By Chelsea Jandreau

When I talk to kids about habitats, I often ask them if they ever see animals near their homes. When we think about different kinds of ecosystems, we sometimes forget that we are also living in many animal’s habitats. Most people have seen birds, squirrels, and even deer in the middle of towns or cities before, and have likely encountered a few animals as they are driving down the road.  

Driving a car lets you move a greater amount of distance than you would on foot, so the larger area covered often makes it more likely you will see certain kinds of animals. There is a trade-off though, especially if you happen to be the one driving the car. Even if you get to see something interesting, you will only be able to grab a quick glance. Sometimes, you can safely pull over to watch, but often you get a few seconds and then have to continue on your way. When viewing animals on foot, you can sometimes get a little more observation time than if you have to continue safely driving away. And even if you want to watch them more, it’s tricky to follow an animal with a car. They don’t exactly follow available roads. Not to mention the safety issues of staring at the animal instead of the other cars on the road.

Perhaps oddly (or maybe this is more common than I think) I’ve encountered a whole host of interesting animal sights from the front seat of my car, and there have even been a few animals that I saw for the very first time while driving. The first time I saw a pronghorn antelope was when it ran across the road down the hill in front of me. Often, they are just cool moments, but sometimes only seeing these animals for a brief moment as I speed by leaves me with more questions, and in turn some excellent food for thought while I am driving either long distances or the same route I take every day. In fact, one of those mysteries explains why there is now a small Black-Footed Ferret stuffed animal living on the front dash of my car.

A friend and I were driving on a dirt road out of the Badlands in South Dakota early in the morning. The sun was just peeking up over the horizon and there were no other cars in sight, when suddenly an animal ran out across the road in front of the car. We were going fairly slowly, and the animal was far enough away that we were not in danger of hitting it. However, it was definitely unexpected and it ran across so quickly that we only got a short look at it. Neither of us had ever seen this animal before and were completely baffled as to what it could be. Discussing what we noticed about its size, coloring, location and how it moved both woke us up and gave us a conversation topic for quite some time. Eventually we got service again and could use the marvelous world of internet search engines to figure out exactly which species we had seen.

Photo by Chelsea Jandreau

Now, ferrets might not be the most common sight for everyone. However, one of the animals I and many others commonly notice while driving are birds of all sizes. Smaller birds are fluttering around of course, but birds of prey are also common sights near roads. 

Birds of prey, especially hawks, are often looking for smaller birds or rodents. Roads are often by open grassy areas, and many have grassy strips of land on the sides of the road or between lanes on a larger highway. This has created habitat for small mammals such as voles and mice, which in turn draws hawks to hunt in these areas. This has made spotting hawks along highway quite common, but it also means they are more likely to get hit by a car as they swoop down to catch a vole out on the open pavement.

Sometimes these birds are individual occurrences and sometimes you can learn where to find specific birds if you drive a route often. You can learn where the Red-tailed Hawks like to perch and hunt or where the Great Blue Herons fly from marsh to marsh. Many animals will continue to look for food, water or other resources in the same areas, even if people start building things around them. I lived in an area where we regularly saw Sandhill Cranes. A small suburb has popped up around the marshes, but, despite the increase in people, they continued to visit the pond that now resides next to a high school. Every spring and fall, you had to watch out for these cranes crossing the road from pond to pond. It should be noted that they were very polite cranes and usually used the crosswalk.

The thing about seeing animals from my car is that I am so rarely actively looking for them. When I see one, it is a surprising moment. Sometimes that surprise is welcomed and sometimes that surprise is accompanied by a moment of terror as something runs across the road. Either way it is a good reminder that we are always in someone else’s habitat. Just because humans decided to build a road in a certain spot, that does not mean the animals are going to move somewhere else. They will stay where their food sources and shelters are. As people have spread out and continue traveling down roads of all sorts, it is important to remember that you are still sharing that space with the animals that live there. So make sure to keep an eye out for both the wildlife and the people in cars as you take your next road trip, vacation or just go to visit a friend across town.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.