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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Aug 22, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugLast week I saw a roadrunner in my backyard. There was something wrong with this picture. Roadrunners are supposed to live in the desert, in the chaparral, in dry, open spaces with some shrubs here and there – not in a garden with lawns and a sprinkler battling the heat. What was going on?

I asked Dave Stives, our expert at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, and this was his answer: “The desert is dead now. There is no food to be found after such a dry winter, and we are reaching the end of the summer, so the roadrunners are getting hungry and going into more urban areas.”

Maybe the goldfish in my pond have a certain appeal? That was the direction “my” roadrunner was going, while all of the birds in my aviary were flying around in sheer panic.

roadrunner1 Roadrunners eat lizards, insects, carrion from roadkill, eggs, and small rodents that they kill by hitting the base of the neck. They can even catch a hummingbird or a flying insect because they are able to jump straight up. Only 10 percent of their diet consists of plant material, so my birds had good reason to be nervous.

Let’s start with one of the reasons the roadrunner is such a legend, and why cowboys around the campfire have been telling tales, each more colorful than the next, about this bird.

Roadrunners attack snakes, including rattlesnakes, and they are extremely quick. They approach the rattlesnake using their rounded wings for protection, much like a matador’s cape. They grab the snake behind the head or the tail and slam the head many times against the ground with fantastic energy until the snake is dead. It is quite a show. Cowboys respected that and were always protective of roadrunners.

It gets even weirder. The roadrunner swallows the snake whole, but if the snake is large, the bird cannot swallow the whole length. No problem. It will swallow what it can and will continue its daily life with the snake dangling from its beak until the snake slowly gets digested.

A few of my friends commented that the roadrunner was smaller “in person” that they thought it would be. They grew up seeing a purple one on their TV screen, larger than a coyote and screaming, “Beep-beep” in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons. It was quite an adjustment when reality set in.

roadrunner3Cartoons aside, it is still a good-sized bird, 18 to 24 inches from tail to beak, and about 15 ounces.

They are a pretty goofy bird to watch, and they are not afraid of humans. They are quite curious, and many have kept hikers company for part of the trail.

When they run, indeed the beak, body and tail are aligned in a straight line, and they usually do run fast, about 15 mph, but they have been reported to run as fast as 26 mph.

It is a zygodactyl bird, which means it has two toes pointing forward and two toes backward. It can fly to escape a predator, but its wings are weak.

The roadrunner has a comical expression with the shaggy crest on its head going up and down. When walking, its tail goes up and down, also, and it has a bouncy step. It always seems very alert and perky, interested in everything around it, and you cannot help but smile when you look at this comical bird. It is part of the cuckoo family.

The roadrunner does not migrate, and a pair is territorial all year. The roadrunner vocalization is a dove- like “coo,” dropping in pitch, and it makes a clattering noise with its beak.

I always love to find these crusty little details: A bird usually “goes to the bathroom” by excreting feces and urine all at once, and this is why you see a white splash on the ground. If you live in a dry area where water is hard to find, it does not make sense to get rid of urine so often. Consequently, the body of the roadrunner reabsorbs water from the feces before extraction.

That is convenient, but what about all the salt that urine carries? No problem. The roadrunner has a nasal gland to eliminate this excess salt.

There are other clever adaptations: If the weather is cold at night, the roadrunner enters a sort of torpor, so it does not use much energy. Its skin is black, so in the cool morning, it fluffs up its feathers and lets the sun warm its skin. That way, its body heats up without having to find food for energy.

roadrunner2Roadrunners are solitary birds, but if they live in pairs, they are monogamous and mate for life. The courtship display is interesting: The male does a little dance in front of the female, parading in front of her with all kinds of different moves, and often with a gift of food in its mouth.

The nest is made of sticks. Both parents gather the nesting material, but usually the female builds the nest herself in a bush or small tree. The female lays between two and 12 eggs over a period of three days, which means the eggs will hatch at different times.

Incubation lasts 18 to 20 days, and both parents have nest duty (dad takes usually the night shift). The first hatchlings are usually stronger than the later ones, and the parents often eat the weaker birds.

In the end, three to four young roadrunners fledge from the nest about 18 days later. For two weeks they remain close to the parents to learn how to hunt, and then they go away to survive on their own.

What are the dangers for a roadrunner? They have been called roadrunners because they are known to race in front of moving vehicles to run to the safety of the bushes on the other side of the road. They are fast but sometimes not fast enough, so they can be traffic casualties.

They can also be killed by hawks, house cats and raccoons; coyotes eat the nestlings and the eggs.

In the winter, if we have severe freezing spells, they might not survive. Right now, the very dry weather has killed much of their food supply in the hills, so they become more adventurous to find food.

The Latin name for the greater roadrunner can be translated as Californian Earth-cuckoo. It is also known as chaparral cock, ground cuckoo and snake killer.

It is a legend unto itself and is part of many a Wild West story. We are lucky to be able to see them running along the road in many places in our valley. Be on the lookout.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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