Bird Watcher's General Store

Roadrunners - 04/15/05


Dear Bird Folks,

My ten year old son has always wanted to see a roadrunner. We have set up a family vacation to Arizona, where I understand the roadrunner is the state bird. Do you think that we'll actually see roadrunners? Also, do you have any advice on how we might locate them?

-Kenny, Madison, WI

Are You Kidding Kenny?

You are setting up your vacation because your ten year old wants to see a roadrunner? That's pretty good. When I was ten years old I wanted to see mermaids, but I couldn't convince the rest of the family to take me where I needed to go. Although my father was interested, my mother was having none of it. We ended up at something called "Old Sturbridge Village." What a rundown place that is. And there wasn't a mermaid in sight.

I can help you with your roadrunner search, but first you need to know one thing. The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico, not Arizona. I know it all seems the same once you get past Iowa and it kind of is, but the New Mexiconians would not be happy if they lost their state bird to Arizona. Remember, the atom bomb was invented in New Mexico. We need to stay on their good side.

The Greater Roadrunner is one freaky bird. It lives in the hottest region of the country, spends most of its life running totally barefoot across the sun scorched earth, and actually goes out of its way to find snakes. It is unique looking, ranking up there with puffins and ostriches as birds that everyone can instantly identify. They are found in the arid states of the southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. They all look the same, except the birds from Texas have gun racks.

When you think of roadrunners most people think how fast they run. At over twenty MPH they do run very fast for a bird or any other two-legged creature, except kangaroos, which are rare in Arizona. When hunting or avoiding danger, roadrunners do use their impressive speed, but it's their maneuverability that really makes the difference. Their extra long tail gives them great balance and allows them to make instant course changes. These tricky moves have been a curse to predators, especially one coyote in particular.

When at rest, roadrunners sometimes cock their heads and tails straight up, looking like a giant "V". But when running, their tail and neck flatten out and the bird becomes a skinny-legged torpedo blasting through the underbrush. Let's not forget that roadrunners are birds, so they can fly. However, they stink at it, only gliding for short distances before they begin racing like maniacs along the ground once again.

Roadrunners are serious carnivores. They eat mice, lizards, tarantulas and will leap into the air to snag hummingbirds. They also eat snakes, including the occasional juicy rattler. The birds will sometimes hunt in pairs, with one bird distracting the snake while the second bird zips in from behind. The bird's usual MO (MO is hip talk for "method of operation.") is to grab the snakes head in its beak and then smash it against a rock. The bird then proceeds to swallow the snake head first. If the snake is too long, the bird will simply let the rest of the reptile dangle out of its mouth. It will then go about its daily activities while it waits for digestion to make room. This feeding behavior sounds unique but I've seen my kids do the same thing with spaghetti.

Even though roadrunners are fairly common birds, finding one won't be easy. They don't flock up like crows and blackbirds or hang out in ponds like ducks. Roadrunners set up a territory and rarely leave it. If you cross a territory the best you can hope to see is one or two birds. My advice is to slowly drive down a quiet isolated road, roll down your window and listen. If you hear the classic "beep beep" sound, it won't be a roadrunner, it will most likely be the car behind you wanting you to get the heck out of the way. In Arizona you'll probably have better luck searching for them in the southern part of the state. Quiet, isolated chaparrals and arid regions are what roadrunners seem to prefer. Have your binoculars ready to catch a glimpse of these speedy birds. Be careful not to use "Acme" binoculars. You won't stand a chance with those.

Have a good trip Kenny. I hope you guys get to see a roadrunner. And even though you'll be in the desert and not near any water, could you keep an eye out for a mermaid for me. I know they're out there somewhere.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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