Beep Beep! Varooommm!

The speedy roadrunner is a skillful desert terminator with a yen for dangerous reptiles.

02-01-1994 // Michael Lipske

All right, maybe the pollster was a little biased. But he-that is, James Cornett, biologist-wants you to know that he was "stunned" by the results when he buttonholed Washington, D.C., pedestrians to test their bird-identification skills.

Most days, Cornett can be found at California's Palm Springs Desert Museum, where he is curator of natural science. But a while back, he was in the nation's capital with some time on his hands. While taking in the sights, he began asking passersby to identify two birds he showed them in color photos.

"I showed them a picture of the bald eagle-our national emblem-and a photograph of a roadrunner, and then I asked the people to name those birds," explains Cornett. "They probably thought I was nuts."

Be that as it may, 35 people humored him. Of those, only one-third correctly named the bald eagle (Cornett Says most folks suggested it was a buzzard or hawk). Yet two out of three pedestrians knew the shaggy-crested, long-legged bird in the other picture as a roadrunner. Which left Cornett, who has studied roadrunner ecology in southern California's arid Coachella Valley since 1988, feeling pleased: "I thought, gosh, I'm working on a bird that people know and probably have a lot of questions about."

Geococcyx californianus, as science knows this member of the cuckoo clan, lives in the southwestern United States and in northern Mexico. An authentic desert speedster and a slayer of scorpions and other venomous critters, the roadrunner is a survivor in a harsh land. Though biologists are still unlocking its many secrets, the bird long ago branded itself into our collective consciousness by dint of its distinctive looks, behavior and personality, leaving its mark on everything from Native American folklore to Merrie Melodies cartoons.

Cornett attributes the roadrunner's popularity partly to what he calls the cartoon. He means, of course, a memorable ("Beep beep!") series of animated shorts that flowed from the talented pens of Warner Brothers artists from the late 1940s into the 1960s, pitting a hungry but hapless coyote against a maddeningly elusive and unbelievably fast roadrunner.

The popular cartoons inspired a run on roadrunnerisms. Los Angeles Dodger and base stealer Maury Wills was tagged "Roadrunner" back in the 1960s. From 1968-74 Chrysler Corporation made the Plymouth Road Runner, a midsize muscle car (available with a huge 426-cubic engine) that used the cartoon bird's image and even its "Beep beep" in advertising. Richard Petty and other car racers drove a special Road Runner Superbird, with a three-and-a-half-foot-tall tail fin. You can catch one of these speed machines on the historic car market for about $70,000.

Visit the Southwest today and even if you never spy a real roadrunner slipping through the desert scrub, you will likely see a symbolic, perhaps even neon, version. To illustrate the roadrunner lectures he gives to audiences of professional naturalists throughout the Southwest, Cornett projects slides of business signs, including those of the Roadrunner Trailer Park, Roadrunner Coffee Shop, Roadrunner Realty and Roadrunner Messenger Service. In the Phoenix, Arizona, white pages, "Roadrunner" prefixes 58 business telephone listings, supporting the notion that Geococcyx californianus is not only America's best-known bird but one of its most commercial.

Of course, roadrunner folklore has been around much longer than roadrunner advertising. Snake-eater was one name for the bird among Native Americans, who respected the roadrunner's pluck in dueling with rattlesnakes. Also known in the Southwest as the ground cuckoo and the chaparral cock, roadrunners have probably inspired more affection and folklore than any other desert creature. Some Native Americans and Mexican peasants say that tracks from the bird's zygodactyl feet-two toes facing forward and two backward-confound evil spirits or the devil, who cannot be sure which direction the roadrunner was traveling. A roadrunner crossing your path, say some Mexicans, portends a safe journey. The ease with which roadrunners digest poisonous prey led Mexican folk healers to prescribe the bird's meat as medicine for ailments from backaches to boils.

Mexican folk healers were not alone in being impressed by the roadrunner's predilection for eating venomous creatures. Doubtless, the bird's appetite for rattlesnakes ranks with its role in cartoons as an attention getter. Roadrunners easily kill snakes, including small rattlers, with lightning pecks to the head.

The roadrunner is one part Terminator, one part Hoover vacuum cleaner. Its tastebuds are tickled by everything from ants to black widow spiders to prickly pear fruit. The lithe carnivores even stalk low-flying hummingbirds, leaping to snatch prey from the air.

The roadrunner's appetite was an early object of fascination for distinguished ornithologist and bird artist George Sutton. Back in 1913, when Sutton was a scientifically minded teenager in Texas, he kept roadrunners as pets and maintained careful records of their eating habits. He reported that in a single day one voracious baby bird accepted "three horned frogs, two pieces of bread soaked in milk, seven crickets, one lizard, one snake about eighteen inches long....a part of a Bartramian Sandpiper, and three English sparrows." One of his free-ranging roadrunners in a single day ate 336 grasshoppers, 17 scorpions, 14 centipedes, two tarantulas and 132 other small beings, from moths to mice.

Roadrunners swallow prey whole, suffering no damage from a horned lizard's bony armaments or a snake's fangs. Their digestive systems can render a horned lizard, spikes and all, into soft white droppings. "They've got incredible guts," says Wade Sherbrooke, a biologist, roadrunner researcher and director of the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History in Arizona. "If it moves, they can digest it."

Just as well, since much of the roadrunner's life seems to revolve around eating. Even the bird's mating ritual involves food. A courting male approaches a female with a lizard or other gift of fresh food in his beak. During copulation, the female accepts the offering from him.

