Denizens Of The Desert:
California Road Runner
Neotomas, Or Pack Rats, Of The Desert
Billy Bob-tail, The Hermit Wood Rat
Spiny Pocket Mice
Catherpes, The Canon Wren
Betsy Bounce, The Rock Wren
Round-tailed Ground Squirrel And Near Relatives
Eleodes, The Beetle That Stands On His Head
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
California Road Runner
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
OF all the feathered denizens of the desert there is none that has such an amazing stock of peculiarities or so many odd and interesting combinations of absurd manners to show us as that unique bird, the California road-runner. He is the desert's hermit bird wag, as full of comical manners and as resourceful in mischief as the fun-loving jay or inquisitive nutcracker, yet, unlike these birds, never obtrusive in his familiarity. And how he does love sports! Every morning he goes down on the trail below my shanty and saunters idly along waiting for me to come with my pail for water, well knowing that I will give him chase and afford him the fine fun of beating me to the corner. Just as I am about upon him, he leaps into the brush out of sight and is seen no more for an hour or two. This born gamester has been found time and again sportively pursuing the ends of surveyor's chains as they were dragged along by the linemen, or seen on golf grounds running clown stray-driven balls with the eagerness of a playful dog.
Byron said of that sagacious and celebrated wit, Richard Sheridan:
Nature formed but one such man And broke the die in moulding Sheridan.
If we like to phrase it so, we may surely say with equal aptness concerning the road-runner:
Nature formed but one such bird
Yes, he is the one bird you never mistake for any other. The bristle-tipped topknot which he raises and lowers at will, the reptilian-like face with its deep-slit mouth, and the long tail which so unmistakably registers his emotions, make him a bird of most singular appearance.
The road-runner's speckled coat of feathers is a patchwork of varied colors. The feathers of the head and neck are dark steel-blue, of the upper parts of the body, bronzy or coppery green, changing to purplish violet and green on the upper middle tail feathers. The outer tail feathers are steel-blue with green and violet reflections. Everywhere, except on the rump, the upper parts are streaked with white or brownish-white, especially the wings - this white and buff marking being produced by an odd fringelike fraying-out of the edges of the feathers. The peculiar bare space around the eye is beautifully marked with blue and orange. The only real somberness about him is the brown, tawny, and white that covers his breast, throat, and sides. Yet so intricately and wonderfully placed are the units in this mosaic of color that the bird appears almost as brown or gray as the earth on which he runs. It is only now and then when you are near to him that you catch the iridescence and regal color spendor of his coat. These color markings are the same for both sexes and it is hard to tell them apart.
This strange cousin of the cuckoo has earned his name from his apparent delight in sprinting along roadways, especially when pursued by horsemen or moderately slow-going vehicles.
In the picturesque old days of California, when tourists were frequently driven over country roads in tallyho coaches, it was no uncommon sight to see this bird; his way of running a half-mile or so in front of the fast trotting horses was long remembered by the sight-seers who never tired of telling about their introduction to the bird racer. Another common name, "chaparral cock," is given in allusion to his living in the chaparral or scrub forest of the semi deserts; and he is called "ground cuckoo" because of his inability to leave the ground in long-sustained flight.
Formerly the range of the road-runner included the grassy plains, chaparral-covered hills, and arid mesas from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean, and from Central California to Mexico. With the settlement of the land and the increase in the number of gunmen, this unique bird is rapidly becoming rare, and the familiar Maltese cross footprints which he leaves along dusty roads are seldom seen any more except in the wildest portions of his former range.
The road-runner makes no regular migrations and is seldom seen except when he is alone. Only twice have I observed him in company with his mate. Sort of a Bedouin is he, a thorough son of the desert, and impatient of the restraints of communal life. The accusation of being a vagabond like the shiftless coyote can never be brought against him. On the desert the road-runner. exhibits a marked preference for mesquite thickets. He fully realizes what excellent protection the thorny, low-growing trees offer, and once he chooses a clump of mesquites for his "stamping grounds," he seldom leaves the vicinity and may be found there year after year.
