Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 4

October, 1940


By Earl Jackson,
Montezuma Castle National Monument.

George - that's short for Geococcyx californianus - didn't know what it was all about for quite a spell, at first. Offhand, you might say anybody coming from the Cuckoo family wouldn't be too intellectual anyway, but that's a matter of opinion. For that matter a skunk, by his name alone, would have been omitted from a four-footed social register; and yet you never saw a better gentleman than a skunk.

George's unawareness was mostly a natural condition for one of his tender age. He was only a dark spot inside a white shell, surrounded by yolk and albumen. He grew fast at this stage of his career and finally, on a morning late in May, completed his first official task - a house-breaking job. This was from the inside, and effectively cast him free of the egg shell.

His mother must have been of an affectionate and understanding nature, otherwise she would have kicked this ungainly apparition from the nest, and hidden her head for shame at having produced such a thing. That skinny body with the oversize head was completely black and completely nude, and the head wobbled in a disconcertingly loose manner.

Thus a Roadrunner was born. As one of the Ground Cuckoos he belonged to one of the 200 odd species which make up the Cuckoo clan. Most of these are foreigners, less than a dozen being represented in the Americas. George should have had considerable pride in his New World relatives, however, for they were definitely higher class folk than many of the Old World ones; these New World cuckoos were self-respecting birds who built their own nests and raised their own young entirely, never resorting to that lazy and unmoral practice of going to other birds' nests and throwing out the eggs, that they might lay their own in such spots.

Most of the American cuckoos live in the tropics, frequenting the same general country as their eloquent and colorful relatives, the parrots. Roadrunners are a hardy brood which can live in a great many places. They range from as far south as Puebla, Mexico, through the Mexican tableland, to as for north as Northern California and Western Kansas, and eastward to central Texas. They are not particular about altitude, as long as it is reasonable, say anywhere from sea level to a 5,000-foot elevation for late summer.

Even George's father would have been appalled if he had found it necessary to memorize all the names by which he is known. Folks call him the Cock of the Desert, the Chaparral Cock, the Snake Killer, the Lizard Bird, the Churca, the Correcamino (Spanish for Roadrunner), and Paisano, which is the Mexican way of calling him Fellow Countrymen. The latter name is in as good standing south of the border as Roadrunner is to the north, and also stands pretty well in New Mexico, where he is the state bird.

George was worried about none of this. He was resting. After he had regained some strength he commenced to root about in the nest. It was a sizable affair, nearly a foot in diameter, located in the midst of a low and thick-set Hackberry tree. Its architectural features would not have flattered a designer, but served adequately as a labor of love in which to rear one's children. It was made of stout twigs; and was lined with small white roots, the inner bark of a juniper, some feathers, and for good measure a few somewhat redundant manure chips and mesquite pods. Part of a discarded snake skin was also carelessly twisted into the structure.

There were four other eggs in the nest. These were very much in his way. On the second day a little sister hatched out of one of them, and at about the same time George, having digested the yolk which had remained in his body at birth, became hungry. He informed his mother of the fact in no uncertain terms. He had a ravenous appetite, and a remarkable capacity. It took a great deal of his mother's time catching grasshoppers and lizards and other small delicacies for him. If his father hadn't been interested in the young family, the feeding task might have become difficult. As it was, when two more little black babies were hatched about two weeks later, the father was able to care for the older children, while the mother handled the younger ones.

George was a vigorous specimen, and quickly lost the midnight color of his birth. He looked even more clownish, however, with pin feathers coming bluntly out of his wings and neck. When Mamma or Papa came with a lizard he would ungallantly have allowed the rest of the children to go hungry, he was so eager to get his widely opened bill forward. The parents were disciplinarians, however, and never forgot the correct rotation for feeding. Only when it was his turn would one of them stick the head end of a lizard, or whatever it happened to be, down into his mouth.

Frequently, it happened when one of the small Paisanos was given a large or a long lizard it wouldn't all go down at once. This bothered neither him nor his parents. He would swallow what he could, then placidly wait, the tail hanging out of his mouth, while digestion made room for more centimeters of lizard flesh. Finally, with the assistance of some rhythmic gulps, the meal would disappear.

Rearing a family in early summer wasn't a complicated problem. Doubtless most birds figured that out long ago, since most of them do it then. There were young grasshoppers and crickets, spiders, worms beetles, ants, bees, centipedes, scorpions, lizards, and mice, to name a few items of Paisano food. Later in the season there would be luscious big tarantulas, cicadas, parts of cactus fruits, several kinds of seeds, and many other delicacies.

