Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Motorcyclist's Bestiary

Viewing the world from the saddle of a motorcycle offers you a unique—and generally confrontational—perspective on wildlife.

The animals you encounter while riding will tend to fall into one of five categories. Note that this listing is not comprehensive, and generally addresses Eastern North America. Obviously, there will be some overlap among the categories, but you’ll get the general idea:

1. Big Enough To Seriously Eff Your Ess Up:

Moose & Elk
The Maritime Provinces of Canada indicate “Moose hazard” by a triangular yellow sign showing the silhouette of a standing moose and a crumpled car. There’s a reason for that. Colliding with a moose will not necessarily damage your motorcycle—odds are, your bike will continue happily down the road for some considerable distance before it realizes it left you plastered on the moose’s ribcage as it blithely passed beneath it.
Cows, Calves & Horses; also Black Bears
Livestock are very clever and persistent about finding the weak spots in their enclosures—see “other side of fence, grass is always greener on.” A slow moving, irritable and unpredictable wall of meat is the last thing you want to see chewing its cud on your line.
And that big “black plastic trash bag” slowly blowing down the shoulder of the road? It may actually weigh two or three hundred pounds, and have sharp pointy things at several of its extremities.
A close encounter of the worst kind will be really bad for both of you. All three of you, if you count the bike.
Whitetail Deer
See also “Did Not Evolve In The Presence Of Motor Vehicles.” Deer have a defensive strategy of a) freezing completely motionless when they sense a threat; b) if the threat continues approaching, waiting until the threat is nearly upon it, then bolting in an unpredictable direction. This makes sense: If the deer fled sooner, it would give the predator a greater opportunity to identify its escape vector. Waiting until the last instant preserves its options.
But when the perceived threat is an inanimate object with absolutely no interest in prey of any kind, this response is less useful. As the “pursuit curve” does not actually concern the deer, responding as “prey” is inappropriate.
Deer-Motorcycle conflicts generally end very badly for the deer, and with mixed results for the motorcyclist and motorcycle. With good gear, good training, experience and a good bike, a rider can frequently remount with little more than bumps and bruises and a gut full of adrenaline. More commonly, the outcome is a few broken bones (collar, rib, wrist…), a few hundred dollars in repairs to the bike, and a ditch full of venison.
Winged Threats
Accipiters (those big meat-eating birds including hawks, eagles, owls and vultures) thrive along the edges of forests and roadways, where they have easy access to a steady supply of fresh road kill as well as good access to small animals living in the fringes.
Unfortunately, those who hunt from these locations do not check peripherally before launching an attack; they swoop down low and fast, focusing on their distant prey, and often fly directly across the path of oncoming traffic.
Likewise, carrion eaters with full bellies tend to take off low and slow before gradually gaining altitude. A highway-speed encounter between a low-flying vulture and a motorcyclist will be unpleasant, to say the least, as several biker have found out the hard way.

2. Crazy Enough To Make You Eff Your Ess Up All By Yourself:

Dogs, Cats, Squirrels and Foxes (et cetera)
All wildly unpredictable creatures. Furthermore, we have strong personal and cultural aversions to injuring animals which we have anthropomorphized since childhood. This combination creates a situation where our response to the presence of the animal is more of a threat to our safety and well-being than the animal itself is.
Hitting the animal would be regrettable and unfortunate, and would certainly make most riders feel a not insignificant remorse. However, most riders would concur that swerving into oncoming traffic or riding into an immovable roadside object to spare a dog/cat/squirrel would be a much worse choice.
For the past few years, I have been consciously training myself to ignore small, fast, twitchy animals within a certain radius of Beast. In effect, I created a rolling blind spot. I will not endanger myself for the sake of a creature whose actions I cannot control.

3. Clearly Did Not Evolve In The Presence Of Motor Vehicles

Opossums, Porcupines and Skunks
All evolved fascinating defense strategies against predators. Unfortunately, they are useless against motor vehicles.

4. “I’ll Take Arthropods for $200, Alex—"

There are countless ways bugs mess you up. My personal favorite was catching a flying cicada in the middle of my tee-shirted sternum at about 50 MPH—35 of it mine, 15 of it his. It felt like I had been shot, and I expected to see blood pouring down my chest. Also: stinging insects flying into your helmet, butterflies landing across your face, bug splatters obscuring your vision and otherwise distracting you from the task at hand.

5. Obligatory Assists

Anytime I encounter a live reptile or amphibian in the road—turtle, snake, frog or toad—I’ll make an effort to move it along in the direction it is headed. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle nudge with the toe of my boot. Other times, it means parking the bike, walking back, picking it up and gently tossing it across a ditch or fence*. I think we’ve stacked the deck too heavily against these little beasts; it’s appropriate to lend a hand from time to time.

*Hey, it didn’t look like a rattlesnake from a distance.

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