The roadrunner seemed as out of place as a debutante at a deer camp. It wasn’t in the red-rock terrain of an arid southwestern desert as one might expect. It was, instead, racing along the roadside near Petit Jean State Park in west central Arkansas.
“What in the world was that?” I wondered when first I saw it. The question was quickly answered when I pulled my vehicle safely off the highway and examined the bird through binoculars I keep under the seat.
Roadrunner! I was looking at a roadrunner!
Had I been somewhere out in the wild, wild West, the sight of a roadrunner might have been less shocking. But here I was at the edge of the Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River Valley. Roadrunners aren’t supposed to be in Arkansas – or so one might think.
This bird had captured a little snake, which somehow wriggled free. The roadrunner quickly pinned the serpent, though, which coiled itself tightly around the bird’s long beak. Mr. Roadrunner did not care for this at all. He shook his head vigorously to rid himself of this serpentine muzzle, and once again, the snake escaped.
This time the roadrunner placed a foot on the snake before grabbing it with his beak. He pinched the base of the reptile’s skull to kill it. Then, with a flip of his head, the serpent started down his gullet. I say “started” because the roadrunner could not swallow the whole snake. The snake’s tail protruded from his beak like a strand of spaghetti from the mouth of a toddler.
Birds don’t usually make me laugh, but this one did. With his Wild West arrogance and silly antics, that roadrunner reminded me of a rodeo clown. Streaks of blue and red painted the comic rascal’s face. His raggedy top-notch looked like a bad wig. Birds aren’t supposed to smile, but this one did, just like a clown with a painted-on grin.
The roadrunner dresses in plain, brown-speckled feathers, but wherever it is seen, one cannot ignore this bundle of energy darting here and there. He’s always zipping about as if an imaginary bull were trying to pound him into the dirt.
We associate him with prickly pear cactus and desert sand, but this giant, ground-dwelling member of the cuckoo family is equally at home in the hills of Arkansas. In the old days, cowboys were amused by his habit of racing ahead of their horses, and they gave him the name roadrunner.
The greater roadrunner, as the bird is formally known, once lived only in the desert Southwest and Mexico. During the 20th century, however, its range expanded north and east in California, Kansas and Oklahoma and across the Ozark Mountains into the Mississippi River Basin. Biologists believe land clearing, grazing and increasing scrub habitat allowed the eastward spread.
The quickness of the roadrunner’s range expansion in Arkansas is testimony to the bird’s amazing adaptability. Roadrunners were first reported in the southwest corner of Arkansas in 1936, and by the 1940s, there were records in the central part of the state. During the 1960s, roadrunners advanced across the Ozarks to flat agricultural lands beyond. And by the early 1970s, the species was being reported in several locations in the state’s eastern lowlands, several hundred miles from the point where it was first documented in the Natural State.
Unlike other members of the cuckoo family, roadrunners seldom fly. They sometimes glide short distances, or leap from the ground to take flying insects, but by and large they’re runners. Long, strong legs allow them to race along at speeds of 15 mph. They use their foot-long tail as a rudder and flap, swiveling it to change course or raising it upright to stop.
Their appetite is enormous; they’ll eat almost anything that moves. Insects, scorpions, centipedes, spiders, toads, lizards, small snakes, small birds and eggs, mice, young rabbits, carrion and cactus fruits are just a few items on the roadrunner menu.
There’s no doubt roadrunners sometimes kill and eat rattlesnakes, but it’s just an old wives’ tale that they first surround the snake with a circle of cactus spines or small stones so the snake cannot get away.
The truth about roadrunners is no less astounding than the myths surrounding them. Consider, for example, the behavior I was once fortunate enough to observe in the yard of a friend who lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. This friend, Cliff Shelby, often told me stories about the crazy antics of a roadrunner whose home range overlapped his property. Sometimes he would see the bird fighting its reflection in the windows of his home or his vehicles. Often the bird perched on a window sill, looking at the members of Cliff ’s family, who were looking at it.
“It’s a very tame bird,” Cliff said. “You can walk very close to it. You should come and take some photos.”
I decided I would, and early on the first morning of my visit, Cliff and I went into his yard to look for the roadrunner. We found it sitting on the ground not far from the house,with its wings spread and its feathers ruffled. The morning sun illuminated the patch of ground where the bird was crouched, and a big patch of black skin on the roadrunner’s back was clearly visible. We walked near the bird without it showing any sign of disturbance. It appeared to me, from the disheveled look of its feathers, some animal had tried to attack the bird, and it was immobile due to its injuries.
“Actually, it’s just sunning itself,” Cliff said. “It does that every day. When the air warms up, it’ll start racing around just like a roadrunner is supposed to do. Wait and see.”
Sure enough, after 30 minutes in the sun, the roadrunner smoothed its feathers and began chasing bugs and small reptiles in the yard.
I learned later that sunning this way enables roadrunners to regulate their body temperature. Their normal temperature is 101 degrees, but during a cold desert night this may drop as much as seven degrees below normal with no ill effects. Then, starting at sunrise, the bird turns its back to the sun, lifts the feathers of the lower neck and upper back and holds its wings out. This exposes dark patches of skin that act as solar panels, heating the bird’s blood and saving energy at a rate of about 550 calories per hour for as long as it takes to raise the body temperature back to normal.
In his book The What and the Why of Desert Country, Joseph Wood Krutch described the reason many people love the roadrunner.
There is “something indescribably comic about him,” he said, “and he illustrates the rule that comic rascals have a way of engaging the affection of even the virtuous. Nearly everybody is curiously cheered by the sight of a roadrunner.”