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One Picture

Birds
Eat My Dust
The real-life roadrunner is every bit as colorful, coy, and cunning as the familiar cartoon character—and even more compelling.

The territorial call of a male roadrunner (co-coo-coo-
coooooo
) bounces off the walls of a canyon in the Living Desert, a 1,000-acre wilderness preserve and botanical garden on the outskirts of Palm Desert, California. These reverberating sounds are not, however, the cries of a resident male but a recording broadcast from a small tape player held by Bill Vaughan, a biologist formally with the U.S. Forest Service.

Vaughan stands in a lush arroyo, a steep-sided desert gulch that is wet from a recent heavy rain and filled with vegetation: dark, scraggly creosote brush, green mesquite and paloverde trees draping the ground, cholla cacti covered with silver spines, and barrel cacti that look like fat, prickly basketballs. The towering San Jacinto Mountains rise up west of the canyon, providing a dramatic backdrop to a scene straight out of an old Western. Soon a roadrunner darts out of the brush in answer to the recorded challenge. Like some avian knight lowering its lance, the bird dips its long beak and churns furiously toward the valiant biologist, whose attempt to lure the roadrunner out of the bush for closer observation has been suddenly successful. 

The greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, a member of the cuckoo family, is an icon of the desert, one of the most beloved—yet commonly misunderstood—of America’s birds and a fearsome sight in full charge. Immortalized in a colorful Warner Bros. cartoon, the real roadrunner may bear little resemblance to its famous counterpart, but it’s no less entertaining, from its boisterous vocals—cooing, barking, clacking, growling, whirling, whining, popping—to its quick-draw ability to snatch prey. The roadrunner is also a real live success story: Rather than declining in numbers, as so many other birds have done in these times of dwindling habitat, invasive species, and changing climate, roadrunners are doing better than some desert species because they’re able to live in the suburbs. Roadrunners are considered common in the cactus- and brush-filled Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas, and the species has, according to biologists, increased its presence in adjoining states during the past 10 to 20 years.

 

Perched on a rock, the roadrunner may look awkward, even comical, with its oversize tail extended above its head. Adults have a prominent blue-black crest, a long, stout bill, a multicolored mask, and heavily streaked feathers. Such features are probably what inspired Warner Bros. to pick the roadrunner to star in its classic Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, the popular cartoon of the 1950s and ’60s that symbolizes a great American chase, and lives on in reruns. 

In a typical episode, the roadrunner’s beep, beep call echoes across a painted desert. Wile E. Coyote stands next to a path, watering a rock and watching it grow to boulder size. Suddenly, the bird streaks toward him, its legs churning like the propellers of an airplane. Wile E. lifts the boulder above his head to smash his perpetual nemesis, but the roadrunner blazes by too quickly, leaving the coyote holding a growing rock that crushes him, not the bird. Once again the series proves that the roadrunner, Boulevard-ius burnup-ius, is just too darn fast.

The real roadrunner, with its determined blue-black pupils ringed in yellow, its oversize legs, and its long black claws, is also an animal built for speed. Its body is 23 inches long—half of that tail feathers, which adds to its ground-based aerodynamics. The stride of an adult is about 6 inches on a slow walk but a ground-eating 19 to 20 inches when the bird breaks into a run. In the early 1920s naturalist H.H. Sheldon used his automobile to clock a wild roadrunner traveling 15 miles per hour. Jim Cornett, emeritus director of natural science at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, has also paced wild roadrunners, and he affirms previous reports that the roadrunner’s top speed could reach 18 mph—better than a four-minute mile.

“A lizard or a rodent represents the richness of the environment, and it is an important motivation. It says, ‘Hey, baby, I brought you a lizard. It’s good out here. Let’s make a home.’ ”

Cornett leafs though a local telephone business directory in Palm Springs to demonstrate the general admiration for this bird. Among the many entries are Roadrunner Realty, Roadrunner Rentals, Roadrunner Escrow, and Roadrunner Delivery. “There are more businesses named after the roadrunner than any other desert animal,” he says. And that appreciation appears to extend far beyond its natural range. When Cornett conducted an informal survey of 35 people a few years ago in Washington, D.C., he found that more of them could identify a photo of a roadrunner he was carrying than one of our national bird, the bald eagle. “Keep in mind that the bald eagle now lives and breeds in the Washington, D.C., area,” he says. “The roadrunner doesn’t occur within 1,000 miles of that city.”

And this is despite the fact that the cartoon image is but a caricature of the real roadrunner. “The toes are wrong and the coloring is not accurate,” says Cornett. The cartoon image has too short a body, too long a neck, no mask, and a curled beak rather than a straight one. 

There are significant biological differences, too. For example, the cartoon Road Runner always stayed on the road, but the real roadrunner is a great cross-country speedster. Its tail acts as a rudder, providing the balance the bird needs to race around rocks and avoid dangerous cactus needles. It is a nimble predator as well, known to snatch airborne swifts that swoop down to drink at watering holes.

Cornett was once lucky enough to catch on film a roadrunner seizing a sidewinder in mid-strike; the bird grabbed the rattlesnake’s upper jaw so it couldn’t use its fangs. But the action happened so fast that Cornett didn’t see it until he looked over the photographs. With its prey captured, the roadrunner whipped the snake over and over on the ground, breaking the spinal column and rendering the sidewinder immobile. This is the way roadrunners subdue most prey, taking hold of one end of the animal and inflicting repetitive body slams until the prey stops moving. In doing so, the roadrunner fractures the skeleton, to elongate the body, which helps it swallow the animal whole. “Roadrunners don’t have trouble ingesting prey,” says Robert Ohmart, professor emeritus of biology at Arizona State University. “They don’t cough up pellets of bone, hair, and feathers like owls or hawks. Their stomach juices dissolve it all. Whatever goes in gets digested.”