It must have seemed to the folks like the kids would never grow up. George was a strapping adolescent before he left the security of the nest for good, about the middle of July. By this time nobody would have had any trouble recognizing him for a Paisano although his plumage, especially that of the tail, was not as completely developed as in a mature individual. Even an ornithologist couldn't have told from looking at him, whether his name should be George or Phyllis. For that matter, the same would hold true when he was full grown. Which didn't bother him at all. Whatever Mother Nature had figured out, was all right with him. Right now, like most teen-age youngsters he was greatly concerned with the consumption of huge quantities of food.

Having to provide his own bill of fare was not so simple as having it brought fresh killed to his plate. He made many a futile dash after some lizard or grasshopper which outwitted his inexperience. But he learned fast, and grew quickly acquainted with the sandy mesquite flats near his home and with the creosote and palo verde covered hillsides above. He soon forgot about the old homestead except when he happened to be in the vicinity, and would droop by and gaze vacantly at his mother, still patiently engaged in rearing a last chick. Poor Mother! Only a human mother could have fully sympathized with Mrs. Paisano for such a haphazard way of raising a family, one at a time.

One day George made a mistake which nearly cost him his life. Any Paisano could have made it, but not many would have forgotten that cardinal principle of always swallowing, sizable prey head first. It was on a damp, rather steamy day, just after a summer shower had soaked into the ground. He found a particularly large centipede, about six and a half inches long. Characteristically, the centipede was very active, and almost managed to escape under a stone, when George nabbed its tail end. A quick jerk flipped it into the light again. George pecked savagely at its head two or three times, until he was convinced this appetizer was ready for his gullet. The centipede was still wiggling, but anybody knows a centipede can continue to thrash about long after it has been killed. George grabbed one end - the wrong one - and started to swallow it. The crushed head-end whipped around like a spring, to the thin covering of the bird's throat, and the poison carrying jaws snapped once, twice, thrice. The third time they connected, through flesh.

George was never to know such pain again. He managed to disgorge the tormentor, and then began to flop around like a chicken with its head off. Finally, between tortured gasps for air through his sore and greatly swollen throat, he managed to drag himself into the shade of a salt bush. Here he collapsed and lay as if dead. Toward evening he arose, a weaker but wiser bird. He managed to capture and swallow a few grasshoppers before it became too dark to hunt, and then found his way to his roost, a few feet above the ground in a hackberry.

He reached his full size that summer, and learned a lot. Never satisfied to rest on his laurels as an epicure, he pushed himself ahead until he could perform the gastronomic feat of swallowing an 18-inch rattlesnake. He had to do this a few inches at a time, of course. He loved nothing better than a big lizard or a small snake, for one of these creatures seemed made just to go down his throat. He wasn't particular whether the young snakes were harmless ones or venomous ones. They were just snakes to him, ergo, good eating.

George found an easy way of locating grasshoppers. Experience taught that he could find more grasshoppers in the vicinity of feeding quail, where there were several birds to scare them up, than he could spot just by himself. So he frequently enjoyed catching those which flew up out of reach of the quail. He got along all right with the little folk, and they didn't seem to mind.

He had as much curiosity about him as a spinster in a country town. This trait led him to investigate a strange conformation of the landscape near the creek, from which came many odd noises and emerged huge creatures which were not birds, but walked on two legs, and vibrated the earth when they walked, somewhat as cattle do. Thus he came to see the house in which lived a ranger and his wife and children. And one day the wife caught a mouse in her kitchen and threw it out in the yard when she knew George was looking. He was not aware of the joy with which she summoned her husband and children to see her newest conquest over the wild, but he was aware that the dead mouse was powerful good eating. So he got in the habit of looking about the yard every day or so. Mrs. Ranger thought about setting out food every day, but her husband told her it was not such a good idea. He said it was better not to get the wild creatures in the habit of depending upon somebody furnishing food, for it would only work a hardship on them when they couldn't get it. So George's meals came only often enough to remind him that here was a good place for an occasional handout.

