During Christmas time, we took a trip back to Arizona to catch up with our extended families. It was a great time, with us being there just long enough for us to look forward to going back again another year! We’ve really come to love living here in Utah, but it’s a nice contrast this time of year to experience temperatures in the 60s and 70s, and bright skies. But, not enough to want to move back there.
You see, we’ll be enjoying life here with all of you during the long days of summer when the daytime temperatures are high, but drop in the evenings. That after-sundown cooling is slow in coming to southern Arizona. It just stays hot. So, it’s a series of climatic trade-offs, and we feel that we’ve come out on top living here.
Driving back and passing a lot of familiar Arizona landmarks brought back to mind many memories and experiences. One common sight in the Sonoran Desert is the roadrunner. This speedy bird can be seen in remote and semi-populated areas alike. It even lives here in Utah, albeit in the southernmost part of the state, in the St. George vicinity.
I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. My favorite was the “Bugs Bunny — Road Runner Show.” As much as I liked Bugs Bunny (and still do!), the antics of Wile E. Coyote and the “Beep-Beep” roadrunner really got me. I suspect it was the same for some of you. I thought seeing real-life coyotes and roadrunners was a common experience for everyone, and watching the Merrie Melodies cartoons was a comical nod to reality.
A striking sight, and speedy and sizable enough to command attention, the roadrunner has achieved iconic status, especially in the regions where it resides. Images of the famous bird appear in a variety of settings, including company logos, names of organizations and businesses, and was even the namesake of the popular Plymouth Roadrunner automobile. The car was produced from 1968-80. Plymouth bought licensing rights from Warner Brothers (reportedly for $50,000) for the Roadrunner name, as well as the cartoon likeness, and even the “beep-beep” sound that Plymouth developed for the car’s horn. I remember those cars, and they were cool! In fact, I have a brother in Arizona that collects them and restores them. They are one of the American “muscle cars,” right up there with the Corvette, Mustang, Chevelle, Firebird, GTO, and so forth (sorry if I call out your favorite).
The renowned roadrunner also shows up as a mascot for various organizations, sport teams, and civics clubs. Heck, I even spotted it as a mascot on the unit insignia for the decommissioned missile installation in Arizona that is now the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson. That’s another article in the not-too-distant future — fascinating stuff!
When real-life creatures are made into caricatures, there are some misperceptions that are sure to follow. Indeed, the speedy roadrunner, able to leave the hapless coyote behind in any pursuit, is not reality. The coyote is actually faster in a straight-on foot race. It’s interesting to note that in the cartoons we never saw Wile E. Coyote actually catch, much less eat, the roadrunner. We did see classic chases every episode. It’s reasonable to assume that a coyote would eat a roadrunner, as it eats a lot of things and is quite well adapted to its life in the wild — including having a broad range of culinary tastes.
Even though the coyote is faster in terms of miles per hour and is quite agile, the bird can fly for limited distances when needed, as well as make amazingly quick directional changes. I suspect it’s easier for the coyote to find other food sources.
The greater roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family. And, yes, there is a lesser roadrunner. In fact, the lesser and greater roadrunners are the only two species in the genus Geococcyx. It’s fairly easy to distinguish between the two. As you can imagine, the greater roadrunner is larger than the lesser roadrunner, although they are similar in appearance. The greater roadrunner does have some striking coloration about its face if you get up close enough to spot it! One notable difference, more easily seen, is the greater species has a longer bill, and the lesser has a stubbier beak. The greater roadrunner’s scientific name, Geococcyx californianus, literally means “Californian earth-cuckoo.”
Of course, the range of the greater roadrunner is much bigger than California in the U.S., as mentioned earlier, and extends as well into Mexico and Central America.
This bird is just about as bold as it is quick. Like many species of wildlife, it can get accustomed to humans fairly quickly, especially if being fed. I knew a lady that used to feed small meatballs of hamburger to several roadrunners that would congregate every morning outside the kitchen back door of her Tucson foothills home. One day, she had an early appointment and missed giving them their “treat.” When she arrived later in the morning, she was met by a group of upset birds that wanted to be fed, NOW. She made the mistake of opening the sliding door to talk to them. Instead, they rushed in and headed right into the kitchen, where they proceeded to squawk loudly and peck at the refrigerator where they had seen her take out their daily ration many times before. She managed to back them off a bit and get their food for the day. As you might imagine, that was the last day they were fed, even though they visited many days thereafter until they got the message!
The roadrunner’s habits in the wild are interesting as well. It reaches just over 20 inches in length and weighs from half to a full pound. Their wingspan is about 20 inches. They generally run in speeds up to 20 mph, generally avoiding flight unless needed. It races along with its head held low, in line with the rest of its body (probably to see insects better). It nests on a mound of sticks low in a spiny cactus or in a bush and lays from three-to-six eggs. The eggs hatch in 20 days, and leave the nest (fledge) about 18 days later.
This bird hunts by running down its prey. It feeds on a variety of things, including bugs, spiders, scorpions, mice, tarantulas, and small birds. It especially likes lizards, horned toads, and small snakes. It will even take on larger snakes, like juvenile rattlesnakes. Its quick reflexes and ability to dart rapidly serves it well and many times allow it to grasp the serpent in its bill and to lash it about rapidly while dashing it against the ground to kill it.
The name is appropriate, as indeed, it’s common to see them running along roads. There are account of early settlers seeing them run along the road beside the teams of horses. The birds weren’t just showing off, though. Even though they weren’t significantly fearful of the people on the wagons or the livestock pulling them, the reason for the roadrunner’s presence was more pragmatic. The horses would disturb small insects and creatures on the paths, and the roadrunner would keep pace to enjoy the bounty of more easily found prey. You can still see this behavior today along dirt roads.
So, the next time you take a road trip south to more arid areas of our country, keep an eye open for this desert citizen. They are striking to see and interesting to observe their movements and habits. Resist yelling out the window, “beep-beep!” The bird won’t pay you any mind, but your fellow passengers will get annoyed.
Just a friendly reminder that this year’s Master Gardener’s Class is getting ready to start the end of this month, beginning Tuesday, Jan. 31 from 6-8 p.m. This 14-week Tuesday-night course is a GREAT experience covering a wide range of gardening and horticultural topics. You’ll learn from a top-notch team of USU Extension specialists. Cost is $150 per person or $180 per couple and includes all instruction, course materials, and a one year membership in the Tooele County Master Gardeners Association. You can easily register by contacting Andrea DuClos at the USU Extension Office located at 151 N. Main, Tooele. Or, you can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (435) 277-2409.
I’m outta here. Beep-beep!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.