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Flight Lines: Roadrunner very real, just not here

Ben Schwartz feeds one of a pair of greater roadrunners that shows up daily at his place near Tucson, Ariz. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

From the following list of cartoon birds, select the one with the specific real life counterpart and matching name: Big bird, Roadrunner, Woody Woodpecker, Daffy Duck, Woodstock, and Tweety. Woody Woodpecker comes close, I guess, and Daffy Duck even includes the word "duck." But only roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) meets the specifics called for in the first sentence.

I only mention this after hearing of an anecdote recently where, after bringing up the bird in conversation some years ago, someone questioned its existence; insisting the bird was strictly a cartoon creation. For inhabitants of the northern Great Plains such a conclusion could be excused I suppose. But the bird--greater roadrunner--indeed exists.

"Snowbird" friends and relatives who venture to the desert southwest during winter are undoubtedly familiar with this ground-loving bird. It's large and unmistakable and has become quite inured to suburban living.

At about two feet long, this is a creature with a very long and agile tail, a considerably large bill (about raven size), a robust crested head, stout strong legs, and a reluctance to fly. Overall, its color is a mottled gray with muted streaks of white and brown. True to its name, the greater roadrunner is most often encountered running across a road. Although the bird is capable of flight, it is quite reluctant to take to the air.

Greater roadrunners are taxonomically placed in the family Cuculidae, making them cuckoos, albeit ground-hugging ones. There is only one other roadrunner--lesser roadrunner, a Mexican and Central American species. Like cuckoos, a roadrunner possesses quite a large vocal repertoire. It whines, it hoots, it crows, it clucks, and it rattles. One of its calls even sounds like cards being shuffled. A strange, mournful, throaty "coo, coo, ooh, ooh" is sung by males from a prominent high point early in the morning. It does not, however, go "beep beep" as the cartoon would suggest.

The bird's diet is truly omnivorous with a healthy dose of both invertebrates (spiders, beetles, scorpions) and vertebrates (rodents, lizards, nestling birds, rattlesnakes) rounded out with a sprinkling of seeds and fruits. When pursuing prey or fleeing predators, greater roadrunners display a somewhat graceful running style (it has been clocked at about 18 M.P.H.) with its neck and tail held parallel to the ground. Hunting, though, is carried out stealthily and quietly along the edges of vegetation.

I'm not sure why but the greater roadrunner expanded its historical range in the last century. Once nearly entirely restricted to the southwest, the bird is now found as far east as Arkansas and Louisiana. To the west, residents of California's Central Valley are familiar with it too. Within the confines of its territory, this is a bird that habitually avoids heavy vegetation.

Its known range makes a reported sighting from Ontario some years ago quite curious, even more so when one considers the fact the bird is nonmigratory. The answer is, of course, the person reporting the bird in Canada was wrong. Very likely the person was a "snowbird" with some familiarity with roadrunners. How else could one even conjure up the idea of this creature? But if not a roadrunner, what was the imposter? I suggest it was a ring-necked pheasant (probably a female); a bird with strikingly similar physical features plus it shares the habit of running along the ground.

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a friend of mine, Ben, who lives near Tucson. A daily ritual takes place near his back porch as a pair of roadrunners approaches from seemingly out of nowhere. The birds have grown to expect food and Ben obliges, usually with raw hamburger. Seeing these strange yet wonderful birds nearly eating out of Ben's hand is striking to behold.

We will never get to witness this species in North Dakota. The closest we get to a greater roadrunner is with its close relatives, the black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos. Either that or some of the nature programming on television. However, for a less accurate but considerably funnier version, there's always the Cartoon Network.