Greater Roadrunner heading north

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunners don’t like to fly. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 20, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are roadrunners on route to our residential neighborhoods?”

2014 Update: Learn more about roadrunners at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

By Barb Gorges

Out for a walk with the dog in early February, I noticed when her attention was galvanized by wildlife on the lawn across the street.

The motionless animal was the same color and size as a cottontail, but not the same shape. It was a roadrunner, a long-legged, long-tailed, slender bird with a shaggy crest. We were in my mother’s neighborhood in Albuquerque and she had been telling us about the roadrunners that frequent her yard and nested last year in the neighbor’s pine tree.

Roadrunners are the classic symbol of the desert Southwest, but Mom’s neighborhood is a dead ringer for any of Cheyenne’s, except that the houses are flat-roofed and adobe-like and the shrubs and big trees, both coniferous and deciduous, are different species.

So when did the epitome of wide-open desert move to town?

I looked up “Greater Roadrunner” in my favorite compendium of avian research, The Birds of North America Online, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/, and found they have been expanding their range since early in the 20th century, north to southern Colorado and Kansas, and east to Arkansas and Louisiana. They often move into atypical habitat on the fringes. But since they also like desert riparian areas—shrubs and trees along creeks—they must find long established residential neighborhoods similar.

If roadrunners keep progressing northward, we might see them here. Cold doesn’t seem to be a problem. Albuquerque had subzero temperatures and this bird survived to walk across the street in front of us a week later.

Does Cheyenne have what a roadrunner wants?

Roads. Check. They really do prefer to travel roads, trails and dry creek beds, running as fast as 18 mph. They seldom fly, usually just taking short flaps to get to a perch or nest.

Food. Check. Some fruit and seeds in winter, but mostly snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, insects, birds, rodents, bats—well, we might be a bit short on lizards and scorpions and I might have a problem with their penchant for hanging around bird feeders and picking off songbirds, but we already provide prey for sharp-shinned hawks. Roadrunners can also nab hummingbirds which might explain why Mom hasn’t had as many at her feeders recently.

Shelter. Check. In cold weather, roadrunners roost in dense shrubs rather than migrate. Cheyenne has lots of spruce, pine and juniper that could fit the bill. Persistent snow cover over a large area could be a problem, but not often.

Dust and sun. Check. Roadrunners take dust baths, not water baths. They also like to sit with their backs to the sun, wings lifted a bit, for hours at a time.

Water. Check. They only need a drink if their food hasn’t been juicy enough. Their physiology has evolved to recycle water in their digestive tract, a handy thing for a desert dweller.

Nest sites. Check. Just need dense bushy shrubs or trees. As we might expect from their cartoon acting experience, not only can the adults draw a predator’s attention away from the nest by faking a broken wing, they can also fake a broken leg. I wonder what Cheyenne’s feral and loose cats would make of that?

Subscription to Equality State values. Check. Both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings, although the female makes a whining call if the male gets distracted in his search for twigs for nest building.

It might be awhile yet before roadrunners run this far north. In the next 20 years if you hear their distinctive coo calls—they are in the cuckoo family—don’t be surprised. After all, Native American tradition identifies roadrunners as symbols of courage, strength and endurance.