Like a policeman the road-runner apparently has his beats, and any one who watches him day after day will be surprised to note how regular and punctual he is in passing certain points at definite times. An invalid on the Colorado Desert recently called my attention to the fact that a road-runner passed her porch regularly at 12.25 o'clock every day for over a week, never varying by more than a minute or two. A gentleman, who some months ago put up a new board fence, tells me that a road-runner now amuses himself almost daily by jumping up on the upper rail and running at top speed the full length of one side of the fence. The peculiar thing about it is that he invariably does it at the same time of the day - just about noon.
Persons who have tried to make a pet of the "pasiano," as the Mexicans like to call this lanky, ludicrous-feathered wit, find him so mischievous that he often proves himself a source of endless annoyance. A Mr. Dresser, of Mata-moras, referred to by Dr. Ridgway, who had one partially domesticated, found he could not let it remain in the house at all. "It would hide and steal everything it could carry off and was particularly fond of tearing up letters and up-setting the inkstand. It was never caged or tied up and would frequently pay the neighbors a visit, always returning before evening. The bird had a singular antipathy to a tame parrot, and whenever the latter was let out of the cage, it would get into a rage, and either go to the housetop or decamp to the neighbors."
In spite of his prankish, sportive nature, the Mexicans look upon the road-runner as a purveyor of good luck and a very desirable neighbor, and he is not unwelcome when he comes, as he often does after getting acquainted, into the yard to share a bit of grain with the barn fowls.
Last night I threw out a whole panful of "leftovers" to the birds and antelope chipmunks. This morning almost before daylight there were signs of trouble in the yard. When I went out to see what was up, I found Betsy Bounce, the rock wren, and half a dozen of her feathered kindred sitting around on rocks close by, vigorously scolding and uttering notes of protest while they saw the morsels they so much wanted gobbled up by a road-runner. Playing the bully, he had stationed himself in the center of the supply, and was paying no more attention to their rounds of scolding than to their nervous fidgetings. Only when he had picked up every crumb did he desist eating. Then with an indifferent air he ran down the trail, mounted his favorite perch - an old mesquite hitching-post - and began puffing out his feathers.
The pasiano's appetite is as queer as his looks. He eats everything you would not expect a bird to eat. Seemingly bent on testing the edibility of everything that runs or crawls, he swallows horned toads, grasshoppers, mice, centipedes, millipedes, cutworms, spiders, bumblebees, and occasionally even snakes, wood rats, and new-born rabbits. Cactus fruits and the berries of the sumac are among his vegetable foods. This bird has a penchant for meat, and his flesh-eating habits sometimes get the better of him ----for instance, when he finds the meat set as bait in traps. Too often the trapper, making his "rounds" in the morning, finds the feathers of some ill-fated road-runner which was caught by the steel jaws and in turn eaten up by some coyote or fox that found him fluttering helplessly in the trap.
The road-runner has extraordinary ability as a stalker of rapid-flying insects. This is at-tested by the fact that in the stomach of a road-runner taken near San Diego, California, thirty-six cicadas were found - insects which the entomologist always finds very difficult to take on the wing.' Again and again I have seen him leap in air and snap up some great grasshopper that was desperately winging his way to safety. Always after the bird caught his prey, it has been amusing to me to see him standing in proud pose gazing into blank space and, with a soliloquizing air, losing himself in self-complimentary contemplations over his victory. In the meanwhile his long tail was generally moving delicately up and down like the balance-arm of a scale.
Lizards are the pasiano's chief fare; these he cleverly picks off the rocks and one whack of his bill is sufficient to kill them. So fond is this bird of lizards that he has received the common name of "lizard-eater." Especially during the nesting season are many reptiles taken. The baby birds are almost raised on them. Dr. Harold Bryant ranks the road-runner as one of the worst natural enemies to which lizards and snakes are exposed.
