Greater roadrunner a great find for birders

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Member of species hanging out at Dinosaur Ridge

By Emile Hallez

An unusual visitor has for months been leaving diminutive footprints next to the massive famed Iguanodon track fossils on Dinosaur Ridge.

A greater roadrunner, whom museum staff has named Rascal, was first spotted in early fall, at least 130 miles from the terrestrial bird’s nearest known habitat. The sighting, which has since spurred numerous confirmations by enthusiastic local birdwatchers, prompted Colorado groups to issue rare-bird alerts.

“We’ve kind of seen it on and off for about three months,” said Friends of Dinosaur Ridge executive director Joe Tempel, noting that since a tour bus driver first saw the omnivorous bird, birdwatchers have been flocking to the site for a glimpse of the typically desert-dwelling roadrunner. “It’s become more interesting. … It’s pretty unusual to have it in Colorado this far north. Its habitat is mostly south of Colorado and in southeastern Colorado. I don’t know anyone who’s spotted any of them this far north.”

Though patient observers have snapped photos sharp enough to confirm the bird’s species, identifying gender is more challenging, since males and females appear similar. So last week the museum decided on a neutral name for the non-migratory bird, who despite appearing late in the year doesn’t appear to be ready to leave town, even in the face of recent snowfalls.

Roadrunners, which have extremely limited flight capabilities but can reach running speeds of 17 mph, are omnivorous and feed on prickly pear cacti, insects, rodents and even snakes. To kill larger prey, a roadrunner dashes at an animal, captures it in its beak and repeatedly slams the creature’s body into a rock before swallowing the prey whole.

“It’s such an interesting thing to have up there,” said Hugh Kingery, former president of Audubon of Greater Denver. “It’s such a nice discovery, and it’s too bad we didn’t hear about it earlier,” he said, adding that though roadrunners are acclimated to desert conditions, their overall resiliency and widely varying food supply can allow them to venture away from the comfort of home. However, Rascal represents the only roadrunner sighting in the central or northern part of the state that Kingery is aware of.

“They’re year-round in southeastern Colorado. … They can survive that,” he said. “They eat not only insects and lizards, but they can catch mice.”

And though Dinosaur Ridge is home to a known roadrunner predator — the coyote — no one has so far witnessed one cartoonishly licking its chops, much less constructing ill-conceived rocketry in the area.

“(Roadrunners are) pretty hardy critters. The neat thing about them is that they’re just like the cartoons,” Kingery said. “They run like mad.”

Information for this story about greater roadrunners came from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web.