Interview with the Missouri Roadrunner

Interview With THE Missouri Roadrunner [appeared in the September, 2003, issue of The Bluebird]

Editor's note: Subsequent to a spate of sightings of Greater Roadrunner in southwest Missouri in the early summer of 2003, THE BLUEBIRD assigned a reporter to investigate the presence and natural history of the bird from a unique perspective--through an interview with the bird, not birders. This article is a transcript of that meeting. The reporter's identity is being withheld as a protective measure, given the number of Missouri birders who have expressed an especially keen desire to see this species.

BR = Bluebird Reporter GR = Greater Roadrunner


BR: Thank you for meeting with me today.

GR: Glad to be here. It's a good chance to set the record straight.

BR: Uh, what record?

GR: Well, let's start with what you're going to call this article.

BR: I hadn't gotten that far.

GR: We won't get much further unless you title it, "Interview with THE Missouri Roadrunner."

BR: Why?

GR: Because I am THE Missouri Roadrunner. That's it. Just me.

BR: But, how do you account for the many sightings--admittedly brief--from several locations, and people occasionally seeing two together, even nesting?

GR: Easy. It's like this. I get special status for being in Missouri--you know, kinda like hazardous duty pay. I'm like a vanguard. You see, there were no roadrunners in Missouri until the mid 1950s. We worked our way slowly up from Texas through Oklahoma and Arkansas, exploring and finding what you'd call appropriate habitat.

One of that first brave bunch was Flick--hey, don't look so surprised, of course we have names. And I'm not talkin' about that Geococcyx californianus stuff. Some human named Lesson came up with that humdinger. Mine's Fugis. Soft gee. You know, after the Latin for flier.

Anyway, Flick was surveyin' for glades in Taney County. He was a little north of Branson on June 19, 1956, when he got distracted and was spotted by a human. So, you see, Flick was the very first official Missouri Roadrunner. I'm very proud to follow in his zygodactylous footsteps.

BR: His what?

GR: Zygodactylous footsteps. You know, we have two forward-facing toes and two pointed back. Like most woodpeckers. It's a cuckoo thing.

Now, as I was saying, our kind did find some good glades (you got some mighty tasty lizards up here--I especially like the Northern Fence Lizard, it's not as tough to pulverize as the Texas Horned Lizard and it's tastier than the Eastern Collared Lizard. But eating the collared ones is doubly good because they eat a lot of the same things I do--so I get a meal and eliminate competition in one pounce-pound-gulp).

O.K., O.K., don't look so squeamish. I'm back to the point. We were doin' pretty good until three real bad winters in the late 1970s. Some made it south; some died holdin' their ground. We've been making a slow comeback since. Some gains, some losses. The Missouri climate is quirky. There's always the risk of a bad cold snap--it's tough to make a livin' on insects, lizards and snakes when it's cold. That's why I have to resort to hangin' around houses with feeders some winters.

So, I'm now the official Missouri Roadrunner. I'm the one you all see. It works like this. I hitch rides on pick-ups. I can get from Henning Conservation Area on the Taney-Stone county line up to eastern Greene County in three hours--less if the driver knows how to beat the Branson traffic. Gettin' east and west along Highway 160 isn't too bad, either. I don't get carsick.

You're lookin' disbelieving. If you want this to continue, you gotta at least look like you believe me.

Now, about those "multiple birds seen" reports. Simple. Sometimes I get visits from Arkansas relatives. I show 'em around. And, now and then, there is the rewarding conjugal visit.

BR: I see. Well, uh, let's get back to names, uh, Fugis. You're a Greater Roadrunner. That usually means there's a lesser one.

GR: Sure is. The Lesser Roadrunner, Geococcyx velox, hangs out on dry savannas in south Mexico, down to Nicaragua. At least their human-given name indicates speed! Anyway, they're a good lookin' bunch, a lot like us, except they don't have the rich brown streaks on the foreneck and chest like I do. They're about 16 to 20 inches long to our 20-24 inches.

They sound a lot like us, too. Lots of coos and ooohs. Our voice has been described as a slowing series of low, hollow moaning sounds, usually 5-8 in a row. We can also make a briiipppping sound with our bills.

BR: Speaking of relatives, you're a part of the cuckoo family, aren't you?

GR: Let's try to get our scientific terms right, O.K.? That's easier said than done these days. Lately, you people been changin' taxonomy stuff faster than I can grab and gulp a garter snake. But it goes somethin' like this:

Greater Roadrunners are a part of the Order Cuculiformes. Cuculiformes has families and subfamilies. We're in the big family, Cuculidae.

