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Earth Notes- Roadrunners

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Roadrunners

Roadrunner images are almost impossible to avoid in the American Southwest. Thanks to the famous mid-century cartoons by Chuck Jones, this distinctive bird became one of a select group of creatures known as much through its animated presence as through real animals. The real thing doesn't say "beep beep" but it is a pretty intriguing character too.

Roadrunners are atypical birds, more comfortable on the ground than in the air. But they do pretty well on foot, running at up to 20 miles per hour for considerable distances and maneuvering at lightning speed by swinging their long tails from side to side.

Their speed allows them to kill lizards and even rattlesnakes. They are so fast that they can snatch birds and bats out of mid-air, and have even been seen grabbing hummingbirds coming to birdfeeders or patches of flowers.

But surviving the southwestern deserts is more than a matter of finding food. Roadrunners weather harsh conditions by often going into torpor at night. That means they lower their body temperature to conserve metabolic energy. In the morning, they let the sun warm them back up. By raising certain feathers, they expose black skin that absorbs sunlight, quickly raising body temperature.

Everyone can recognize a roadrunner's distinctive long-legged and long-tailed profile. But not as well known is that roadrunners are heard as often as seen. Like somber doves they coo softly from rocky perches and fence posts, announcing another day in their ideal desert home.

-David Lukas