The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Roadrunners Are Fascinating Birds
by Ro Wauer

Last week, “out of the blue,” a roadrunner suddenly appeared in our front yard. It crossed the yard, circled the garage, and continued across the back yard into the pasture beyond. It had been a dozen years or so since we last saw a roadrunner in our yard. Yet for the first several years while living in the same house, roadrunners were not infrequent visitors. And since we occasionally heard their cuckoo-like calls in spring, I assumed that we had a small breeding population nearby. Plus, an occasional individual would approach the house while hunting for food. It seemed that our population of anoles and spiny lizards declined dramatically during that period. And maybe because it caught the majority of our lizards, it eventually moved elsewhere to find a greater supply of its favorite food.

To most people, roadrunners (proper name is greater roadrunner, for there is a lesser roadrunner in southern Mexico) are considered desert birds, hunting down rattlesnakes or running across the cactus studded terrain. For others they are cartoon characters that always are outsmarting Wiley coyote. But in truth, roadrunners are possible anywhere in the American Southwest, including Texas, except for the pineywoods. However, seeing one in the Central Gulf Coastal area is not an everyday occurrence. My favorite roadrunner site is Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park; they seem to have less fear of humans there than any place I know.

Roadrunners are a member of the cuckoo family, closely related to our summering yellow-billed cuckoo. They mate for life, and produce a family of four offspring annually, building a bulky stick nest in a low spiny shrub. Both parents feed the young, and are known to feign injury to a predator that might approach the nest, running off like they are injured to lead the predator away from the nest. Once the young are out on their own, the parents are said to lead their youngsters away from the nesting territory a considerable distance and lose them.

Roadrunners possess a number of other rather odd characteristics, at least from a human prospective. They often are seen during early morning sitting atop a fencepost or shrub with their wings stretched out to allow the sun to shine on their back. This is because, even in desert areas, they often lower their body temperatures overnight to conserve energy, and they utilize the morning sunshine to warm their bodies. And during courtship, a male will often offer a captured lizard to an intended mate to entice copulation.

Also during courtship, especially in the mornings, males sing a mournful song. It is dovelike, “kowoo kowoo kowoo kowoo,” that can sound like a sad puppy from a distance. “He also parades with his head held high and his wings and tail drooped while producing a “pop” sound with his wings,” according to Kent Rylander’s book: “The Behavior of Texas Birds.” And at times rapid bill-clacking occurs; Rylander states that bill-snapping in females is a higher pitch than for males.

Roadrunners are fun birds to have around. They not only are comical in their behavior, strutting around, elevating their long tail now and again, then running down prey that can range from lizards to small snakes to a wide assortment of invertebrates, such as scorpions and centipedes. They will occasionally also take small vertebrates like mice and various birds. Although the roadrunner that we observed in our yard may only be passing through, he is more than welcome to come back and use our yard for whatever he wants. Roadrunners make good neighbors!

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