Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Bird to Reckon With

The longer I live in New Mexico, the greater my admiration for the state's official bird, the roadrunner.

What a tough, adaptable, self-reliant, feisty little creature he is, and has to be to thrive in his harsh desert habitat.

A species of ground cuckoo, the southwestern roadrunner is famously capable of killing, and eating, rattlesnakes. He can run up to 17 miles per hour. He has adapted to his sere habitat by evolving a method of reabsorbing the water in his feces before excretion. As an avian carnivore, he feasts on the moistest available diet in the desert.
He doesn't eliminate salt through his urinary tract, but more efficiently, through a gland in his noise. He's energy efficient: cuts his activity rate 50% in the heat of the day. He's so deft and quick that he can snatch a dragonfly or hummingbird out of the air.

That's the secret to his predation of the rattlesnake. He uses his wings the way a matador uses his cape, and his lightning speed is faster than the snake's strike. Roadrunner snaps up a coiled snake by the tail, snaps it like a whip and repeatedly slams its head against the ground. He eats his prey whole, even rattlesnakes, but sometimes can't consume the entire snake at one time. That's why you often see roadrunner prancing through the desert brush with something icky dangling from his beak.

Roadrunner can fly for short distances, especially when going downhill, but prefers to run, building up speed until he can soar a short distance simply by spreading, not flapping, his wings. Energy efficiency.

He adapts quite nicely to humanity's inroads into his habitat. A friend has a roadrunner who spends every winter atop his porch light, where the bulb provides warmth and the roof provides protection from predators. A big, cocky roadrunner lives around my house and loves to taunt my dog, Saxon, by strutting along the top of the patio wall. It's comparable to the way a feral cat taunted him when we lived in another state, strutting back and forth on the other side of a sturdy chain-link fence while Saxon barked in frustration. Feral cats and roadrunners share an attitude gene, I think.

I spotted a smallish roadrunner the other day, hopping slowly across the street where I live as if he had only one leg. I've seen him several times since, and once got close enough to see that he does have two legs. One of them must be injured, because he doesn't move with the customary roadrunner speed. Deprived of his principal asset, how does he survive?

I can't answer that, but I know one thing. With a pre-existing condition like that, he'd better not try to get health insurance.

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