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Analyzing the Jaywalking Habits of New England Wildlife

My recent beach vacation began with the kind of unfortunate incident that we all dread: killing a distant relative.  

It was about 3 a.m. Me, my two sons, and our dog had been on the road since about 7 p.m. the previous day to get to our beach house on Plum Island, Massachusetts. Google maps said our exit was coming up and that we were only about 15 minutes away from our palace. Buoyed by that projection, I sat a little taller in my seat.

Is that the salty sea air filling my nostrils? I thought to myself. Is that a refreshing ocean breeze cooling the air?

And then:

Is that a f—thumpity bump bump bumpox that just disappeared under my car?!fox

"I think that was a fox, dad." My son answered my question before I could ask it.

"That's what I thought, too. Darn. Kind of ironic. And not in a good way."

"Yeah, way to go, dad," my other son added. 

Everyone's a critic.

The irony is that my last name is Fox. And I've always kind of identified with the handsome, intelligent, and resourceful creatures. I couldn't feel too bad though; there was nothing I could have done about it. The poor critter had been sprinting across the highway. No sooner had its small frame popped into the glow of my headlamps, then it had disappeared into the empty void under our feet. Oh well, at least for him it was over quickly. And at least we were almost to the beach. 

Before I could ponder this potential omen too long, we came to our exit. There, in the middle of the exit ramp, were the 2-dimensional remains of what looked to have been, in life, another fox. Apparently, we were traveling through an area of dense foxes. By which I mean that there was a high density of foxes in the area, not that the foxes in the area were highly dense. Although, truth be told, I was feeling a little dense myself at the time. Did I mention that it was now 3 a.m.? 

We continued onto a back-country road that Google maps promised would lead us to our beach house. Is that a marsh off the left just up ahead? I thought to myself. Are those sea grasses waving in the gentle breeze?

Is that the oil light glowing on my console?

"Oh crap."

Stepping out of the car, I noticed the smells of sea air and motor oil mingling with the scent of the forest. I had hoped that the warning light was just an electrical glitch. However, a casual inspection confirmed that the oil that should be inside the engine, had been working it's way outside of the engine, where it is considerably less effective. I was reminded of the words of a noted transportation engineer, "If I push 'er any further cap'n, the engine's gonna blow!"

This sentiment was echoed by the tow truck driver as well. As he descended from his cab to assess the scene, he exclaimed "You left quite a trail. Can't be much oil left in that engine." I told him what had happened. He scratched his chin and asked, "Did  you say a fox? That's funny because I towed a customer last week who hit a fox in a rental car. Busted the oil filter. What do you know?" 

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for our taxi, dawn's first light broke slowly over the marsh, the birds began singing to greet the new day, and the mosquitoes worked persistently to move sizable quantities of blood from inside of our bodies to outside of our bodies. Where it is considerably less effective. Even so, it was kind of a nice moment. Moved by a surprising sense of peace, I turned to my sons.

"I think I know what this all means. I think that perhaps my spirit animal appeared in physical form to test me. To remind me that—to a large extent—happiness is a choice. And if I allow circumstance to rob me of my happiness, that, too, is a choice."

"Spirit animal, huh?" As he spoke I could actually hear my son's eyes rolling back in his head.

My other son chimed in, "If he wasn't a spirit before, he is now."

Everyone's a critic. 

The rest of our vacation went swimmingly. (Pun intended.) In the end, the momentary hassle and added expense of the incident didn't detract at all from our enjoyment of the trip. However, I was curious about the confluence of jaywalking wildlife, so I started doing a little research and learned that some states are actively collecting data on such accidents. I found that Massachusetts has a web page where you can report animal collisions, so I contributed my data for the cause.

I also found out that California and Maine actually enlist and train "citizen scientists" to peruse roadways in a coordinated effort to determine where animals are most frequently hit, and what kinds of animals are hit in each location. This is important data, because animal crossings represent a significant hazard to motorists and wildlife alike. Knowing what kinds of animals are frequently hit in different locations can help authorities focus efforts to introduce culverts, bridges, and other means of safe passage for critters so they can get where they need to go safely, without venturing onto the black top.

You can read the details of a three-year Maine study and explore an interactive map on the Maine Audubon web site. I thought it might be interesting to create a few graphs in Minitab Statistical Software to bring the roadkill data to life, so to speak. (Pun intended. Ill-advised, perhaps, but intended.) 

The first thing I noticed was that collisions with foxes are definitely not that unusual. The following bar chart shows the number of each species found during the data collection. 

Bar chart of counts by species

The web site also gives data for whether the animals found during data collection were alive or dead. As this stacked bar chart makes clear, animals with wings fare much better than earthbound critters when they encounter an automobile.

Stacked bar chart by animal group

The same trend is clear in this pie chart. The red slice in each pie shows the proportion of animals that survived the encounter. For birds, the red slice is much bigger than the blue slice.  

Pie chart of dead vs. live by group

Next time I encounter a spirit animal, or any animal on the road, I hope it has wings. 

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