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Wildlife can be remarkably resourceful

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A roadrunner sits on Ray Pawley’s porch rail. (Ray Pawley Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

There are two kinds of roadrunners. The most familiar would be the globally popular cartoon roadrunner (Accelerati incredibilis) that inhabits the entire world and was created in 1949 by Looney Tunes. Its call is its famous “Meep, Meep” and it looks like a rubbery, stretched blue goose with spinning wheels for legs. It bears no actual resemblance to the living Greater Roadrunner of the bush, (Geococcyx californianus), which is New Mexico’s State Bird and has a call like a nail-gun set on “slow”: Rat—tat—tat—tat.

A roadrunner nest on the loading dock of the Roswell Daily Record. (Ray Pawley Photo)

Like a skinny little dark-feathered Bantam that is hyped on speed, roadrunners run. They dash about on or off roads as they search among trash and weeds for food — insects, lizards and any other small creature that can be “tenderized” by repeated hammering with its long, sharp beak. The bird can, if necessary, fly a few yards. Its range extends from the southwestern U.S. down into central Mexico where the meaning of its name is the same in Spanish: Corre-camino.

In the wider world there are even more “roadrunners,” sort of. A Plymouth automobile, an airport shuttle, a Little League Team and others. In fact, New Mexico has its very own Roadrunner Express commuter which connects Santa Fe with Albuquerque. The Roadrunner name and reputation, if not the bird itself has reached international iconic status.

Roadrunners are the largest of the New World Cuckoos and, like all Cuckoos, leave a distinctive “X” shaped footprint with two of its toes pointing forward and two toes aft. Unlike its other smaller, more laid-back Cuckoo relatives, the roadrunner is a quick-acting, fierce predator with an appearance like a feathered Velociraptor and behaves like Moviedom’s version of a miniature T. rex. We can be exceedingly grateful that roadrunners do not come in 6-foot sizes!

We see them frequently in Arabela, sometimes sprawled out in the sun on our outdoor table or fighting with their images reflected in a window. We have seen them snatch up lizards and very rarely manage to grab an unwary, low-flying hummingbird as it patrols its territory.

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Although roadrunners are thoroughly efficient hunters they, like all Cuckoos, have a glaring weakness: they build terrible nests. Maybe they think of themselves as being too busy when they pile a smattering of twigs together in a low tree, shrub or any other “make do” site. Looking up at a Cuckoo nest from below, one sees almost as much sky as nest through which an occasional egg will drop to the ground below. Note: One of the first breedings of this species in captivity at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago was successful largely because we built a much more sturdy, durable nest for them — which, amazingly, they readily accepted!

And this brings us now to the loading dock of the Roswell Daily Record. I never knew of this species relocating to any city environment and I was incredulous when, two years ago one of the reporters told me that roadrunners had nested at the back of RDR building. I was even more incredulous when, after RDR’s John Lujan provided me with a ladder, I could give the nest a detailed inspection.

From the start, and to attract a mate, the male needs to construct a nest that a female will find irresistible. Since roadrunner nests are no more attractive than a tiny pile of brush the male needs to add an incentive. Accordingly, he will enhance his engineering skills and courtship prowess by dangling a tempting meal from his beak — a plump, well-hammered, tenderized gift of a tasty lizard — hoping to slow her down and persuade her to take a closer look at his craftwork as she dashes by.

The newspaper’s urban location with its night lights would attract large numbers of insects which would be devoured by a large population of lizards, living in a large vacant Chihuahuan Desert lot next door. An inexhaustible source of food so close at hand would be a unique convenience for roadrunner parents faced with the demand of keeping a growing family fed.

The roadrunner that built this particular nest in the loading dock had to be an architectural counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright. And yet, in spite of all the added extras, expecting a female from sagebrush country to wander into town was a long shot at best. Moreover, coaxing her over to the loading dock would be an added challenge because even at close range, this nest was difficult to find.

Instead of piling a few sticks in a Mesquite or Cholla cactus out in the desert, this roadrunner with an obvious passion for engineering had threaded branches of all sizes around and under some chain-link fencing to build his nest. In addition, it was out of the weather, a consideration typically not found among any roadrunner’s nest-building genes. Its nest was sited under two shelters: (1) the loading dock overhang and (2) a shell from a pick-up truck that was being stored on top of a chain-link panel seven feet above the deck. No rain or wind would ever reach, much less dismantle this creation, a fate that befalls many roadrunner bush-built nests and may account for why so few roadrunner nestlings survive at all. And, with a chain-link support panel under the nest, no eggs were going to fall out. In all, this nest was solidly anchored and well concealed from discovery.

Nevertheless, both of the roadrunner parents had to be lean and supple to slip through and around the support posts of the fence to reach the nest — and any youngsters would need to pay close attention to their parents to find their way out once fledged.

Apparently, these obstacles proved too much — the nest was not used, and the male roadrunner never came back. In spite of all its advantages, maybe the stress of raising a family in the city would have been too wearing. A grey fox had also been seen patrolling the area in the evenings, which could have been another deterrent.

Later, when the nest was checked again, some additional dried weeds had been stuck in here and there by some sparrows that may have had plans of taking it over, and needed to make some infrastructure upgrades.

What’s the take-away lesson? In fact, wildlife can be remarkably resourceful in ways we cannot foresee if certain basics are in place. Here’s another example: In some large cities peregrine falcons have been hacked (acclimated) to high-rise buildings where they have nested and raised their chicks on pigeons snatched up from overly-abundant flocks. Although pigeons are among the faster fliers among birds, attaining speeds of 100 miles per hour, the peregrine can clock 200-plus mph in a stoop (dive), one of the few known avian predators that can out-fly and out-maneuver a pigeon.

Although Mark Twain passed on about 40 years before the “Coyote and the Roadrunner” cartoons appeared, his description of the coyote was not far off of the Loony Tunes caricature which he described almost prophetically in his semi-autobiographical book Roughing It: “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton that is a living breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.” Spot on. How sad that we will never know what Twain thought of the roadrunner.

Ray Pawley, previously with Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos and the Field Museum of Natural History, continues to consult for zoos and museums. He resides in Arabela, where his research on animal behavior and physiology is ongoing. Most recently he has directed the Hubbard Museum of the American West in Ruidoso Downs and lectures for national audiences. He can be reached at raypawley@pvtnetworks.net.