Updated: Feb 18, 2018
Before I moved to the desert, the only roadrunner I had ever seen was on the cartoon show with Wiley E Coyote. Beep, beep! Remember how roadrunner was always outsmarting Wiley E? Now I realize where that smart reputation comes from, because they are indeed very smart and resourceful.
Stats on roadrunners will say they are from the cuckoo family, are 1 foot tall, 2 feet long with a 2 foot wing span, and weigh just over a pound. They have the most unique foot pattern, with 2 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing back. They can do short flights and can run over 20mph. They are meat eaters, which is why many folks don’t like them. I learned the hard way about this shortly after I moved here. In Iowa, if I found a baby bird on the ground, I would put it in a basket tied to the tree, so the mom could still come and feed it. The first and only time I did this here, a roadrunner promptly jumped on the basket and ate the bird. I never did that again.
However, compared to other animal species, like wild dogs and coyotes, who won’t let their young eat before them, roadrunners are doting parents. Roadrunners mate for life, and it takes both of them to tend the nest and raise one or two babies. One of the adults always stays on the nest, while the other mate brings back the food for the mate and the baby. If one of the adults gets killed during the nesting period, the surviving mate will leave the nest and let the babies die in order to survive themselves.
Roadrunners run endlessly for their young, stuffing insects, lizards, and cut up turkey dogs down the throats of babies waiting with open mouths. Even after the babies leave the nest, who by this time are almost as big as the parents, mom & dad continue to feed them. They love turkey dogs and have me trained pretty well at fetching them on their demand. They actually come up to my door and cluck at me to let me know they want a hot dog! When the babies are old enough to fetch the food themselves, the parents usually run them out of the territory to go start their adult lives somewhere else – a lesson that maybe human parents could learn from them! This “running them off” process is heart breaking for me, not to mention the roadrunner youngster, but I also know that a given territory will only produce just so much food, so it is a survival thing for them.
By imitating their sounds, I can get them to follow me around like a dog padding right behind me. They build big and elaborate nests, but choosing spots that are safe from squirrels and hawks are a tremendous challenge. The most successful nest at the ranch is on top of a fluorescent light bracket under the roof of an outside workbench. Protected from wind and rain, they have used this nest over and over for many years.
After over 20 years of observing them and never having read this anywhere, the most endearing quality to me is their life long devotion to their mates and the amount of mourning they go through when they lose one. They make long, slow moans that drop off at the end in tone. It is the most sorrowful, sad song you have ever heard, and this can last continuously for days, even weeks, as they constantly call out for their missing mate. The first time I heard this, I thought there was a hurt dog lying out in the desert. I walked and walked, looking for that hurt dog, before I realized and finally saw a roadrunner doing this. They even drop their heads at the end of the last moan in the series and carry it out for several seconds. So, not only do they sound sad, but they also look sad as they mourn their missing partner. Eventually a new mate shows up, possibly a “junior” in search of his new home, or they leave in search of this missing part of their lives, but I have never gone very long without having these very interesting and smart birds a daily part of my life at the ranch. Roadrunners rock! Beep, beep!
Kitty's Wildlife Refuge & Rescue
Kitty's Wildlife Refuge and Rescue provides dog rescue and rescuing animals, wildlife refuge, wildlife rescue & rehabilitation, and pet rescue