First, you got your Old World Cuckoos, about 80 species of them. They range from all around Europe, Africa, Asia, islands like the Philippines, Indonesia, and a batch in Australia. There are some real dandies in that clan. For example, the Emerald and Klaas's Cuckoos are metallic green.

Then, there are Coucals, usually pretty chunky guys, about 30 of them. They like scrubby stuff, usually close to the ground, and don't get around much--lots of endemics in fairly small areas of Africa, Asia, and a bunch of islands.

Now, let's move our side of the globe. Of course, there's the unique one, the Hoatzin. It's the one born with the claw on the wing. When the chicks fall or dive out of the nest into the river below, they swim and climb back up with that claw. After a coupla weeks, they can't swim any more and the claw falls off. They live in the Amazon and Orinoco basins and the Guianas.

New World cuculids include the subfamily Coccyzinae, about 18 species. You only get two of them in Missouri--Black-billed and Yellow-billed. They really go for tent caterpillars. Mangrove gets to south Florida (he's a real shy sort). Others in this subfamily like northern to central South America or their very own tropical isle--usually one species per island--especially the ones people call Lizard-Cuckoos.

Next, the subfamily Crotophaginae--Anis. There are four of them--all black with big bills. Two range as far north as the U.S. The Smooth-billed Ani can take the climate up as far as south Florida. They've been declining there recently. The Grooved-billed is hardier. They're fairly common (if you know where to look) in the Texas Rio Grande valley and sometimes along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.

Anis are real family folk. They like togetherness. Matter of fact, Alexander Skutch, the guy who introduced people to the concept of avian cooperative breeding, you know, nest-helpers that are usually older siblings of the young being tended, like with the Florida Scrub-Jay?... well, Skutch did some of his early research on the topic studying Anis in Panama and Costa Rica.

Now, my closest kin, subfamily Neomorphinae, sometimes called Ground-Cuckoos and Allies. There are about a dozen of us, ranging mostly from southern Mexico to Brazil. We Greater Roadrunners are the exploring ones. Braving harsh elements, exploring new territory...well, I guess I am pretty proud of our expansion the last 50 years.

David Sibley, you know, that young hotshot, calls us Roadrunners "distinctive." That's quite an improvement over some of your early "experts." Elliott Coues in 1903 described us as, "singular birds--cuckoos compounded of a chicken and a Magpie." Really!

And this from J. L. Sloanaker, 1913, "[Roadrunner]...would certainly take first prize in the freak class at the Arizona state fair." Sloanaker continues, "He is about two feet in length, with a tail as long as his body, color above brown streaked and with black, bare spaces around eyes blue and orange, feathers of head and neck bristle-tipped, eyelids lashed,"

He would have done just fine if he'd stopped there, but no, he had to go on, "...his whole plumage coarse and harsh. Could you imagine such a looking creature? Try and think of a long striped snake on two legs, a feather duster on his head and another trailing behind; or a tall, slim tramp in a swallow-tailed coat, a black and blue eye, and a head of hair standing straight on end!"

Feather duster! Tramp! and the perfidious, vile slander--Snake!

BR: You're absolutely correct. You've been terribly maligned. Dr. George M. Sutton wrote a very nice piece about you in Bent [Life histories of North American Cuckoos, Goatsuckers, Hummingbirds and their Allies] about 1940, don't you think?

GR: Well, yes, it was O.K. Cleared up some things. He really did appreciate us for our attributes. And he did try to set that quail thing straight.

BR: Er..., quail thing?

GR: Yeah. Quail. I mean, here we are, well-known for eating lizards, snakes (including rattlers), spiders, grasshoppers and crickets, even scorpions and rats, and some people had to get upset at us takin' an occasional quail egg.

It sure didn't help things when the sainted Aldo Leopold shot one of us and wrote an article about it in 1922, titled, "Road-runner Caught in the Act." He said it had a light colored object in its bill, and when he got to his victim [the dead roadrunner] he, "found a dead [quail] chick, still limber and warm but unmutilated..."

Talk about bad press! Nearly every game warden in the southwest called for shootin' us on sight! Why, several states even put a bounty on us; they even had special hunts for the "Chaparral Cock!"

BR: I didn't know that.

