The mercurial ground-dwelling roadrunner of the arid southwest U.S. is inquisitive, quarrelsome, funny, serious, playful, caring and — above all — fearless.
Because of its hunting antics, physical characteristics and general attitude toward life, the roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family, has been given many different names including: chaparral cock, lizard-eater, snake-eater, paisano (Spanish for compatriot or fellow countryman) and corre camino (Spanish for runs the road).
Known to millions of children worldwide because of Warner Brothers cartoons, this diminutive critter is awesome. The roadrunner’s entire length is about 20 inches, half of which is its tail feather usually carried at an upward angle. The long stout legs stride at about three-and-a-half inches when walking and the gait stretches to over 18 inches when it reaches a top end running speed of over 16 miles per hour.
Both sexes have a buff colored underside with a mixture of black, bronze and buff feathers on the breast. Backs and tails are black and white with blue-green and bronze iridescence. Both possess powerful beaks with a crest on the top of their head and an iridescent patch of skin behind each eye.
When the roadrunner’s curiosity is aroused, the black and bronze-green crest feathers are raised and lowered constantly. The paisano is also known for its zygodactyl feet, which feature two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. When viewing the tracks it is difficult to determine which direction the bird is going. Native Americans considered this bird to be very spiritual and placed its tracks around the house of a deceased person. This, as the folklore has it, confused the evil spirits as to which direction the spirit of the dead had taken.
The other characteristic that Native Americans revered were the bird’s strength, endurance and fearlessness in hunting rattlesnakes.
Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous resorting only to eating prickly pear apples and sumac berries during food shortages. Most of their diet consists of a large variety of insects ranging from locusts, grasshoppers, moths, centipedes, scorpions, millipedes, tarantulas, ant worms, spiders, and bumblebees. Though the alacrity with which the beak moves, this speedster is able to pick-off dragonflies and hummingbirds in midair.
Roadrunners also regularly eat mice, baby rabbits, horned lizards (which spit venomous blood from their eyes!), spotted whiptail lizards, garter-snakes and rattlesnakes. Usually these snake-eaters will not successfully take on diamond backs larger than 26 inches. Sheer speed and hunting prowess enables the paisano to encircle, like a matador, and leap like a kangaroo over top the rattlesnake until finally catching the exhausted snake by its head and throwing it into the sky. This intrepid bird will continue to bash the rattlesnake on the ground, rocks, or sticks for at least 15 minutes until its prey is lifeless.
Another interesting hunting technique that roadrunners use is to drop their wings and take several steps before stopping. This is done with precision to flush insects or lizards from their hiding places.
Roadrunners are perfectly designed for the heat of the American southwest. Their nasal glands eliminate excess salt instead of using its urinary track like most birds. It reabsorbs water from its feces before excretion. During extreme summer heat adults spread their wings to allow air to flow between their open layers exposing the down of the feathers, in addition this bird will also pant to release heat.
Roadrunners are preyed upon by hawks, feral cats, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, coyotes, and during the winter they can freeze due to snap ice winter storms. And they often are found as road kill.
Roadrunners have at least 16 different calls including cooing emitted during courtship, whines by females during nest building in mesquite trees, hmms when adults enter the nest area to feed fledglings, and its most common sound, a clattering made when they rapidly pop their upper and lower mandibles together.
Like orcas rubbing their bellies on the pebble shoreline of southwest British Columbia, roadrunners enjoy dust bathing or “anting” when they come across a location where soft dirt is just right for this frivolous behavior. This remarkable little critter has adapted and accepted human activity within its home range. It is no wonder the roadrunner was chosen to be the state bird of New Mexico.
Any creature willing to face the deadly stare of a rattlesnake, often killing the reptile only after dodging its repeated strikes, is worthy of admiration and praise.
Dr. Reese Halter is a Los Angeles-based public speaker and conservation biologist. His upcoming book is entitled “The Incomparable Honey Bee,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be reached through www.DrReese.com.