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Road Runner

Can you name this bird? Here's a clue: it's not a species one expects to see in chilly Flagstaff.

Cindy Murray

About a year ago I caught a glimpse of an odd-looking bird perched atop my fence. I did a double take, thinking “What is that?” He or she looked like a large ruffled mound of dappled gray, cream, and brown feathers with a fluffy white belly, and a long heavy bill. I fetched my camera, and was lucky to snap a few shots before he hopped down behind the fence.

By that time I had figured out what kind of bird he was and realized that his peculiar appearance was due to the chill winter air typical of the Flagstaff region. He had ascertained that my backyard fence was an ideal spot upon which to sunbathe. And here he was, with feathers poofed out and spread wide in order to expose his black skin to absorb the sun’s rays.

I followed him behind the fence just in time to snap a photograph of him standing in the snow sporting his more typical plumage. With most of his feathers now lying flat, this beautiful bird was sleek and slender, and his dapples had fused into streaks. The blue-black crest atop his head, which had been flat and inconspicuous, was now raised to its full magnificence, while his long tail was cocked skyward. He was primed to run. And that he did, taking off in giant strides, neck outstretched, body parallel to the turf, and tail serving as a rudder.

You’ve likely surmised by now that my mystery bird was a Greater Roadrunner. You might ask, “In Flagstaff? Aren’t they desert animals?” Well, yes and no. This member of the cuckoo family thrives in arid lands of the American Southwest, including the desert, where they have plenty of space to do what they do best: run! The roadrunner’s long, powerful legs can propel it up to 19 miles per hour as it defends its territory, escapes danger, or hunts down lizards, snakes, grasshoppers, and rodents. He can even jump vertically to nab small birds.

Several locales in the Flagstaff region like Doney Park and Timberline (where I live), consist of open pinyon-juniper woodlands or grasslands, which, too provide ample room for roadrunners to do their thing. And because roadrunners have evolved adaptations to survive harsh climates, even cold ones, we do have roadrunners in this region.

No doubt you’re wondering, “What does this bird eat during the winter? Aren’t the insects and reptiles hibernating?”

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I had been wondering the same thing when one day I noticed my roadrunner was pecking holes in the dirt. After a while he lifted his head revealing a large shiny brown object in his bill that resembled a giant fish oil capsule. He cocked his head backwards, bill open wide, and with a bit of effort, swallowed it whole. This capsule happened to be the pupa of an overwintering tomato hornworm, or sphinx moth. I’m sure he was finding tasty morsels of beetle grubs too. “Good”, I muttered. “A few less critters to devour my garden next summer!”

Roadrunners also feast on rodents, seeds and other plant matter this time of year.

So if you happen to come across a roadrunner, do a double take. They’re fascinating!


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