I moved to Arizona from Eugene, Oregon, also known as Track Town USA. Road runners were everywhere—streets, sidewalks, and trails. Funny that the collegiate athletes are called “Ducks.”
Here in Arizona, ducks are limited to rare wetlands in the desert. Roadrunners, on the other hand, thrive in the deserts and chaparral of the Southwest, and it is always a special treat to encounter this bizarre member of the cuckoo family.
I live in Granite Dells, a wonderland of granite outcrops with clearings (“dells”) nestled among the boulders and peaks. This is roadrunner country. You can hear their mournful cooing in the distance, and if you are lucky enough to watch one calling, you can see that it apparently takes considerable effort. The bird leans forward while raising its tail, bowing as if trying to regurgitate, emitting the descending mournful call. One stood calling high on a rock just outside my house. I fired off a few photos apparently without bothering the bird, but then suddenly it froze. Had I alarmed it? The bird dived from the rock into the oak scrub and emerged with a lizard in its beak. Now that’s opportunism!
Our house is elevated on the rocks such that critters can go right under it. Wildlife seems to accept our place as part of their habitat, and certainly many species appreciate our offerings of grains, thistle seed, suet, peanut butter, jelly (not for PBJ sandwiches but to reward the colorful orioles), and nectar (sugar water). We also have flowers that attract colorful, feisty hummingbirds in abundance.
This past month, a roadrunner showed up in the yard daily, not attracted to the food items we put out but apparently to the small birds that feast here. The bird would often sit a yard or two away from a hummingbird feeder, and hummers would hover above it, like “I see you, and you can’t catch me!” Hummingbirds have astonishing aerial mobility, and it seemed they should be safe from a big clunky cuckoo. Of course, I would not be the first to underestimate the roadrunner (think of hapless Wile E. Coyote).
My friend Felipe showed up for a chat (not the bird) yesterday, and we were looking out the window while I told him that a roadrunner has been stalking hummingbirds in our yard. He found that hard to believe. As if on cue, a roadrunner appeared in the gravel road below and ran up our steps, concealed from view of the feeder until it reached the water dish, where it hunkered down and stared intently toward the feeder. Felipe fumbled to get his little camera ready, but instantly the roadrunner shot like a torpedo into the oak next to the feeder. Its speed was astonishing. When it dropped to the ground, it had a hummingbird in its beak. It took a few steps, then launched into the air, gliding to the road below. Our elevated view of its spread wings, spotting, and iridescent feathers was perfect. It proceeded to pluck the lifeless hummer, throwing the tiny feathers to the wind.
I recalled some advice I had given to some of my friends who photograph the birds and mammals that visit their oasis: “Blessings come to those who are prepared to receive them.”