Why Did the Duck Cross the Road?

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Years ago, while driving in the East Bay, I was stopped in my tracks by an astonishing sight. Several cars ahead, drivers had come to a halt as a mother duck and five ducklings waddled onto Highway 80 toward San Francisco Bay on the other side. I gasped as they crossed the asphalt, the cars in the lanes where they passed idling quietly, as the ones in the farther lanes whooshed by. "They’ll never make it," I moaned.

But just then, a good Samaritan leaped out of his idling vehicle and shooed the ducks back toward the aquatic park from where they had come. Although they were saved this time, statistics are not in their favor. An estimated 100 million animals are killed on the nation’s highways every year, and highways aren’t the only obstacles. Human development of all types has severely fragmented wildlife habitat, making it impossible for animals to move between whatever small amounts of space we have pushed them into.

We share the Earth with over 6 million terrestrial species, yet allow the others very little room. Our parks and preserves function as islands, and, like many true islands, experience high rates of extinction due to insufficient size. According to the World Wildlife Fund, this has resulted in the loss of half the planet’s wildlife over the last 40 years. To counter this trend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson advocates setting aside half the Earth for wildlife. More parks are important, he says, but it’s equally important to provide animals room to move between them.

Many conservation groups have taken up the call for what are known as landscape linkages, areas that connect one wildlife habitat with another. Some are as small as underpasses beneath highways. Others are thousands of acres. Even in the crowded Bay Area, several groups are working on such a plan. When complete, it would result in almost half the Bay Area and surrounding counties as suitable for wildlife, an idea any duck family trying to cross a local highway would surely applaud.

With a Perspective, I’m Carol Arnold.


Carol Arnold is an environmental planner and writer in San Francisco.