Feb 24, 200611:52 AMThe Life
Desert fauna: why does the roadrunner cross the road?
Feb 24, 2006 - 11:52 AMA roadrunner has been visiting our back yard recently, so I did some research: Geococcyx californianus, also called the Chaparral Cock, is a large, black-and-white, mottled ground bird with a distinctive head crest. Ranging in length from 20 to 24 inches from the tip of its tail to the end of its beak, the roadrunner has strong feet, a long, white-tipped tail and an oversized bill. It is a ground cuckoo, uniquely suited to the desert environment by a number of physiological and behavioral adaptations: its nasal gland eliminates excess salt, instead of using the urinary tract like most birds, and it reabsorbs water from its feces before excretion. When the roadrunner senses danger or travels downhill, it will fly, revealing short, rounded wings with a white crescent. But it cannot keep its large body airborne for more than a few seconds, and normally prefers walking or running (up to 17 miles per hour), often with a clownish gait.
Because of its lightning quickness, the roadrunner is one of only a few animals that prey upon rattlesnakes. Using its wings like a matador's cape, it snaps up a coiled rattler by the tail, cracking it like a whip and repeatedly slamming its head against the ground until dead. Then the snake is swallowed whole, but often the roadrunner is unable to consume the entire length at one time. This does not interrupt the bird's normal routine: it continues to wander around with the snake dangling from its mouth, eating another inch or two as the snake slowly digests.
When spring arrives, the male roadrunner, in addition to acquiring food for himself, offers choice morsels to a female as an inducement to mating. He usually dances around her while she begs for food, then he gives her a morsel after briefly copulating.
Roadrunner 'tude: The one out back is an insolent bugger. He struts around just a few inches from our screen door, taunting us with his matador impression. No wonder Wile E. Coyote never quits. I tossed a Jalapeño chip to the brazen little birdbrain; let's see what happens when he tries to blow THAT out through his nose.
If you convert his 17 mph into human athletic terms, it's like running a mile in 3:31... 12 seconds under the current world record. I guess this blazing speed impresses the ladies, but I can't help thinking that one of these days female roadrunners will begin to wise up, and start holding out for silk stockings and candy bars.
Palm Springs Life's cover story from the July 1995 issue contains some great roadrunner images. [more fauna]