Growing up in this primarily rural area in the Northwest Georgia mountains, I’ve spent a lot of time tromping through the woods. I bet you have, too. Especially in the fall and winter when the snakes aren’t out looking for me.
But considering all the hours I’ve spent in our local wilderness, I haven’t seen that much wildlife when I’ve been on foot. I guess the critters can hear my walking (and tripping occasionally) in the underbrush and seek cover. Also, many animals are nocturnal, only coming out at night to seek food.
I’ve seen birds, sure, and the occasional woodland squirrel or rabbit, and I’ve walked up to a tortoise here and there, but that’s about it. But our land is abundant with wildlife and the majority of wild animals I’ve seen have been from the car. For some reason the animals aren’t afraid of cars in the same way they are of people on foot. So, let’s see what we can see as we’re driving around. I bet we see enough animals to call it “Zoo Road."
As a kid, I must have had slow eyes because I frequently missed wildlife that was outside the car.
I can remember riding with my family up the gravel road to the top of Grassy Mountain and more than once someone shouting “There’s a deer!” Peering out the window I never could spot them. I’m not even sure I was looking out the correct side of the car.
I do know there are a lot more deer now and they intermingle all the time with developed areas like farmland and even neighborhoods. Depending on the season, the weather and time of day, I frequently see deer near my house in the northern part of the county. They like dusk and they like rainy or misty weather. Sometimes they are crossing the road, and sometimes they just stand there and stare at me. If I see them and nobody is coming behind me I’ll slow down and stop to look at them. Sometimes they just meet my gaze until I start moving again and sometimes they seem to get nervous and take off.
The ones standing by the road as I’m driving by are the ones that scare me because you never know when they might take off running right in front of you. I’ve never hit a deer but I hear it can be pretty bad. Not as bad as hitting a moose of course, but still very dangerous.
I’ve seen many deer over recent years. I never get tired of seeing them. Whether they’re off in a distant field, or right by the road, they are always beautiful and fascinating. I get a kick when they do run and that white tail goes up like a signal flag.
I’ve seen groups of them and every once in a rare while, a buck with proud antlers. The other rarity is in the spring when you sometimes catch a glimpse of a fawn with its spots still on. Usually a mom leads the way across the road and the fawn will follow, but many times pause on the way to look at the car. There’s no telling what they think of cars. There’s a corn field on the way to my parents' house and I’ve seen deer exit the corn and head for the woods.
Squirrels, rabbits and more
Squirrels and rabbits are plentiful around here.
You’ve got to be careful when you spot a squirrel in the road. They will go all the way across the road and then when the car gets close and they sense danger they are liable to dash back across the road the way they came. I guess they know it was safe where they were and would rather risk the dash back than go to unknown territory. I’m sure you’ve noticed that frequently the risk, unfortunately, doesn’t pay off. I do like it when I pass under a telephone line and there’s a squirrel up there doing his tightrope act.
Rabbits, on the other hand, I tend to see on the side of the road. They usually try and run directly away from the car instead of across the road. They zig-zag along the shoulder and hopefully get far enough off the road for the car to pass. On other occasions I’ve noticed they just kind of hop once or twice and stand there wiggling their nose. I’m guessing those are the more experienced rabbits.
Now let’s move to the night creatures. Raccoons and possums (opossums if you’re a formalist) are the most plentiful night denizens. While driving at night I keep an eye out for the reflections of the car lights in their eyes.
Once I came up on a whole family of raccoons crossing the road at night and from a distance their shiny eyes blinked as they floated across the road. At first I didn’t know what it was ... maybe short aliens or baby Bigfoots. But as I got closer I recognized them.
It’s rare I see more than one raccoon at a time at night. Raccoons will come into town though looking for garbage to eat. I’ve seen them in town many times and it always seems odd to see nature on the sidewalk or in an alley staring at you. And to think the pioneers made hats out of them.
Possums, on the other hand, are an odd mix of kinda cute and kinda ugly. They waddle along, and let’s face it, of all the animals along the roadway, they are the ones that have the hardest luck. Just too slow. There’s a lesson there but I’m not sure what.
I have yet to see a possum hanging from its tail in the woods. If I spotted that from my car I’d stop and take a selfie with it. I guess they only hang around in the day.
I always feel good when I miss a possum and it waddles away into the weeds. I feel like we both succeeded, me with a view of wildlife and he with his wild life.
One night animal I very rarely see is a skunk. Of course, if one does get hit you know it for a mile in every direction. Hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes all dine on rabbits and squirrels but as far as I know everything leaves skunks alone. Therefore I’ve always wondered why we’re not just overrun with skunks. Having had dogs that got skunk-sprayed, I’m not complaining that there aren’t a lot of them around, I’m just saying I don’t know why it’s so. And since nothing is after them much, when I do see them they seem to be taking all the time they want to walk along.
Groundhogs apparently live right along the side of the road. I’ve learned they have the nickname of “whistle pigs” but I haven’t actually heard one whistle. They seem pretty calm along the road, usually just standing there and looking back at you as you drive by.
If you know where a groundhog is and drive that way often, you’ll see him all the time. There are a few places I’ve known them to live and I’ve seen them for years in a row. They always seem pretty self-satisfied and contented. I don’t know what all they do over the course of a day but they seem like they’re in the middle of something and are just pausing long enough to watch you speed by. And I kind of trust them to not just dash head long into the road so I don’t feel the need to slow down as I go past them.
Foxes, coyotes and armadillos
Very rare for me are foxes and coyotes. I’ve seen foxes at night and day. At first I’ve thought them both dogs or cats and then the bushy tail gives it away. They aren’t that big so dashing across the road — and I’ve only ever seen them dash — I always think they are something else before I recognize them as a "fox."
And with a coyote it’s always “dog” first and then after a moment it hits me, “coyote," like an anvil hitting the coyote on the Roadrunner cartoons. And like the coyote on the cartoon they always look a little skinny and hungry. They skirt across the road and kind of look back over their shoulder all nervous-like, like they were ashamed at being seen. Maybe they play hide-n-seek with us and when we see them they feel “gotcha."
The last animal on my zoo tour I’ve not actually seen alive here. I’ve only seen them clobbered on the pavement. I’m talking about that invasive species that’s only been here for a few years ... the armadillo. They’ve been encroaching from Texas via Florida I guess.
I still remember the first time I saw the carcass of one roadside here a few years ago. Since then I’ve seen about three more. Like I said, I’ve never seen one alive here so I’m not sure how they move or how they react when a car comes by — evidently they don’t run fast enough. The point is we have a new exhibit in the roadside zoo.
While you’re driving keep one eye on the road but the other eye on nature ... she rarely lets you down. And the admission fee is “free”!
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.