Knowledge of the free meals kept him from the worst pangs of hunger several times during that winter. It was a hard winter on the desert, and December and January found him with a "lean and hungry look." There were practically no insects at all to be found, even under moldy leaves. He subsisted almost entirely on seeds, and on the few unwary juveniles of the mouse and rabbit clans that he could catch. These meals of fresh meat were few and far between. All the lizards were in hiding for the winter, with the exception of one extremely hardy variety called the Arizona Tree Uta (Uta ornata symmetrica). These fellows would come out on the warmest winter days and bask for an hour or two on the south side of some heat-soaked boulders.

On his hungriest days he usually found that Mrs. Ranger had thrown out something for him, and this was a great comfort. He began hanging around the house a great deal, and the whole family became well acquainted with his odd footprints. Like all cuckoos, his toes were arranged in two pairs, two pointing forward and two pointing backward. One could tell which direction he had gone, because the forward pointing toes left a deeper impression in loose soil.

The children especially enjoyed watching George's antics. He was an unconscious clown, and looked clumsy at nearly anything he did. It delighted them to see him hurrying along with his head and a neck straight forward and his tail sticking out straight behind, for all the world as though he were late for an appointment. Then to see him suddenly throw up his long tail when he wanted to stop suddenly, and almost lose his balance, invariably brought laughter. They found that while George preferred to be a landlubber he could and would fly when necessary. Most of his flying, however, was in the form of gliding, from the top of a low tree or hill.

In February George became gravely insulted. It happened that Mrs. Ranger was trapping and banding birds that winter. The birds, after she had identified them and placed little numbered bands on their legs, would be released unharmed. One of her wire traps was located under a hackberry on a sandy flat just above the creek. George happened by just after two Gambel's sparrows had entered the trap. Ordinarily he had no impulse to bother smaller feathered creatures, but this time the combination of hunger and of excitement at the frenzied fluttering of the captives as they beat their wings against the cage wall, attracted him. He circled the trap several times trying to reach the birds, and finally stuck his head into the opening. He still couldn't reach them, so he pushed. The opening was designed for much smaller birds than he, but with some squeezing he forced his way inside.

Once past the doorway George found he could neither straighten out nor stand erect. Acute claustrophobia assailed him, and he became panic-stricken. With savage abandon he fought the trap, running his long beak in and out through the wire openings, bruising the flesh until he was soon bleeding freely behind the nostrils, and his feathers were all rumpled up from one end to the other. Never had his pride and his dignity been so assailed.

About this time Mrs. Ranger saw what was going on and called the children to watch, while she slowly approached the cage and lifted it. The sparrows flew away while she struggled to get George out of the trap. That done, she took him into the house to give first aid for his bleeding, and put iodine on the cut face. This burned like fire, and when she took him outside a moment later, he streaked for the bushes like a bolt of lightning. Then he felt the crowning indignity of all - a numbered aluminum band which was fitted loosely on his left leg, and which he couldn't possibly get off. George was peeved for several days. Even after his feathers were all correctly preened and his sores healed, he stayed away from the house. No more misplaced confidences for him!

Late winter gave way to spring, and freezing nights were a memory. Buds began bursting. Lizards and snakes found the weather satisfactory. George was feeding well and feeling in fine fettle. He felt so well, in fact, that he decided any bird as peppy as he was should get married and raise a family. He became articulate about it, and began making occasional loud chuckling crowing noises, which would have sounded musical to nothing on earth except another Paisano. Something must have worked, because it wasn't long before he met Georgiana. They were of the same age, and it was a case of mutual attraction. His courtship was tempestuous, their honeymoon idyllic. They located their nest low in the spreading branches of a giant mesquite, where it was well shrouded from prowlers' eyes by a bushy algerita bush. We were not there when their first child-to-be was born, but may we not suppose there was rejoicing in the family at the sight of the egg?

George took family responsibility well, spending most of his hunting hours as close to the vicinity of the nest as possible. One day a couple of weeks later, while Georgiana was placidly sitting on the nest, cocking an eye at her husband as he strolled past the mesquite, death hovered near. As George was about to pass a low limestone ledge about 30 feet away, he felt something hit his left wing. It was an instantaneous touch, and was gone as quickly, but before it could have been repeated, he moved. In the merest fraction of a second, George was standing three feet away, cocking his head on one side to gaze intently under the ledge. There, drawn far back under the rock, was the head of the huge Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus cinercous) that had struck short. Only a large rattler would have felt ambitious about eating a Paisano-size bird, and this one had missed a kill by the thickness of the hard feathers on George's wing. A yellow drop of venom attested this as it dripped from a feather tip to the ground.