Early in May I saw a funny sight, when, with a whir of wings, a road-runner sprang down upon an illstarred lizard and almost literally pinned him to the sand as he stuck him with his bill. As is usual the lizard disjointed and surrendered his tail in the onset. The road-runner picked up the lizard's body and would have picked up the dismembered tail also, but he was at a loss to know how to do it. How could he, when his jaws were already pried wide apart by the reptile's body, pick up in addition the wriggling, squirming tail? - that was the question. He looked at it puzzlingly and with curiosity, and tried again and again to pick it up without putting down the rest of his prize. He seemed to be suspicious that the tailless reptile once down might run away while the cast-off appendage was being picked up. He would run no risk. In some manner the body of the lizard must be adequately compressed between the jaws to bring the ends of the mandibles sufficiently close together to hold, in addition to the body, the delectable but recalcitrant tail. And so several times the mandibles were firmly pressed together until the lizard's bones were well cracked. The obstreperous tail was then picked up and the bird, holding his head high in air, ran off with his wriggling prize, under a mesquite tree, over the rocks and into the brush.
It is not often that you run across the nest of this curious dweller of the deserts, and I was filled with emotion when a few days later I was led to the nest and found the mother sitting on a pile of sticks, the ill-made home placed some seven feet above ground in a juniper shrub. With her mottled and speckled plumage she was so very inconspicuous that I am sure I should never have seen her had she not jumped off the nest as I approached within a few feet of it.
What interested me as the days went by was not so much the rude home, lined with almost everything from a snake skin to bits of manure, or the yellowish egg within it, but the patient mother, who sat almost seven weeks on the nest, first with the eggs and then with the young. The period of incubation was not unusually long nor were the birdlings slow of growth that the mother bird had to stay on the nest so long. It was her strange method of hatching her eggs. As though she dreaded the ordeals incident to caring for a whole brood of awkward, gawky, gluttonous, clamoring youngsters of the same age at once, the eggs were laid at considerable intervals and the incubation began as soon as the first was laid. Thus the first of the brood was all ready to leave the nest when the last ungainly birdlings were breaking from the shell.' How many insects, centipedes, and lizards disappeared down the throats of those lusty youngsters is hard even to imagine; for they were always dreadfully hungry and often fed.
If a female road-runner is approached when on the nest, she generally remains quiet until the intruder is right upon her; then she slips over the back of the nest and flies a short distance to safety, but where she can still see the unwelcome caller. At times she has been known to permit herself to be caught rather than for-sake her young.
A member of the Cooper Ornithological Club (Mr. J. R. Pemberton) gives a most interesting report concerning the actions of a female road-runner whose nest he found some ten feet above ground in a sycamore tree. As the observer began climbing up to the nest, the bird hopped to the ground.
1 Further observations of nesting road-runners has convinced me that this procedure is not always followed, but that the habit is peculiar to the individual. Often incubation is delayed until all or most of the set of eggs is laid.
"Immediately," says Mr. Pemberton, "it began to squirm, scramble, and drag itself away across an open space and in full view. The bird was simulating a broken leg instead of a broken wing ! The bird held its wings closed through-out the demonstration, though frequently falling over on its side in its enthusiasm. The whole performance was kept entirely in my view, the bird gradually working away from the tree until it was some thirty-five feet distant, when it immediately ran back to the base of the tree and repeated the whole show. I had been so interested up to now that I had failed to examine the nest, which, when looked into, contained five young probably a week old. When I got to the ground the bird continued its 'stunt' rather more frantically than before, and in order to encourage the bird I followed, and was pleased to see it remain highly consistent until I was decoyed to a point well out-side the grove. Here the bird ran suddenly away at full speed and in a direction still away from the nest."
There are many versions of the story which points out the chaparral cock as a killer of rattlesnakes and the number grows as the tale is peddled from mouth to mouth of imaginative story-tellers. There is always the rattlesnake who was caught asleep and surrounded by a circlet of cholla cactus joints by a clever road-runner. The rattlesnake wakes up and, realizing that he cannot escape, bites himself and dies. Many frills and variations are put in to make the story appear real. When you ask the narrator if he witnessed the incident himself, he always says he knows it is true, but " somebody else told me."
