The Nature Writers of Texas

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Rain Crows and Roadrunners

by Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

If there ever was a time here in the Cross Timbers for “rain crows” to do their thing, it’s now. April has left most of us high and dry and the dog days of summer will soon be nipping at our heals. Rain crows will have little to crow about if the weather patterns don’t change soon. Anybody or anything that thinks they can predict rain in north Texas with any degree of certainty must be a cuckoo.

Cuckoo clocks were initially built using cuckoos to proclaim the hour because of the repetitive nature of their songs. Worldwide there are about 120 species of them in the family Cuculidae and two are found here in north Texas - the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) or rain crow, and the roadrunner (Geoocccyx californianus), also called chaparral cock or paisano (Spanish for companion.) Although most cuckoo species have the reputation for being nest parasites (laying their eggs in the nest of another bird species), our Texas species do not.

The yellow-billed cuckoo’s moniker as “rain crow” doesn’t hold water. Although they often sing, if you can call it that, when storm clouds are building, they’re not good forecasters of rain. They’re also not crows. Their song is a loud kow-kow-kow-kow that gradually slows to a descending kowp-kowp-kowp. I think it sounds a whole lot like someone striking two rocks together. You hear them more often than you see them since they like to sit motionless in trees or dense foliage, scooping out their surroundings for food. Just hearing an old rain crow on a hot summer day announcing to the world that he’s around just makes my day.

Rain crows are about twelve inches long and slender and have a long tail with white spots on the underside. Feather coloration on their body is grayish brown above and white below and their primaries are rufous. The bill is slightly curved downward with the upper mandible being dark and the lower yellow.

They have a distinct liking for hairy caterpillars but also feed on larvae, fruits, berries and other insects including cicidas. Their nest is a crude platform of twigs in a tree or bush where 1-5 pale bluish-green eggs are laid. Incubation by both parents takes 9-11 days who then feed the young regurgitated insects for another 14 days.

Yellow-billed cuckoos spend the winter in South America but breed from Mexico to Canada and throughout Texas. They’re another Neotropical migrant we share with Central and South America and I hope there will always be a home away from home (habitat) for them here in the Cross Timbers of north Texas.

The other Cross Timbers cuckoo goes by several names but most commonly is referred to as the roadrunner. That is what they had rather do, given the option over flight - run. It’s been estimated that they can sprint up to 15 miles per hour; however, they are also very capable flyers. If you ever try to follow their tracts in the sand, you will immediately become perplexed whether to go left or right. As with all other cuckoos, they have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards (zygodactyle.) Maybe that’s to confuse “wily coyote”.

Roadrunners are year round residents and found throughout the Southwest from California to East Texas and Louisiana and north to Kansas. Their call is a distinctive series of low coos but also may be in the form of clucks, crows, dog-like whines or hoarse guttural notes – beep-beep is not in their repertoire. On more than one occasion I’ve heard strange sounds coming from the brush that quickened my step only to realize a roadrunner was just proclaiming his presence to some other roadrunner.

They eat just about anything that moves including insects, fruits, seeds, lizards, spiders, scorpions, rodents, small birds and snakes. And no, the decline in the bobwhite population is not attributed to roadrunners eating all the baby quail. I once called a roadrunner to me by making a squeaking mouse-like sound which told me that bird had eaten a mouse before and was looking for dinner. Even small rattlesnakes are no match for the agility of these expert hunters who can quickly kill them and then repeatedly thrash them on the ground until satisfied they’re dead.

Although roadrunners do a lot of running around, they don’t do it on each other as they are believed to mate for life. They build their stick nests low in small trees or cactus where 3-6 white eggs are laid. Chicks are altricial (remain in nest and fed by parents) and leave their nest in about 18 days to hit the road and fend for themselves. Adults are long legged with gray-brown feathers and a long tail. They erect feathers on top of their head and elevate their white-edged tail feathers when alarmed or curious. These fleet-footed cuckoos don’t just run up and down roads but also can navigate even the most dense cactus patches with ease and are most at home in open brush country. They’re territorial and stake out a homestead to their liking that will provide them food and cover throughout the year.

Whether standing beside a road or zig-zagging at break-neck speed through our oak, juniper and mesquite covered hills, the roadrunner is at home on the range in the Cross Timbers. Until next time - I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America.

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