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Fast and Feisty — the Greater Roadrunner

The only thing the Greater Roadrunner has in common with his animated namesake is the fact that, if he could access one, he'd have no hesitation about dropping a 1,000 lb Acme anvil on the head of his adversary, but only if he couldn't kill it with his bare beak first. Despite their clownish appearance, Geococcyx californianus (oh, there's a bad Californian joke there, but I'll restrain myself) is a finely-tuned killing machine, who seems to relish the challenge of defeating his prey.

Check out this description of two "pet" roadrunners catching a horned lizard by roadrunner enthusiast George Sutton: (The full, detailed, and highly entertaining article by Sutton about roadrunners can be found on www.birdzilla.com.)

Roadrunner"My pet roadrunners did not capture horned "frogs" unless other food was difficult to obtain. They killed and ate these well-armored reptiles, however. A horned lizard, confronted by its ancient foe, would flatten out, rise high on its legs, and sway back and forth as if about to leap or inflict a dangerous bite. But a roadrunner is not to be bluffed. Grasping his tough victim by the head or back he beat it against a convenient stone. Thirty or forty blows were needed to render it sufficiently quiescent for ingestion. If swallowed while yet alive it had to be coughed up for further battering."

The Greater Roadrunner in SedonaThe roadrunner, who can be seen zipping among the pinon and junpier of Sedona's Red Rock Country, particularly in the early morning, is almost completely carnivorous, catching snakes (even rattlesnakes), tarantulas, scorpions, lizards, insects and rodents with lightning-quick maneuvers and sprints of up to 18 mph.

Their impressive hunting skills have spawned a number of tall tales, including the cowboy favorite about the roadrunner that built a fence of sticks around a sleeping rattlesnake, then taunted the snake into thrashing itself to death on the points of the sticks. In reality, their bold and inquisitive nature makes them ideal opportunists who make the most of their harsh desert environment.

Special physical features also make desert life easier for the roadrunner. Their skin is darkly-pigmented, and they'll often sunbathe by crouching low on the ground, spreading their wings and separating their feathers to store up heat. They also excrete excess salt through nasal glands, rather than their urinary tract, as a water-saving measure.

Like many desert animals, during the heat of the day the roadrunner lays low in the shade, conserving energy for hunting in the cooler hours. Driving along a desert road, you'll occasionally spot the unmistakable long tail, crested head, and curious, lizard-like gait of the roadrunner, particularly in the early morning. They're excellent runners but poor flyers, and only take to the air when running won't do.

The roadrunner is actually species of cuckoo, which accounts for their dove-like call of soft, descending "coo" notes. When alarmed, they'll sometimes make a clacking like castanets by rapidly grinding their mandibles together.

The roadrunner has a curious way of managing the survival of their young. The female will lay a handful of eggs over a period of a few days, which results in the eggs hatching at staggered intervals. This gives the roadrunner couple a few "backup" young if the first-born don't make it, and sometimes the late-comers will be eaten by the parents if they prove to be runty and unnecessary.

While the roadrunner might not be the gentlest bird in the desert (at least if you're smaller than they are), they're a marvel of adaptability and design, one of the creatures that has found the hidden bounty of this harsh environment and has succeeded brilliantly in thriving here.

Article by Sarah Horton. Photos by Malou Leontsinis.

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