What Bird Runs, Rarely Flies—But Never Says,
“Beep, Beep?” Meet the Roadrunner!
by Renny Gehman
Photo by Jack Chiles
I vowed I was not going to start this article with “Beep. Beep.” It’s too cliché—and Roadrunners actually don’t make that noise. So I’m not going to mention the Warner Bros. cartoon that has shaped so many of our ideas about this amazing bird.
Nope. Not going to mention it.
What I am going to talk about is G. Californianus, or the Greater Roadrunner, a large (crow-sized) cuckoo that frequents Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States—including Texas and our own Hagerman NWR. Even though they’re listed as “uncommon” on the Refuge checklist, it’s not unusual to spot one on the road to Sandy Point or near Meadow Pond, and they nest on the refuge as well.
Roadrunners are almost impossible to mistake for other birds, which makes them popular with beginning birdwatchers. I mean, how many birds can run 15 mph and sprint to 25? There are faster birds (ostriches and emus, for example) but they can’t fly. Roadrunners prefer running to flying because their bodies cannot stay balanced in the air
Field Trips for Educators
for even a few seconds. Most of their flying is really extended wing gliding. Still they will fly occasionally, especially to reach their nests set 3 to 10 feet in a low tree or bush. Roadrunners can also be seen perched on fence posts or telephone wires—or, rarely, on a house roof as seen below. This fine fellow is sitting on my rooftop tracking a snake in the grass below. I apologize for the poor quality photo; I just had time to grab my phone and snap his picture. But it proves Roadrunners can fly, they just choose not to!
Roadrunners are opportunistic omnivores, usually hunting insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars and beetles. But they will also seek out reptiles like lizards and snakes, just as the one on my roof was—and often team up to kill rattlesnakes. One bird distracts the snake as the other kills it with a blow to the head. That accounts for one of their common names, snake killers. In addition, they prey on mice, rats and tarantulas, moving quickly through brush and grass to hunt them down. But they will also eat the fruits of cactus, sumac and other seeds.
While their large size and terrestrial preference (they prefer running to flying) makes them fairly easy to identify, Roadrunners also display some obvious field markings. Both sexes are the same size, with long legs, a very long, straight tail tipped white, and long neck. They sport an obvious crest and a heavy, slightly downcurved elongated bill. Although they are mostly tan or brown with extensive black streaking on their sides and chest, one conspicuous field mark is the patch of bare, blue skin behind their eye that shades to red during breeding season. Another distinct attribute—which is good for tracking as well—is the Roadrunner’s zygodactyl feet. This means they have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward, leaving X-shaped footprints in dusty ground.
While Roadrunners are solitary birds, rarely seen in flocks (called marathons or races) they do mate for life. They renew their relationships each spring with elaborate rituals including dancing, calls, chases and sharing food. When it’s breeding time, males present their mates with nesting materials such as twigs, leaves, grass, and snakeskin but the female builds the nest. While courting the male will also draw his mate’s attention with a distinctive coo-coo (not beep!) sound in downward tones that can be heard for about ¼ mile, usually at dawn. The female lays 2-6 eggs per clutch and shares brooding responsibilities with the male who usually assumes the nighttime rotation because he can regulate his body temperature by increasing its metabolism. The babies usually hatch in three weeks, and have an average lifespan of 7 to 9 years.
Photo by David Helton
Although not restricted to desert areas (their range extends from Mexico through the southwestern United States from California to Louisiana), Roadrunners are particularly adapted to dry, hot habitat, but have become accustomed to suburban living as well. Because water is scarce in many places where Roadrunners live, they have adapted to getting the moisture they need from the blood and tissues of their prey. And like many seabirds, to keep their body chemistry balanced, they secrete excess salt from glands near their eyes—salty tears. If that’s not enough, these resilient critters also sweat.
Although not considered endangered, Roadrunners do face some threats throughout their range from habitat loss and urban sprawl, as well as feral cats, road traffic, illegal shooting and agricultural pesticides. Since they are attracted by shelter, avoiding open spaces, Roadrunners can be encouraged to nest by planting desert flora, short native trees and scrubby bushes, and by establishing rock piles to attract the insects and rodents which dominate their diet. One advantage to having a local Roadrunner is the protection it provides for your house from insects, mice and other rodents, as well as snakes (particularly rattlers). Be aware, though, that these aggressive ground hunters have been known to attack small pets!
One animal they can’t escape is the coyote—no matter how unsuccessful Wiley Coyote is in the Warner Bros. cartoon. In fact, most of the impressions we have about Roadrunners from that series are incorrect—enough to agitate a real Roadrunner and make it click its beak with stress. But outrun a coyote, no. And while you may certainly spot a Roadrunner on Hagerman’s prairie and roads, you’ll never hear one say, “Beep, Beep.” (I know, I’m not going to say that!)
But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth looking for. Seeing one is often a surprise as they dart from cover, while catching sight of one carrying a lizard or snake is always special. And, they’ll often stop and look right back at you—as if they’re people-watching. Who knows? Maybe they’re waiting for us to say, “Beep, Beep”. (O.K., I give up!) So keep your eyes peeled for their distinctive shape when you visit. Somehow, they always bring a smile, even if they’re not in a cartoon.