GR: Well, things began to turn around when a guy named Waldo McAtee wrote an article in BIRD-LORE in 1931. He brought our persecution to the attention of the non-hunting public and tried to set the record straight as to our beneficial nature. Of course, there are still those guys out there that claim every season quail are hard to find to shoot it's because turkeys or roadrunners are eatin' 'em. Pshaw!

BR: Speaking of eating, there are some very reliable reports of Greater Roadrunners lying in wait at feeders and taking small birds, even hummingbirds.

GR: Let's not get testy, here. You think you could do it? I mean, it takes real skill to grab one of those glucose-powered darning needles. One little miscalculation and you could lose an eye! Yeah. I eat 'em. Taste sorta like an orange gum ball. A real treat, now and then.

BR: I see. Well, perhaps we should talk about something else. Cuckoos are known as nest parasites...

GR: Hold it right there. You're talking about Old World Cuckoos. And, I'll have to admit it, there are three species, I think, all down in South America, that lay eggs in other birds' nests. But not Roadrunners!

We build our own nest. It's usually at least 3 feet off the ground, maybe as high as 15 feet. Occasionally, it's right on the ground, though. It's about a foot in diameter and 6 to 8 inches high. We build a stick foundation and line it with leaves, grass, feathers, snakeskins, and sometimes even bits of manure. Sometimes we hide it, sometimes we don't.

Usually we lay 3 to 6 eggs. It takes about 18 days for them to hatch, and since the missus starts incubatin' as soon as the first one is laid, they don't all hatch at once. And they're somethin' to see! When they come outta that egg their black skin is only partly covered by long, whitish "hairs." Pretty quick, the egg tooth disappears and new feathers come in, but the long white ones often stay on even after they leave the nest.

BR: I've taken a great deal of your time. You're looking around and starting to pace.

GR: Yeah, all this talk of food, then chicks. I got a family to feed and a pick-up to catch. I need to be goin'.

BR: Thank you, er...Fugis. I'm sure your comments will go a long way to clear up some misconceptions about Roadrunners. Do you have any advice for birders who would like to spend some time with you?

GR: Don't press your luck. Gotta go.

Note from BLUEBIRD REPORTER: Fugis didn't look back. I last saw him ducking under a blue Ford pick-up. A red Chevy left the lot soon after, and I think I saw what looked like an old feather duster in the shade of the bed.

All reasonable attempts have been made to verify Fugis's comments. All have been substantiated except his claim to being THE (as in 'only') or the "official" Missouri Roadrunner, and his assertion of making use of human assistence (pick-up trucks) to move about the state.

Sources consulted to verify Fugis's comments:

Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1940. LIFE HISTORIES OF NORTH AMERICAN CUCKOOS, GOATSUCKERS, HUMMINGBIRDS, AND THEIR ALLIES. Smithsonian Institution. United States Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. pp.19-84.

Clements, James F. 1991. BIRDS OF THE WORLD: A CHECK LIST. Fourth edition. Ibis Publishing Company, Vista CA. pp.139-147.

Coues, Elliott. 1903. KEY TO NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. As quoted by Sutton in Bent 1940. p. 37.

de Schaauensee, Rodolphe Meyer and William H. Phelps, Jr. 1978. A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF VENEZUELA. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. pp. 109-115.

Howell, Steve N.G. and Sophie Webb. A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF MEXICO AND NORTHERN CENTRAL AMERICA. 1995. Oxford University Press, New York. pp. 346-352.

Leopold, Aldo. 1922. Road-runner Caught in the Act. CONDOR, VOL. 24, p.183. As quoted by Sutton in Bent 1940, p.44.

McAtee, Waldo Lee. 1931. A Little Essay on Vermin. BIRD-LORE, vol. 33, pp. 381-381. As quoted by Sutton in Bent 1940, p. 44.

Peterson, Roger Tory and Edward L. Chalif. 1973. A FIELD GUIDE TO MEXICAN BIRDS. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. p. 80 and Plate 15.

Robbins, Mark B. and David A. Easterla. 1992. BIRDS OF MISSOURI. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. p. 172.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. THE SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRDS. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. pp. 267-270.

2001. THE SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRD LIFE & BEHAVIOR. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. pp. 332-335.

Skutch, Alexander Frank. Correspondence to Arthur Cleveland Bent. Bent 1940, pp. 21-22, and 28-31.

Sloanaker, Joseph L. 1913. Bird Notes from the South-west. WILSON BULLETIN, vol. 25, pp.187-199. As quoted by Sutton in Bent 1940, p.37.

Sutton, George Miksch. Roadrunner. Bent 1940, pp. 36-51.