Tom Ross: Meep, meep! Roadrunners really hopeless romantics
March 10, 2014
Steamboat Springs — I've always known that roadrunners excel at duping coyotes into running off sheer cliffs, but it wasn't until a recent trip to Arizona that I learned the fleet-footed cuckoos also are hopeless romantics.
If you learned everything you know about roadrunners from the Warner Brothers cartoon, it may come as a surprise to you that the roadrunner, unlike the oddly ditzy character that exasperated Wile E. Coyote, is loyal to its mate.
I recently encountered a wild roadrunner attempting to break into a first-class wildlife exhibit in a vain effort to reconnect with the love of his life.
We were visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum west of Tucson last week when we paused at the "Life on the Rocks" exhibit. It included a glass-walled desert stream containing rare desert fish species and some recently hatched frogs. Nearby was another exhibit providing a view of desert mammals, including skunks in their burrows. And just a few feet away sat a sinister-looking western diamondback.
The museum gave us an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the unique natural history of the Sonoran desert while following a docent along paths through cactus and agave gardens. The outdoor plantings were punctuated with wildlife exhibits, many of them sheltered from the Arizona sun in partially underground grottoes.
We stopped at one exhibit that announced a brand new-arrival – a female roadrunner had just been added to the museum's collection of desert species. The only problem was that the fleet-footed bird was not in sight. Mildly disappointed, I turned around to see a roadrunner with its distinctive crest, looking me right in the eye. Only, this bird (yes, they are a member of the cuckoo family) was not in an enclosure.
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The roadrunner was pacing back and forth along a rocky ledge outside the skunk enclosure, and the bird seemed fairly unconcerned with my presence. With limited capacity for flight, but the ability to run across the desert hardpan at 17 miles an hour, the roadrunner could have ditched me as fast as it dropped Wile E. Coyote in the famous cartoons. Meep, meep!
Instead, this roadrunner tolerated tourists in floppy sun hats for no apparent reason.
I managed to snap a few photographs of the striking bird before walking off to find a member of the museum staff to let them know their bird had apparently flown the coop.
That's when I met Lacey Widman, a keeper at the museum who had just finished feeding the rare fish. Widman, who has a degree in biology from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Calif., told me my roadrunner was no escapee. Instead, he was the ardent suitor of the museum's new addition.
"We feel badly for him," Widman said. "He brings her presents – little sticks. And she's collecting little pieces of fluff to make a nest with."
Widman said the female roadrunner recently was brought into the museum from a wildlife rehab center. Apparently, she arrived with a boyfriend on the outside. Widman went on to say that if the male roadrunner was able to catch a lizard, he would almost certainly try to offer it to the object of his love.
I'm going to resist the temptation, at this point, to name the roadrunners. But if I gave into anthropomorphism, he would be Randolph and she would be Rosalita. According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, roadrunners are believed to mate for life.
And it turns out Widman was right on track with her observation about the male roadrunner offering up a lizard. According to UMMZ, the male roadrunner will dangle a lizard in front of the target of his affection, and if she takes it, mating soon will commence.
I have two questions: "Is there a way for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to reunite Randolph and Rosalita? Or are the two roadrunners destined to remain star-crossed lovers, gazing up at the stars above the desert from opposite sides of a pane of thick glass?"