The Roadrunner: The Cuckoo's Fascinating Southwestern Cousin
A Rare Visitor, a Lucky Day
It was one of those rare days: a roadrunner day. As a child, my mother often told me that a roadrunner crossing in front of you was good luck. I've always felt that just getting to see them was a bit of good fortune -- no extra luck necessary. Although they're inextricably identified with the American southwest that I call home, they're not a common bird by any means. Seeing them isn't an everyday occurrence -- in fact, I see cardinals here in this desert on the edge of the Tonto National Forest far more often than I see roadrunners.
I've also learned they're challenging to photograph. You don't set out and say, "I'm off to photograph roadrunners." You'd better have your camera close at hand when they visit -- and you'd better be quick to get the shot, because they don't hang around. They're a rambling bird, well suited to their name, and they don't stand still for too long. Roadrunners are the desert's rolling stone.
Today, one came calling. He was a young fellow, a little bit confuzzled perhaps. He was on the front porch when I returned from the barn, and apparently he enjoyed nipping the tender sprouts off my green onions in the pot by the door. I crossed my fingers that he might wait while I fetched my camera. To my surprise, I could still find him nearby by the distinctive rattling of his beak. That's why I think he was confused, or simply very juvenile -- he not only stuck around for a few minutes, but he let me get within two feet of him. It was a good thing: my zoom lens failed, and I was forced to shoot the picture with my standard lens.
In years of photographing the desert around me, I've had little luck getting great photos of two of my favorite birds: the roadrunner and the phainopepla. The phainopepla is common, once you know to look for them; they're just shy and reticent. The roadrunner is both elusive and quick to leave your company. Today was special.
Cuckoo About Roadrunners
My kindergarten teacher had a "thing" about roadrunners. I still remember the porcelain roadrunner we gave her as a year-end gift -- and the thank you note, written in her dignified, formal hand -- on roadrunner note paper. In the 1960s Arizona, roadrunners were everywhere -- an iconic image of the land. From Ted DeGrazia's brushy paintings of roadrunners to figurines at the Sky Harbor gift shops, we native Zonies grew up with them.
But we weren't just cuckoo about roadrunners -- roadrunners are cuckoo, too. They're part of the Cuculidae family -- cuckoos. Many years ago, I read that they are Arizona's only member of the cuckoo family, but in fact the Groove-Billed Ani, another cuckoo cousin, ventures across the Mexican border into southern Arizona at times, and even true cuckoos (the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo) make their way into the lower end of the state. It is the roadrunner, though, that is the only permanent, year-round cuckoo cousin in the state. The rest, like winter visitors from the Midwest, are just snowbirds.
The Great Greater Roadrunner
The roadrunner is known as the "Greater Roadrunner" or, to the ornithologist, Geococcyx californianus. (The "geo" in Geococcyx referring to the fact he is a ground bird.) He's a scruffy bird, largish, with a distinctive appearance and even more distinctive habits. Most people associate them with their habit of running across open ground (and that most un-roadrunner-like cartoon character, Roadrunner, and his happy "beep-beep.")
That's just the beginning of their unusual nature. They love to eat reptiles -- specifically snakes and lizards -- and they're the very rare animal that will actually pick a fight with a rattlesnake. Even more amazing, they will team up to hunt them (rattlers are quite the roadrunner delicacy). Since roadrunners rarely hang out together, it's a tribute to their native intelligence that they'll join forces to kill rattlers. The method? Like coyotes baiting loose dogs, one roadrunner will engage the snake's attention while the other snatches it behind the head. They will then smash the rattler against rocks to kill it.
The roadrunner can fly, but with such a natural skill at running, why would he? If they do fly, they're more likely to just skim the air above the ground, much as quail will do, but gliding. We have a set of encyclopedias, published in 1933, that my husband grew up with. Curious, I looked up the entry on roadrunners. To my surprise, the book says, "When it runs, it spreads wings and tail into a sort of airplane, and speeds along at an amazing rate." Just in case the World Book hasn't gotten smarter in the past 80 years, rest assured roadrunners do not spread their wings, airplane-like, when they run. They hold them at their side, streamlined, aerodynamic, head held low.
When it "stops" (and I put that in quotations because it's used loosely), the roadrunner constantly tilts and raises his tail, darts his head about, and otherwise makes a comical character of himself. It's no wonder he inspired a cartoon.
The World Book was right about size, though -- the roadrunner comes by its "Greater" designation honestly. With a 22" wingspan and close to two feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail, the adult roadrunner is a good-sized bird.
Roadrunners: Have They Crossed Your Path?
Have you seen a roadrunner in the wild?
Crests and Nests
The roadrunner's unique appearance includes a wonderful crest that rises and lowers depending on his level of alertness. The female roadrunner also has a crest, albeit much less pronounced. When the crest of the male rises to its full glory, the bird is thoroughly impressive. The male also boasts a small but readily apparent patch of red behind the eye.
They build a flattish nest from branches and twigs, as is necessary to bear the weight of a bird their size, placing it in shrubs, cactus, or the lower branches of trees. Their family life is non-traditional, if not downright dysfunctional at times -- the parents (who mate for life) take turns incubating the eggs, with the male handling the bulk of the responsibility. However, in an interesting nod to the harsh environment, the eggs do not hatch at the same time. As a result, the youngest babies may be cannibalized by the rest of the family if food is not readily available. Should the chicks survive, they leave the nest at about three weeks of age.
The roadrunner's appetite is hearty. Not only will he eat rattlesnakes and his own young, but he'll also feed on cactus fruit, small rodents, other birds, insects, and a variety of plants -- including my tender young onions.