"This," says Major Bendire, "is a very plausible story, and while I am only too well aware of the spines of the cholla cactus, I know that such a hedge proves no barrier to these snakes and that they do not mind such obstructions in the least, passing over without touching them. I consider the story on a par with the generally accepted belief of hunters and frontiersmen in the West, that rattlesnakes will not cross over horsehair ropes when laid around one's bed when camping out. I was a firm believer in the statement, and made use of this snake protector for a number of years; but at last my faith was rudely shattered by seeing a medium-sized rattlesnake deliberately crawling over such a rope which I had stretched around my tent. The snake paid no attention to the hair rope, but slightly curved its body where about to come in contact with it, gliding over without touching it, and, finding a sunny spot at the side of the tent, coiled up to take a rest, part of its body lying directly on the rope. Since witnessing the performance I have naturally lost faith in the belief and have wished many times since that it had not been so rudely shaken, especially in sections of the country where these reptiles are abundant and where one is liable to find his blanket occupied by one or more rattlers."
In winter as soon as the morning sun is out, the road-runner may often be seen seeking the rocky prominences. Hunting out some well-sunned boulder, he turns his back toward the rising sun and opens up and ruffles his feathers in such a way that he catches every warm ray and allows it to penetrate to the very skin. He then presents a most unusual appearance, looking more like a mammal than a bird. His likeness to an animal is produced in large part by the long down-hanging tail and the full exposure of the numerous soft down-like barbs at the bases of the feathers which in their fluffiness look like thick fur. Of all times this is the best to see a road-runner at close range. Purposely now he seems to ignore your presence. Unwilling that you should disturb him in his seeking of comforts, he permits you to approach until you can see the white ring of his eye. Several times I have at such times quietly crept up on one and watched him for ten minutes at a time preening his feathers, running his bill through them and gaping and stretching his long black jaws.
There are three things in which the road-runner's poverty is great - his sense of smell, his power of flight, his power of song. The sense of smell in all birds is so vestigial that at best they can probably smell no better than you can when you have a cold in the head. Even vultures, we are told, must depend wholly on their sense of sight for the detection of carrion and in no degree on their sense of smell as might be thought.
The road-runner relies mostly on his trusty legs for making his escape when pressed by an enemy. He realizes what poor makeshifts of flight organs his wings are, and like the ostrich uses them mostly as aids in running or jumping. It would be a mistake, though, to say that the road-runner never flies in the true sense of the term. Several times I have seen one, when hard-pressed, fly almost an eighth of a mile. I must admit, though, that the act was awkwardly done. If surprised when on rough ground the fleeing road-runner generally spreads his wings and volplanes across the gulleys. If disturbed when on the mountain-side he may glide downward a quarter of a mile to the valley below. It is always a beautiful sight and a feat most interesting to witness.
The pasiano has scarcely a vestige of song, his only emotional utterances being a strange whistling note (" oo - t") ending in a loud clatter, chipper, or crackling noise made by rapidly bringing his mandibles together; and a loud "coo" given most often during the nesting season. The whistle sounds as though the breath were being drawn in when it is produced.
But the "coo" seems to be an explosive utterance.
Many times during the spring days I have been awakened in the morning by this last peculiar song. So loudly and vigorously were the notes "cook - cook - cook" given that I could not help but fancy this almost-human mischief-loving bird calling for me to get up to cook for him his breakfast.
When the road-runner looks at you he almost always gazes at you steadily with one eye, his head being turned sidewise to you. Thus he gets the best possible view of you. The curious thing is, that at the same time he is viewing you, he, with his other eye, may be scrutinizing and recording an image of another object on the other side of him he watches two fields of possible interest at the same time. Again, if he wills it, he suppresses the vision of one eye, ignores its sensations, and focuses his entire attention on an object of interest before the other. If you will watch him gazing skyward at a hawk, you will see him with his head turned sidewise, one eye turned downward (its vision repressed) and the other upward, its attention being given over wholly to watching his avian enemy. The road-runner's vision is a hundred times more acute than ours, especially with respect to moving objects. He sees a thousand things that our blind eyes never register.