November 9, 2017
Greater Roadrunner female at picnic with cell phone
Greater Roadrunner female at picnic with cell phone

If the picture at the top of the column looks like it was taken with a cell phone, that’s because it was.  The irony is that if an out-of-state birder with a couple days in the Valley put a gun in my back and said “Find me my life Greater Roadrunner,” I’d just say “Shoot me.”  Roadrunners are rather like owls.  You know they’re around, but you can’t just go out and find one.  Then, when you’re not looking, one finds you.

Deva’s birthday fell on a weekday this year, so we picked up a friend and headed to the Salt River for a picnic.  The debate on the way out was whether ants or flies are the more expected guests at picnics, the former being a classic crossword answer whereas the latter got our friend’s vote.  No sooner had we gotten our lunch set up under a covered shelter along the river, than Mrs. Roadrunner came sidling across the parking lot.  It looked like she might be doing us a favor, vacuuming up ants.

Our friend, who has spent a lot of time outdoors camping and hiking, was freaking out because he’d never seen a roadrunner up close and personal.  I have read that the males wear the flag, red, white, and blue, on the bare skin behind their eyes, and if this skin, the postorbital apterium, shows mostly blue with little white, the bird is a lady.  We could only guess that, like the ants and flies, she was hoping for table scraps or handouts.  This is learned behavior and more’s the pity because we prefer our wildlife truly wild, though our friend was ecstatic when the bird lingered less than six feet away.

If you see a Greater Roadrunner fan its tail while running, you’ll see the white tips on the three outer rectrices and realize why it’s in the cuckoo family, our only terrestrial cuckoo.  If you see one out early sitting with its back to the sun, feathers erect to expose the bare black skin of its rump, you’ll know it’s a cold morning.  And if you happen to observe one catch a small bird or mammal and bash it against a rock to break up the bones before swallowing it whole, your honeymoon with “Beep, beep” will be over.  You’ll never see or think of roadrunners in the same light again.

Roadrunners are omnivorous and efficient predators.  I have seen them run down and catch lizards, though I have never been able to capture this photographic cliché.  One of my more memorable roadrunner moments was watching one in a patch of flowers jumping up and down as high as three feet off the ground for several minutes, the same length of time it took me to figure out it was snatching bees in flight out of the air.

Like Coyotes, roadrunners are not easy to photograph well because they are constantly in motion, or so it seems.  This may partially account for their continued expansion northward (sightings in southeastern Oregon) and eastward (sightings in Mississippi).  We have lived in proximity and used the Scottsdale Greenbelt for thirty-five years and I have seen eagles, Coyotes, and Northern Racoons there, but never a roadrunner.  Nonetheless, we’ve seen two in our yard!  One was basking on our mailbox on a winter morning.  Go figure.

Greater Roadrunner is a Southwestern North America bird icon, but not Arizona’s State Bird.  That would be New Mexico’s.  Roadrunners are at once delightful but mysterious, cartoonish but ghastly, well known but hard to find.  Bottom line?  I’d say if you want to see one go have a picnic at one of the recreation areas along the Salt, and do it in one of the shelters.

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To see some cool roadrunner pictures, go to this link on our website: