The greater roadrunner, which has been seen for the past few months at Dinosaur Ridge, has been an interesting visitor.
Although they are regular residents in the southeast corner of Colorado, they seldom go north of that. They are essentially desert birds and are found all across the desert Southwest. That little corner of our state is the only place where they apparently have traditionally felt at home.
Roadrunners are interesting birds that we saw in many parts of the southwestern desert country. I well remember one we saw early one morning when we stopped at what appeared to be the only gas station along miles of open highway. It had very bright lights and was open all night. This made it very attractive to many night-flying insects, which were apparently sapped by the lights and piled up on the ground below. We were amazed to see a roadrunner below the window, gathering up a breakfast of the night’s accumulation of insects. The attendant at the gas station informed us that it did this every morning. We were delighted to watch the bird, check him off our list, fill our tank and be on our way.
We had relatives in southern California at the time, who saw them regularly in their yard. This was due to the fact that they were fed regularly by the neighbors, who bought hamburger every week, rolled it into tiny meatballs and kept it in the refrigerator for the roadrunners. We were amazed at the competition that went on between neighbors to see which one had the most roadrunners coming to their house. How tame were they? Who used the most hamburger each week to feed them? We also saw them in many of the campgrounds where they had learned to look for other forms of people food. This is probably not too good for the birds, but they soon discover an easy way to find food.
Shortly after we moved to Evergreen, so it must have been in the late ’60s. There were reports of a roadrunner in the parking lot of the Safeway store in Idaho Springs. Although we never saw this bird and it apparently did not survive the very cold winter, Bill always felt it had probably gotten there accidentally by hiding in a vegetable truck, which had been driven out into the fields, then driven north with the roadrunner still aboard. They are very poor, weak fliers, and probably could not have flown that far.
However, they are excellent runners and can run 17 mph for short periods of time, and catch insects and small birds by scaring the prey into flight, then leaping up, catching it on the wing several feet in the air. The big flying grasshoppers are a large part of their summer food, which is taken in this manner. Roadrunners begin to incubate their eggs as soon as they are laid, as most owls and a few other birds do. Therefore, a nest of young is all different ages. It takes about 18 days for an egg to hatch. If there were six eggs in the nest, the first hatched could be ready to leave the nest by the time the last egg has hatched. Nests have been found with two eggs and up to 10 or 12 eggs. Because of this great variation and because they are closely related to the cuckoos, there have been some who believe that more than one female may lay the eggs found in one nest.
The newly hatched roadrunners have no feathers, only white strings of hair where the feathers will soon grow. Their skin is black and oily; in fact, they are quite ugly looking. As they mature, they grow brown feathers streaked with white and black. They also have a bare patch of skin around the eye, which becomes blue and then orange as they mature.
The outer toe on each foot is very flexible and turns backward as they walk. They have a very distinctive X- or K-shaped track when walking in soft mud, wet sand or snow. In the early days of settling the West, roadrunners were shot and many states had bounties on them because it was believed that they killed quail. This practice was stopped, and they are now protected like all other birds. They do occasionally eat a young quail chick or egg when available, but they eat far more grasshoppers, scorpions, spiers and snakes, many of which are poisonous and is of great concern to man.
Roadrunners are unique in many ways. In Bent’s “Life Histories of North American Birds,” he quotes several descriptions of the bird. One, written by J.L. Sloanaker, describes this bird as a “tall, slim tramp in a swallow-tailed coat, a black and blue eye, and a head of hear standing straight on end.” This is a fairly accurate, humorous description.
I haven’t heard when anyone has seen the Dinosaur Ridge roadrunner since the big snow storm. If he could locate enough food, he probably could have survived. But if all his food was buried beneath the snow, he might not have been able to produce enough energy to keep warm. I hope he made it for it would be very nice to have a resident roadrunner at Red Rocks Park.