This is a fitting matrimonial metaphor, given that the mated pair will soon find themselves slaves to baby appetites. After mating, the pair nests in a small tree or cactus clump, and the female lays her eggs. As many as 11 eggs have been reported in a nest, though fewer than six is typical. Higher numbers have suggested to some ornithologists that roadrunners engage in a behavior common among the cuckoo clan-laying eggs in other birds' nests. Females sometimes lay eggs up to three days apart, so a single nest may contain young of several ages.

Roadrunner parents, which scientists believe mate for life, share the tasks of incubating eggs and hunting for baby food. During breeding season, when both parents work overtime to feed ravenous nestlings, whiptail lizards (a family of slender reptiles with numerous species in the western United States) may account for as much as 90 percent of the protein that roadrunners run down. If food for the hatchlings is in short supply, the pragmatic roadrunner parent will eat chicks that seem weak. Surviving youngsters are able to feed themselves within days of leaving the nest.

Cornett's field studies in the Coachella Valley suggest a link between roadrunner reproductive success and the abundance of winter rain. Following dry winters, he finds, most roadrunner pairs tend to produce one clutch of eggs from which just one or two young survive long enough to strike out on their own. He 'has discovered, however, that after.wetter winters roadrunner pairs often produce two successive clutches, and three to five young fledge from each clutch.

"In the desert, you get more rain, you get more food," explains Cornett. Increased rain permits plant life to flourish, and more plants can support a larger population of insects, an important roadrunner food.

Although rain may produce more young, roadrunners seem to crave sunlight. Adult birds are inveterate sunbathers. Sunning is common in birds, but few go about it with the roadrunner's sophistication.

At night, a roadrunner's body temperature drops as much as 6 degrees F, saving calories-just as people conserve energy by turning down the thermostat on the furnace before going to bed. When morning comes, the bird needs to collect solar energy to boost its body temperature. It finds a windless spot and orients its back to the sun. Raising its wings, it exposes a featherless, H-shaped pattern of black skin on its back, a vestige of the naked skin that covers nestlings. Blood pumping below the bare skin absorbs warmth from the sun and circulates through the body, allowing the roadrunner to boost metabolism without expending internal energy. Soft, dark-colored down surrounding the H-shaped patch both shields the black skin from cooling breezes and soaks up more heat.

While the bird warms into life, life starts cooking elsewhere in the desert. Soon lizards and grasshoppers are stirring, and the roadrunner lowers its wings and prepares for action.

Action on the part of the roadrunner tends to take place at blurring speed, especially when the bird is pursuing prey. "No other bird in America runs as fast on the ground as the roadrunner," says Cornett. "It's probably the only bird we have that would rather run than fly."

Slender and leggy, roadrunners can zoom across the desert at 15 miles an hour, the pace of a 4-minute mile. Yet the bird's abbreviated wings are fit for little more than short glides. "They just can't maintain flight that well," Cornett says. "If you dropped one out of a plane at 5,000 feet, it'd crash-land and die."

But what does a sun-loving, fleet-footed bird do when its cold-blooded prey disappears into hibernation? This winter, Cornett and his colleagues intend to find out by radiotracking the birds. "Roadrunners disappear for large chunks of time during the winter months, and they're not migratory," Cornett says. "It's weird."

He hypothesizes that roadrunners may cope with the cold-season food shortage and save energy by hibernating for brief periods. (Only a few bird species, among them hummingbirds and poorwills, are known to occasionally enter periods of torpor, with body temperatures plummeting as much as 50 degrees F). Tracking down roadrunners fitted with radio transmitters should shed light on the winter puzzle.

Cornett's other research has already produced an unexpected conclusion-the roadrunner is getting a boost from desert suburbs. Cornett has found that roadrunner numbers are highest and nests most numerous where desert meets suburb. People moving into such areas plant ornamental shrubs and trees that provide new nest sites for roadrunners. Just as important, house finches, sparrows and other birds also settle down and hatch families among the introduced plants -"and roadrunners love to eat baby nestling birds," Cornett says.

In fringe suburban areas of southern California's Coachella Valley the opportunistic birds also feast on hefty American cockroaches, Chinese mantids and other of humanity's camp followers, Cornett says. Such areas are examples of what biologists call an ecotone, the transition zone between two kinds of habitat. For roadrunners, says Cornett, life along the desert/suburb ecotone means "they can move back and forth from one environment to the next, taking advantage of both worlds. It's like a supermarket that has twice as many animals to feed on."

Cornett finds that the edges of some desert retirement communities provide choice habitat for roadrunners. Many Coachella Valley people are "snowbirds," older folks who migrate between summer homes up north and winter escapes in the California desert. Because they leave their homes empty for long spells, they tend not to keep pets, including domestic cats that eat young roadrunners. "I always remind people that if they keep their cats indoors, they're going to have a lot more interesting animals around," says Cornett. "People and wildlife can live in magnificent harmony. It's the cats and kids, particularly small boys, who ruin the otherwise positive aspects of the relationship."

Even the roadrunner has its limits, of course. Cornett says that it is one of the first species to disappear as an area shifts into urban development. However, given its widely varied diet and adaptability, the real-life roadrunner will likely prove as adept as its cartoon counterpart at escaping destruction.

Michael Lipske is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. Wyman Meinzer, a Texas resident, has photographed roadrunners for 14 years.

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