Meet Magoosh the Roadrunner

(Part 1)

Published Sep 12th 1999 in Wildlife

Roadrunners are the quintessential arid-lands bird. Almost everybody recognizes its shape. Most people have seen the slapstick cartoon that is a modern mythological icon. Beep-beep!

A roadrunner has claimed ownership of the Gone Native Arboretum south of Midland. The bird's great-great grandfather claimed the same territory in the early 1980's, but the family moved away when humans built more houses in the area. This descendant is especially intrepid.

My wife Deborah and I often sit outside, enjoying the plants, birds, butterflies, clouds, dragonflies, lizards and box turtles. A dozen sitting places are scattered among the two acres of plantings of native and adapted species. The roadrunner has joined us several times, sitting next to us on an empty chair. He jumps up, intently inspects us, then turns to survey his surroundings. Sometimes he polishes his beak on the arm of the chair, and often shakes himself, fluffing his feathers and preening.

When he gets down to continue his meanderings, he will boldly scamper within 6 inches of our feet. It may be that the roadrunner remembers an early encounter when I caught a big grasshopper and tossed it to him, whereupon he promptly seized it, whacking it over an old mesquite branch lying on the ground. It could be that the roadrunner is "habituated" to us.

Roadrunners really make a BRRRT sound, not a beep. The sound is quite expressive and is produced by the rapid clacking of its beak. The Gone Native roadrunner (nicknamed Magoosh in honor of a Lipan Apache that once traveled across the Llano Estacado many times) loves to startle our felines and us by sneaking up, then loudly calling BRRRT!

And there is other "intraspecific" communication between Magoosh and us. We are firmly convinced, for example, that Magoosh summons them to come examine some of his finds. He will BRRRRT until we show up, and then walk around the creature or object, alternately cocking his tail and lowering it, raising his head feathers to a bristly crest and then flattening the feathers back down. One evening he fussed at a fox until we showed up, and then continued his exploring as the fox hunkered down to avoid being seen
The BRRRRT is also often an expression of irritation. The cats rush the roadrunner, ignorant of its deadly beak. The roadrunner sometimes sees the rush as a game, staying just out of reach of the cats, as he leads them around for ten minutes or more. He will finally fly a short distance, ending the game. Other times he flies into a tree and BRRRTs over and over, obviously cussing out the cats.

Another time, Magoosh seemed to banish me when I unwittingly interrupted him. He had been BRRRRTing on a post overlooking a woodpile near a shed. I had come out to fetch a tool from the shed, whereupon the roadrunner landed on the tin roof right above my head with a resounding and startling CLUNK! Had he spied a mouse exploring the woodpile and become upset my presence sent it scurrying for shelter?

Roadrunners must get bored. Follow one at a distance that does not bother it, and watch. On a ten-minute walk at the arboretum, Magoosh amused himself with a number of found items. First he pulled a wad of packing string from where it had been tucked into a one-gallon plant pot. He pulled it this way and that, as if trying to unravel it or to find its end. Giving up, he moved on to a strand of baling wire stapled to a post. He yanked on it, but it did not come loose.

So on he went, to a stack of unusable wood. A windstorm had snapped a girdled mesquite twig onto the pile. The roadrunner picked the twig up and walked up and down the woodpile, as if trying to decide a better place for the twig. Finally he put it down at the end of the pile.

A few feet further along, the roadrunner found an old steel wool pad that a packrat had dropped after stealing it from a trash bin. The roadrunner held it, peered this way and that, then carried it several feet away, leaving it in the middle of the path.

Roadrunners eat snakes, lizards (including horny toads), insects and smaller birds. Some play with tomatoes and may actually eat them, but Magoosh plucks them from the vine and carries them around, twice leaving one in a shallow reflecting pool that also serves as a bird watering hole.

A snake can be a difficult meal for a roadrunner to handle. A 2-foot snake can take an hour or more to choke down. Magoosh's great-great grandfather took his snakes to near the top of the windmill, where he sat, dangling the tail of the snake from his mouth, occasionally gulping another inch or tow until it all disappeared.

On a late afternoon walk, Magoosh's human observers found him peering into a clump of grass. As we walked up, the roadrunner sidled five feet away, turning to watch. The cat who accompanied us batted the grass, revealing a 2-foot kingsnake. As the cat continued slapping at the snake, the roadrunner returned to join us in intently watching the cat play with the snake.

Finally the cat noticed Magoosh and leapt at him. Deborah caught the cat and I grabbed the snake, and tossed the snake to the roadrunner. Frustrated, the cat squirmed out of her arms and chased the roadrunner again, while the snake slithered off. Deborah caught the cat again; the roadrunner returned to where he had last seen the snake and searched for another ten minutes, but to no avail.

When a roadrunner catches a sparrow, it first kills the smaller bird with the vise-like grip of its beak. Then it throws the bird to the ground, over and over and over, until the bird is a shapeless wad of feathers. Then it gulps the sparrow whole.

Many birds mob a predator by hovering above it and fussing excitedly. Roadrunners are hassled by mockingbirds and hummingbirds. Both swoop over the roadrunner's head, fussing and fussing. The roadrunner ducks away from the mockers, but ignores the hummers, who will sometimes follow a roadrunner fifty feet or more, hovering over its head, as if attached by kite string.

As a roadrunner patrols its territory, different gaits and postures reveal its intentions. A roadrunner traveling from one area to another trots upright, its head facing forward and held high. When it hears an unknown sound, it bends forward with its neck, head and tail a few inches off the ground and legs bent so that it seems to be scooting along. When actively hunting, each time it cocks its tail or raises its crest, a person can witness its thinking process.

"Hmmm, I hear a noise," as it raises its crest. It listens, and hearing more, raises its tail up tautly.

"Aha, there it is," and the crest goes down while the tail lowers part way.

"Whoops -- where did it go?" The crest pops up again. The bird tilts its head, listens and observes.

"Yeah!" The roadrunner stands still, stiff-legged, body tilted forward as a lizard comes into view. The lizard does not recognize the motionless roadrunner as a threat, and comes almost underneath the bird, when "WHACK!" The roadrunner juggles the lizard and with a toss of its head, down it goes.

Roadrunners are so cool!