Hoping the snake would come out, George waited in the vicinity of the ledge until it was so dark he had to go to roost. Normally he would have had no interest in a snake too large to eat, but this was a different matter. For all that his cuckoo intelligence could ascertain, the snake was a menace to his wife and children. In the next few days the tracks of Paisano and snake crossed several times, but neither saw the other. Yet it must have been written that these two should clash, for the snake was so pleased with the feeding to be had in several engaging rodent nests nearby that it would not leave.

cartoon sketch of Roadrunner vs. Rattler

Just at sunset of a rather cool day, when the temperature was hovering around 85 degrees, bird and rattlesnake chose the same time to traverse a clear space in the mesquite and "catclaw" bushes. They were fully 20 feet from any cover when they became aware of each other. George checked his customary headlong stride, tail in air, at the same time Crotalus was withdrawing his five and a half feet from a prone crawling position into a coiled striking pose. A warning rattle sounded and the enemies faced each other motionless for a second. Crotalus moved first, for he disliked intensely to expose himself like this. He started toward the bushes.

George, who was nervously raising and lowering his crest and tail, moved quickly to defeat this strategy. Wings spread and feathers drooping, he made a bee-line toward the reptile's head. Whereupon Crotalus, with even greater speed, withdrew his head and neck, and George veered off to one side, just out of reach. The snake, infuriated, coiled again, rearing his head and neck fully eight inches above the ground. His head was drawn well back, while his tail and rattles were out in front of him. This was so he wouldn't overbalance when he struck, and was entirely different to the "coiled rope" attitude of a loafing snake.

George darted in again, and the reptile struck. It hit the spread wing feathers, doing no harm, and again a drop of wasted venom fell to the ground, while the bird retreated to begin an erratic circling dance. It wasn't really a dance, but resembled one, as, with head lowered and his wicked looking reddish flecked eyes gleaming their hatred, he darted in and out, in and out, always just out of range. Every time Crotalus lunged and missed, George moved a little farther around the circle, thus forcing the snake to constantly turn and turn in order to face his enemy. This necessity prevented the snake from any rapid backward movement. Of course, a snake can't literally throw himself into reverse gear, but he gets the same effect; facing an enemy, Mr. Rattler can flee with the main part of his body while his head and neck still point the original direction, thus effectively serving as a rear guard for his retreat.

The sound of the snake's rattles, at first recognizable as such, was so rapid a vibration now that it was closer to a hum. It was audible 150 feet away, and was something of a blend between the sound of a cicada, the hiss of a tea kettle, and the drone of an airplane, and was filled with all the connotations of death. Even one who has not previously heard a snake rattle and does not recognize the sound, finds that its vibration stirs something within him which is primitive and elementally afraid.

Despite George's efforts to the contrary, Crotalus had succeeded in edging several feet nearer a big mesquite and its widespreading basal branches. Frenziedly the bird darted in again, his wing feathers stirring up dust, and his head and neck equalling the snake's sinuosity and speed of weaving movement. Crotalus struck, in a great flutter of feathers and dust, and George emerged on the other side, panting. The snake was even closer to the bush. Again George had saved his life with his beating wing feathers, but he had again failed in his objective, that of driving his sharp beak into the enemy's skull. He began his restless darting in and out again, and this time Crotalus was showing the effects of persecution. Blinded with rage the snake now struck viciously at each half lunge of the bird, and his own powerful body wearied. His lunges slowed, and his body weaved uncertainly each time he reared his head and neck.

The Paisano rested a moment, and Crotalus' rattles vibrated more slowly. Suddenly the snake abandoned caution for a moment to swing his body back in a half gliding, half crawling semblance of a loop. This brought him within five feet of protection, but now he had to meet another rush. This time George was faster than the tiring snake, and amid a thrashing of coils, his beak struck home. Crotalus, mortally hit, lashed valiantly but futilely at George, and then tried to conceal his injured head. Another lightning sally crushed the bones of his skull.

George was such an exhausted victor that it was all he could do to stand, as he staggered drunkenly a few feet away to stand with feet wide apart, wing and tail feathers drooping from fatigue now, his head drooping and his tongue lolling. In this pose his wife found him when she came proudly to announce that she had laid another egg. And strangely (or was it so odd?) George's head lifted, he drew up his wings, and his impudent tail soared on high again. For had he not truly come into his own? He was husband, father, and mighty foeman and defender of his family.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005