ZOO-ology column: Unusual bird prompts many stories

Geococcyx californianus, aka Californian earth-cuckoo, ground cuckoo, chaparral cock or snake killer. Know what it is?

What if I said, "Beep, Beep." Aha, it's got to be a roadrunner. There are two species - the greater and lesser.

The greater is the one we see, and it's the largest North American cuckoo. It's ground-dwelling with vocalizations more like a descending dove coo or a rattling sound.

During the last century, the greater roadrunner has expanded its range from Mexico and our desert Southwest to parts of Missouri and Louisiana.

It's common year-round throughout Texas, except in deep East Texas.

On chilly nights, the roadrunner may lower its body temperature slightly to conserve energy. During the day, sunning helps raise body temperature as the bird spreads the feathers on its back exposing black heat-absorbing skin to the warm sun.

About half of the two-foot-long bird is tail, which helps with balance. Legs are long and thin, but strong. There are four toes on each foot - two pointing forward and two backward. The speedy roadrunner can zip along at nearly 20 mph.

Scorpions, snakes (including rattlesnakes) lizards, frogs, rodents and other small animals are standards on the roadrunner menu and two birds may work together to kill a particularly big snake. The roadrunner may walk or run toward its prey and can jump into the air to catch insects or, occasionally, a bird.

It is said to be the fastest running bird capable of flight, although its wings only sustain short bursts - enough to get it to perches or over obstacles.

Dinner preparations are not elaborate - a strike from the beak to the neck of small mammals, or whacking something on a rock. The roadrunner will readily drink water when it's available, but most liquids come from the water content in foods. Salt glands in front of the eyes remove excess salt from the blood.

Roadrunners will claim a territory and mate for life, but commonly remain solitary for a time after raising their young.

In the spring, when a young bird's thoughts turn to love, he may bow, dance and spread his tail. He struts with head held high and presents his intended with delicacies like a pulverized lizard. What a guy.

Both birds gather materials, but the female builds the platform-style nest low in a bush, cactus or small tree. It's basically twigs but may contain leaves and even snakeskins.

Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young. Males take the night shift on the nest, which is never unattended.

The young leave the nest at 2 or 3 weeks and forage with the parents for a short time. They don't return to the nest.

There are various myths and legends involving roadrunners. Some Indian tribes believed the bird guarded against evil spirits. Frontier people said the birds led lost people to safe trails. In Mexico, some said roadrunners brought babies, much like the proverbial stork. Whatever the truth, they're delightful to watch.

Sources: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Greater _Roadrunner/lifehistory

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.