Providing safe perches to prevent owl roadkill

Thabo Hlatshwayo, Wildlife and Transport Programme Intern, thaboh@ewt.org.za

The N3 Toll Route (N3) passes through landscapes of grasslands, freshwater ecosystems and wetlands, which attract animals, bringing them close to the road. Land used for cultivating maise and other grain crops closer to the highway also increases bird and small mammal activity in the area, resulting in increased wildlife-vehicle collisions (i.e., roadkill). The N3 Toll Route comprises road features such as road signage, guideposts, safety barriers, boundary fence, and raised road markers. These objects are installed on the road to control traffic and improve road safety. However, numerous owl species use these road structures during the evenings to perch on while hunting for prey, such as rodents and squirrels attracted to crops and food deposited by passing vehicles. Unfortunately, this increases the risk to the birds of being struck by vehicles.

Through the strategic partnership work undertaken by the EWT and the N3TC since 2014, robust data on the incidences of roadkill have been recorded. The existing EWT-N3TC database shows that owls are the most common bird killed by vehicles on specific sections of the highway. To respond to this, the EWT recommended the installation of owl perches within the hotspot areas but away from the road, creating safe perching spots from which owls and other birds of prey can hunt safely.

We installed camera traps on the EWT-N3TC owl perch to see if birds would use these perches. Our camera traps revealed increasing birds of prey activity on the perch. Barn Owls, Black-shouldered Kites, and some falcon species have used it as their feeding restaurant. Interestingly, other wading birds like the Black-Headed Heron and passerine bird species (Stonechats and Pied Starling) have also been observed enjoying a rest on the owl perch.

Camera traps such as this are invaluable for increasing our understanding of animals’ interactions with roads – particularly what attracts them to roads. In this case, it is clear that structures similar to these perches erected on roadsides are at least in some part used for resting and feeding purposes and that by providing alternatives, we might be able to reduce the time birds spend on or near roads. We expect to learn more from these camera traps and hope you’ll stay tuned to catch rare glimpses into the daily lives of our raptors.