Magoosh the Roadrunner

Part 2

Published Apr 23rd 2000 in Wildlife

Magoosh spent the winter at the Gone Native Arboretum. Each night during the season he jumped to the lowest branch of an Afghan pine and carefully made his way to a fork three feet from the tip of the branch. Nestled between two pinecones, he stuck his long tail straight up in the air.

Often Magoosh would go to bed a full hour before dark. His preferred branch overhangs a lath house that shades the Arboretum’s trial bed. A deck, gas grill, and sitting area are also located in the lath house. Magoosh, however, was undeterred by frequent human evening activity. A person could stand directly under him, and talk to him but only receive a mere blink of an eye in response. Candle lanterns, citronella oil torches, party conversation, and raucous music did not disturb him.

When the fierce storms of March whipped the tree into a dancing frenzy, Magoosh rode each gust with aplomb. A thunderstorm with explosive lightning and small hail did not send him scurrying for cover. The next morning he sat on the lath house singing as the sun rose.

Everyone should watch and hear a Roadrunner sing. The song is pleasant, somewhat similar to the cooing of a dove. It has a deep resonance that can be heard for an amazing distance on a quiet morning -- maybe as much as a mile. A Roadrunner puts his all into the song, looking like a drunk with dry heaves, head bent over almost to the ground, or branch, or lath house roof. The entire body of a singing Roadrunner swells and falls with the heaves of each note.

Over the past few months, a pattern to Magoosh’s days was noticed. The first activity of the morning involved going to the roof of the work shed on the north side of the Arboretum. There, he would turn his back to the sun, lifting his feathers until black skin could be seen on his back through the soft hair-like down. Local folks have seen Roadrunners lift their back feathers to sunbathe when temperatures are below zero!

After an hour of quiet watchfulness, Magoosh usually flies sixty to eighty feet to a trail leading to the southwest. Along this trail is a large brushpile which is carefully stacked to give plenty of protection to roosting birds. Two Spotted Towhees, two Canyon Towhees, 25 White Crowned Sparrows, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and 30 English Sparrows spent every night of the winter inside the brushpile, as does a dapper White-Throated Packrat. Magoosh hunts late risers from the brushpile, hoping to start the morning with a substantial breakfast of surprised sparrow.

Most mornings, though, the sparrows are expecting him, so he trots on down to the row of Tallgrass that creates a windbreak to the west on the road leading out of the Arboretum. Another 75 sparrows of at least two species spend the night in the tall bamboo-like grass, along with several Mockingbirds, Pyrrhuloxias and Curved-Bill Thrashers. Magoosh skulks along both sides of the 150-foot long row, sometimes standing motionless for long periods, and other times taking one step every few seconds, creeping along unnoticed by his prey.

During the midday hours, Magoosh is rarely seen. He probably hunts away from the Arboretum . A lady that lives a third of a mile away has reported that a Roadrunner visits her. Is it Magoosh? Or does he take a siesta?

Between three and four p.m., two gallons of grain and three gallons of black sunflowers seeds are placed in three feeding locations in the arboretum. 75 Whitewinged Doves, 40 Mourning Doves, 10 Bobwhite, 10 Scaled Quail, 50 House Finches, 20 Pyrrhuloxias, 6 Cardinals, and other assorted avian visitors feed in waves until the light is too dim for humans to reference color. Magoosh returns and visits the feeding areas.

His evening hunting technique is similar to that of predators that hunt herds. At this time he rushes the feeding area, focusing his efforts on a smaller bird that is sick, old, injured, or for some other reason slow to react, providing him with a belly-busting early supper. He first crushes the bird with his beak, then throws the body on the ground repeatedly before gulping it whole. This behavior must tenderize the meat for digestion.

Although most of his bird hunting ends in failure, Magoosh is an omnivore, and is, therefore, afforded a variety of alternatives. As he ambles along the trails of the arboretum, he stops every few feet and sticks his bill under a grass clump or turn over a hunk of cottonhull mulch or snap at something flying from the ground. Even in winter, a number of insects are active on warm days. Midland’s butterfly lady, Joann Merritt, reported seeing a Roadrunner catching and eating paper wasps as they came to standing water. (Spicy food? Like jalapenos to humans?) Several times local naturalists have noticed Loggerhead Shrikes using a hiker as a bird dog. Early settlers noticed Roadrunners doing the same, paralleling a horse and rider to catch insects, rodents, and birds thereby disturbed.

Magoosh visits people as they work or walk about the Arboretum. It sometimes appears that he is merely curious, for he comes within a few feet to peer up at the humans. “Introduce me to the newcomer,” his actions seem to say. Other times he gives a BRRRRRRT, as if to startle prey hiding between himself and the humans into rashly revealing its presence.

On a warm sunny afternoon in late February, I left the door open to enjoy the pleasant fresh air as I worked on a computer project. Totally engrossed in manipulating images to create a display for the Sibley Nature Center, I was startled by a BRRRRRRT outside. Magoosh stood within 10 feet of the doorway, dangling a Southern Prairie Lizard from his mouth. When he saw that he had my attention he began to move his tail in a broad circle. A curious roadrunner raises and lowers his tail as he investigates. As Magoosh rotated his tail a number of times he lowered and raised his crest and tilted his head. After a minute or two, he trotted off.

A few days later as I drove through the Arboretum gate I saw Magoosh hop onto a railroad tie fence and run along the top all the way to its end next to the road. As I pulled to a stop, he began to rotate his tail again. Sure enough, he had another lizard. This time, Deborah was at home. I ran into the house and brought her back out. Magoosh had moved to the shade of some New England Asters with the lizard, but as soon as he saw us come back out, he moved into the sun and and once again began rotating his tail again. “See, he really is showing me that lizard!”

In the workshed, there are several chairs that offer a shady rest spot while taking a break from gardening. Magoosh often visits the shed at the same time as we do. He wanders in, inspects the people, then hops to the top of a halfwall partition to settle down. At such a time, he sits five feet from us, his back to us, relaxing until his chest meets his feet. Sometimes he would polishes his beak on the wood beneath him, in the same pattern as a person sharpening a knife on a whetstone.

In the shed is an unusual mirror that was found where some disgusting slob had dumped household belongings along a dirt road near the Arboretum. (We have recycled a number of things scavenged from the leavings of people that consider the whole world a dump. We also haul their crud to the City Solid Waste Facility.) This mirror is constructed of 15 smaller rectangular mirrors glued to a heavy backing. Stacks of wood, stacks of pots, stacks of coffee cans, and a couple of large buckets of dry wood for the chiminea are stored in the shed. The mirror had been leaned against a wall on the ground.

Magoosh was seen carrying a lizard into the shed, and when followed, he was observed wagging his tail in the big presentation circle. Upon closer examination, he could be seen peering into the mirror, tilting his head back and forth, and watching his reflection. He then placed the lizard in front of the mirror and ran off. We examined the lizard and found that it was really a stick. Around the lizard-stick were another dozen things that Magoosh had brought to his reflection – a number of other twigs, and clumps of cotton from the gin trash. It appeared he thought that his reflection was a potential mate and he was presenting nesting material to “her.”

Worried that his misdirected affections would circumvent Magoosh’s urge to participate in the springtime activities that captivates the entire natural world, we turned the mirror face down.

But what might have been a sad story now has a happy ending. Following a couple of weeks of mournful singing as if pining for a lost love, two roadrunners have been seen gathering sticks before disappearing into the dense branches of a pinyon. One is Magoosh, who performs somersaults in the air as he catches hummingbird moths nectaring on the anisicanthus. The other is smaller, skinny, and skittish. Her name is Lozen.