The Roadrunner by Ben Hanson

   Children’s cartoons frequently use wild animals for characters. Often, these cartoons tend to sensationalize one characteristic of the animal. For instance, let’s look at the cartoon character the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner’s blazing speed always allows it to survive the attacks of the wily coyote.Roadrunner.gif (61097 bytes)
   It is true, the roadrunner is a fast bird, however, it’s speed may be slightly overrated. Biologists believe that roadrunners can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour, but their speed is deceiving. The relatively small size of the roadrunner and it’s ability to run full speed while weaving in and out of brush, gives the appearance that it is traveling much faster than it actually is. Like many other running birds the roadrunner has long legs with short toes. If pressed it will fly for short distances by leaping into the air and fluttering its small wings, but it prefers to keep its feet firmly on the ground.
   Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family, that’s right the same family as the famed cuckoo bird. Unlike many of the other birds in its family, the roadrunner does not practice brood parasitism (to lay eggs in the nest of others birds for them to raise). Instead, the roadrunner’s nest is an untidy bundle of twigs lined with anything found loose in the desert including: bones, snake skins, leaves and paper. The female lays three to seven white eggs and incubates them for approximately 19 days. Baby birds are born with black skin, which is a heat-conserving adaptation to cold desert nights. Within three weeks young roadrunners are fledged and begin to gather food for themselves.
   The roadrunner eats a variety of things. It’s especially noted among desert birds for its expertise at killing snakes, which is done by a series of quick stabs from a long, pointed beak. It is also an avid lizard killer. Any lizard darting from the shadow of a rock or cactus may find itself with a roadrunner in hot pursuit. When a lizard is overtaken by a roadrunner it receives a whack on the head and is then beaten repeatedly on the ground or against a nearby rock, before being swallowed headfirst. In addition to snakes and lizards, roadrunners eat many insects, especially crickets, large grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. They also feed on mice and birds, both eggs and young.
   Like many other birds, roadrunners engage in sunbathing. Biologists are at a loss to explain this behavior, but one theory is that the heat gained through absorption by spreading the wings and tail feathers causes ectoparasites (parasites that live outside the animals skin) to move about, making it easier to remove them by preening.
   There are many folk stories that surround the roadrunners snake fighting ability. One of my favorites is that if a roadrunner is bitten by a rattlesnake, the bird rushes off and swallows a particular herb as an antidote (Not True). Stories like this, along with its cartoon depiction, have given the roadrunner almost mystical status.
   The roadrunner is a beautiful and fascinating bird. It’s no wonder that the founders of our state chose it as our state bird.