The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday 9-4, Sunday 1-5. Need an outing? Enjoy the Audio Auto Tour from the comfort of your air conditioned vehicle, and check out all of the new kid's educational items in the Nature Nook!
The Friends of Hagerman Online Auction
Managing Your Land for Wildlife
Bluestem Master Naturalists to Offer Landowner Program
Sept 17, 2022 9:00 am to 4:30 pm
Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center (Just west of Sherman)
Grayson County is growing rapidly; the population increased from 120,877 in 2010 to 135,543 in 2020, a 15% increase. Local planners believe the pace has picked up since 2020, and we see evidence in the local construction boom. This is good for the economy, but, unfortunately, it means we are losing habitat for wildlife.
As Master Naturalists, one of our initiatives is to educate landowners about ways in which they can preserve open space, increase habitat for wildlife, and get a property tax break at the same time. That option is a Wildlife Special Valuation.
If you have land under an agriculture exemption, you may qualify for a Wildlife Special Valuation, a tax status that provides the same tax rate as agricultural exemptions while allowing the landowner to focus on improving habitat for wildlife, as opposed to traditional farming. You can download the attached Fact Sheet for more details about Wildlife Special Valuations and who qualifies for them.
Here’s what our program includes:
· Morning Session: Michael Elliott of Grayson County Appraisal District will cover the qualifications for Wildlife Special Valuations, how to apply for one, and guidelines for the required Wildlife Management Plan.
· Afternoon Session:
o Managing Your Land for Songbirds: Wayne Meyer, Ph.D.
o Managing Your Land for Pollinators: Karen Glenn, M.S.
o Taking a Bird Census: Lydia Brandt, Master Naturalist
In between, enjoy touring the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. Please bring a sack lunch, as there are limited eating establishments nearby.
You can reserve your place through the following link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/landowner-education-program-managing-your-land-for-wildlife-tickets-378079926237
For more information about the program, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Come and enjoy the sunrise with us!
Photo by Pam Rendall-Bass
August 13th, Saturday, at 10:00 AM in the Visitor Center
The Dynamics and Economic Importance of Fishing at Lake Texoma
Dan Bennett has worked as a fisheries biologist for the Inland Fisheries Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife for fifteen years following the completion of a Master’s Degree in Aquatic Biology at Stephen F. Austin State University. Dan Bennett has served as the District Supervisor of the Denison District Fisheries Office located at Lake Texoma since 2016, where he focuses on sportfish management at the public reservoirs in an eight county region of North Texas.
Dan will discuss the results of angler surveys in 2019 and 2020 conducted by fisheries staff with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Surveys focused on estimating angler effort, the local economic impact, and the annual catch and harvest of sport fish from the reservoir.
Puddles' Craft Corner
By Cindy Steele, Master Naturalist
Welcome back to Puddles’ Craft Corner! You've heard of dragonflies and maybe even seen one or two, but what are they exactly? Are they mythical dragons? No! Are they flies? No! So…what are dragonflies?
If you’ve ever been around water in the summer, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen a dragonfly. These bugs can be big or small, and almost any color you can think of like red, pink, gold, or even purple! Even though they can be lots of different colors, they can have lots of things in common, even if they look very different from one another. For example, dragonflies aren’t really dragons at all! They are super strong and super-fast, but they won’t...
Birding with Jack
Updated, Weekly Census Results
By Master Naturalist Jack Chiles, Mike Petrick and
Dr. Wayne Meyer (Pictured Right)
Each Tuesday a team of experienced birders, including Master Naturalist Jack Chiles, traverse 35 miles of refuge roads and hiking trails, documenting every bird they encounter. This Bird Census is reported to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use in research, and each week we will bring you a link to their actual bird count, and a summary of their adventures.
Shop Amazon Smile to Support the Friends of Hagerman
Did you know that you can support the Friends of Hagerman while shopping on Amazon? If you shop on Amazon using this Amazon Smile link, the Friends will receive 0.5% of eligible purchases. Simply go to smile.amazon.com and sign in with your Amazon account. Under "Your Account" select "Change your Amazon Smile Charity" and enter "Friends of Hagerman" in the charity search box. Once your results appear, select the Friends of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Foundation. Every time you make a purchase on Amazon Smile, the Friends will get a donation. Thanks for helping us make Hagerman a great wildlife refuge!
Kroger: Stop by the customer service desk at Kroger and link your Kroger Card to the Friends of Hagerman: the Friends will get rewards for every dollar you spend, at no cost to you.
To Our Contributors:
Renny Gehman, Jack Chiles, Cindy Steele, David Helton
Refuge Manager: Kathy Whaley
Deputy Refuge Manager: Paul Balkenbush
Visitor Services Manager: Spencer BeardEditor: Hanna Houser
Friends of Hagerman NWR Foundation
6465 Refuge Road, Sherman, TX 75092
The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year, drive on any road unless gated.
Admission to the refuge, parking and most events/activities are funded by donations and powered by volunteers.
Please add email@example.com to your contacts to ensure delivery of registration confirmations, account information and the Featherless Flyer
Special thanks to Nancy Miller for the amazing photo of the Visitor Center
See you at the refuge!