Friday, November 7, 2008
The first time I saw a roadrunner in the wild, as opposed to on Saturday morning cartoons, it was darting across a sea of asphalt at a nearby mall. This was a huge disappointment to me at first, wanting to believe that roadrunners are one of the desert’s wilder creatures, a symbol of natural beauty and testimony that we haven’t infiltrated all of nature somehow. But after watching this prehistoric looking offshoot of the dinosaurs blaze through a parking lot, I now admire the roadrunner even more. Here is a creature that, like his adversary, the coyote, is able to adapt to the worst of human intrusions into their natural habitat. An opportunist at heart, the roadrunner fares well in both the most remote desert refuge and the starkest urban wilderness.
Here in suburban Phoenix, the local roadrunner population can navigate between worlds, snacking on fat lizards that inhabit our lush neighborhoods, and retreating to the hills where nesting and rearing young may be a bit safer. You are as likely to see one hopping across a six-foot high cinder block wall to scope out someone’s back yard, as you are to catch a glimpse of one dashing through the brittlebush off a desert trail.
At two feet long, and half of that their iridescent black tail, roadrunners are unmistakable. You can see them any time of year in the Deem Hills, although during the cooler winter months, they are more likely to be spotted during the day after they’ve had a chance to warm in the sun. During the summer, like most other desert critters, they will evade the heat by hunting at dawn and dusk.
Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous, revered for their ability to prey on young rattlesnakes and scorpions. They also devour small rodents, spiders, insects and small birds. A close look at their sharp stout beak and four curved claws makes it clear that they are gifted with hunting skills equal to raptors. Although roadrunners are not adept flyers, they can reach running speeds of up to 18 miles per hour, giving their main predators, coyotes, raccoons and hawks, a good chase. When meat is scarce or fruit abundant, roadrunners will supplement their diet with cactus fruit and seeds.
While roadrunners are solitary hunters, they are monogamous and mate for life, a rare feat for any creature. Either partner may initiate courtship rituals by chasing the other around their territory. They also engage in an energetic display of hopping, wing flapping and tail fanning. Things get more intense when one presents the other with a stick, a prelude to nest building. The male calls the final shot when he brings the female a gift of a lizard or other tempting morsel, which she accepts after mating. The two share all of the parenting responsibilities, including nest-building, incubating eggs, and feeding the young. The brood of two to six young roadrunners fledges after about three weeks. They are independent hunters after another couple weeks of training. Once the first brood is off and running on its own, the parents may start a second nest for the season.
Last time I saw a roadrunner, it was on the side of highway 160, forty miles from the nearest town. Dead. A few white-tipped tail feathers flagged in the wind, a few others caught in nearby shrubs. I stopped to pick it up, spread its short broad wings, and ruffle its fur like feathers. So cunning and beautiful a creature, I thought, as I laid it to rest under a nearby purple sage. Might it be that they have found a safer home on the suburban fringe?