 

Ohmart believes that part of the roadrunner’s success in the Southwest stems from desert homeowners and commercial landscapers who are using more native Southwest vegetation, which has spines and thorns that native birds prefer to nest in because they provide protection against predators and supply food. “Nonnative species like eucalyptus trees provide no insects for birds or lizards,” says Ohmart. Thus the Arizona Department of Transportation and other state and federal agencies have joined in and begun planting indigenous species along roads.

Even some golf courses in Phoenix, Arizona, and Palm Springs and Palm Desert, California, are getting into the act. At The Reserve, an environmentally sensitive country club outside Palm Desert, desert cacti, shrubs, and trees surround minimal grassy areas that are rarely sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. “This really does make a difference,” Ohmart says. “Some of the golf courses are even using native grasses.”

As for the classic competition depicted on-screen, “There’s no eyewitness account of a coyote ever taking a roadrunner, not even a dead one,” says Cornett. But he thinks a real life race between the two might be a close match, even if the roadrunner can take to wing for short distances.

Prairie falcons and Cooper’s hawks, on the other hand, might manage to capture an occasional roadrunner. But not often. In his book, The Roadrunner (Nature Trails Press 2001), Cornett describes a Cooper’s hawk’s 15-minute attack. “It was almost like a game,” he says, “the Cooper’s hawk would dive at the roadrunner, but the roadrunner kept running under a tree. Eventually the hawk landed on the ground, too exhausted to get up. So the roadrunner ran out to taunt it. When the hawk finally rose up to fly away, the roadrunner chased it down a dry streambed.”

Taunting raptors is not the only cartoonish behavior a roadrunner might display. It can feign a wing injury or a broken leg, dragging itself across the ground, in order to draw predators away from its nest. Though roadrunners are best known for the pursuit of snakes, scorpions, and other poisonous animals, in the Southwest they also prey on the whiptail lizard, something hawks and falcons don’t have much luck with because the lizards seldom venture far from the protection of bushes. Whiptails play a crucial part during the roadrunner’s breeding season, which begins as early as February in California and ends as late as September in Arizona. Roadrunners can nest twice a year in the presence of late-summer rains but can skip a season if the rains are insufficient.

To initiate mating, a male roadrunner may bring a food bribe to the female to prove he’s a good hunter. “A lizard or a rodent represents the richness of the environment, and it is an important motivation,” says Ohmart. “It says, ‘Hey, baby, I brought you a lizard. It’s good out here. Let’s make a home.’ ”

 

Once the eggs are laid, the male and female take turns incubating. Prime duty for the male comes at night, when the female takes a break.

Later in the year, when nighttime temperatures drop sufficiently, the roadrunner reduces its body temperature by about four degrees (from 98 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit), preserving energy. To recharge its internal furnace in the morning, it orients its back to the sun, lifting its feathers and exposing its black skin to collect solar energy. “I’ve never seen an animal use solar energy as efficiently as the roadrunner does,” says Ohmart. 

Cornett reports that on occasion roadrunners may go into a state of torpor (a period of dormancy) in which the body temperature drops as much as 10 degrees over a period of days. This makes him wonder if roadrunners are one of the few birds that hibernate, which he defines as staying inactive for a week or more. Cornett thinks the theory makes sense, as roadrunners can’t migrate and much of their food in winter goes underground. He’s trying to solve the mystery, and finds that it’s easiest to capture roadrunners when they are on their nests. In California that’s in early summer. To get some answers he wants to put transmitters on the birds. “We can’t burden them with big collars, but recently, long-lasting batteries have become available—about the size of your little fingernail—that will last into January,” says Cornett. “I suspect we’ll find that some roadrunners do hibernate if they’re well and healthy, but if they’re not getting enough food and can’t store enough energy, they may not be able to.”

Like other birds, roadrunner females lay their eggs incrementally over a period of days, which gives the first-born a competitive edge. Feeding the nestlings is a full-time job. Martha Anne Maxon, who wrote the book The Real Roadrunner (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) and studied the species in west Texas for her Ph.D., says that nestlings can eat in excess of their own body weight each day. The first chicks that hatch eat most of the food the parents bring to the nest. Only in wet winter years, when food is abundant, do the others get a handout.

But this inequity doesn’t last long. Roadrunner parents are constantly checking the nest, lifting up their chicks by their heads and moving them around like chess pieces. When a nestling appears overly weak or lethargic, the adult simply tosses it into the air and swallows it whole. Or it feeds the chick to its siblings. Cornett defends this behavior: “Remember, we are talking about a desert environment, where you can’t afford to throw away food. Even if it is your sister, brother, daughter, or son.”

Though killing one’s siblings is not that uncommon in the bird world, eating one’s chicks is rare—yet another sign that the roadrunner’s life is more dramatic in the wild than on TV.

Michael Tennesen is a former media fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

 

Bird’s-Eye View
Species: Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)

Looks: Size of a small chicken, with long tail, long bill, and floppy crest. Heavily streaked plumage, and white spots on tips of black tail feathers. Bare blue skin behind eye.

Behavior: Runs on the ground, flying only short distances. Eats whatever it can catch, from insects and mice to rattlesnakes.

Range/habitat: Permanent resident in deserts and brushy country of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, east to Louisiana and north to Missouri, Colorado, and central California.

Status: Surveys show slight increases in population in some areas, small declines in others, with overall population more or less steady.

Threats: Fast-growing human population in the Sun Belt is destroying much former habitat.

Outlook: Probably secure, as it seems to be adapting to desert suburbs and lightly settled areas, so long as undisturbed habitat remains nearby.—Kenn Kaufman

















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