Friday, February 24, 2006

Dinosaurs in the desert

Tomorrow is our last winter “hawk stalk” of the season and while the emphasis is usually on the dizzying array of hawks, falcon, eagles and owls that winter with us in the irrigated agricultural fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley, other fierce predators also catch our attention. Loggerhead Shrikes, those bandit-masked assassins, are still common in Arizona and will be the topic of a future blog, but tonight’s post is about that icon of the southwest - the roadrunner.

I once had a visitor express disappointment upon seeing her first roadrunner. “ But, that’s a bird!” she said. I’m not sure what she thought a roadrunner was - maybe too many cartoons had blurred the roadrunner/coyote line for her. But most visitors from afar, be it Europe or just points east of the Mississippi, would rather see a roadrunner than many of our true rarities. I’ve lived with roadrunners all my life, hand-raised a few when I was doing wildlife rehabilitation and enjoyed seeing their antics countless times. But behind the cartoon stereotype is a ferocious hunter. The velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” reminded me, not coincidentally, of a hunting roadrunner as they stalked through the park. The special effects wizards of the studio had obviously paid attention to the paleontologists plotting the convergence of birds and dinosaurs. Trade the long expressive tail feathers of a roadrunner for the scaly tail of the movie beasts, add some teeth and there’s your monster. To a baby quail or a lizard, the Greater Roadrunner is scary enough.

The late Sally Spofford in Portal, Arizona once had a roadrunner who had learned to jump off her roof and snatch a hummingbird from the line of feeders on his way down. At the time, she was also hosting a Lucifer Hummingbird that was attracting birders from near and far, and, fearing a revolt if the roadrunner ate her star attraction, she began feeding the predator. A simple meatball of ground beef with vitamins and calcium powder added would suffice, and within a week or two the roadrunner would come knocking on her sliding glass patio door asking for his daily ration. Like a mafia Don demanding protection money – “Gee, I’d hate to see anything happen to your little birds today. You got anything for me?”- he would take his meatball and then disappear for the day. I’m not sure who trained who.

As I mentioned, in Texas we raised baby roadrunners from tiny black amorphous blobs with an egg tooth and no real feathers to adults. Training them to eat grasshoppers in our bathtub progressed to daily walks where I turned over rocks so they could grab whatever lay beneath. Again, I’m not sure who was being trained. The one to whom we grew most attached eventually was banded and released on the nature center I managed, and several weeks later, in one of those rare triumphant moments for a rehabber, paused along the road long enough for me to see the band on his leg. I cried like a proud parent at a graduation ceremony.

On some of our trips to southern Sonora we see the Lesser Roadrunner, the grackle-sized cousin of our Greater Roadrunner and the only other member of the genus Geococcyx , although there are other “ground cuckoos.” I’m glad there’s not a “Giant Roadrunner” coursing through the southwestern deserts. I might have to stay indoors. --TW


T. Beth said...

I had never heard of a Roadrunner capturing hummingbirds at a feeder before, what clever birds they are! I have seen them hiding inside favorite hummingbird bushes in hopes of popping out and grabbing an unsuspecting hummingbird. I never saw them capture a hummingbird, but one Roadrunner did capture a Tarantula Hawk wasp this way.

Amy said...

Very cool post! Looking forward to more like it (c:

Gwyn Calvetti said...

Okay, this has to stop! I cannot read any more of you southwest bloggers' posts until I have plane tickets to go there and see these birds for myself.

The hummingbird story is actually pretty amazing, when you think of how quick those little buggers are.

Anonymous said...

A number of years ago I was in the Spofford backyard watching and photographing the hummers when a roadrunner came into the yard, went to the sliding glass door and received his treat of raw burger. He then proceeded to a spot under the line of feeders and launched himself upwards, capturing one of the feeding hummers, and eating it. I was screaming "no" as this happened. It wasn't until I arrived back home in Minnesota that I discovered that one of my slides had the moment of capture in clear and gruesome focus. I still have the photo on my wall, the best (and most gruesome) picture I ever took.