Panther Pass and bisects the largest tract of suitable habitat for the endangered Florida Panther. This is where many of them live and this is where many of them have died.

In 1998 the Florida Department of Transportation began constructing wildlife crossings and fencing along the road to assist not only the panthers but bobcats, bears, otters, deer and a variety of wildlife that would otherwise have to risk their lives getting from one side to the other. There are currently four wildlife crossings on SR29. They are essentially bridges for traffic and tunnels for the wildlife and since their inception have been successful in limiting the number of roadkills.

What about the wildlife that can’t use the underpasses? What if you have wings? A silly question? The canals that run parallel to the 45-mile north/south road contain an abundance of fish for wood storks, egrets and other wading birds and from time to time they get struck by cars as flocks take flight and an unlucky bird veers too close to the road. Recently more and more Barred Owls (Strix varia) have been injured or killed along the road and the question is why?

The night hunting owl is occasionally active during the day, but the incidents seem to happen just around dawn. Despite laws against littering, motorists and fishermen continue to discard food and garbage along the roadside. Statewide, Florida D.O.T. spends $10 million a year cleaning up roadside trash. Garbage along the highway attracts rodents, raccoons and other scavengers. Owls feed on rodents and when the silent hunters swoop in for a meal they can end up a roadside meal themselves.

The bird to the left is a resident of the Fakahatchee Strand State Park. The bird on the right was struck by a car as the sun rose in the Everglades.

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