Friday, September 23, 2011

Did you know a Roadrunner

…can achieve speeds of up to 25 miles per hour when running down lizards? That question was posed by AudubonGuides on Facebook, recently, and I did NOT know this bit of information, of course I had to do some research on these unusual birds.

The name ‘roadrunner’ comes from the bird's habit of racing down roads and then darting to safety off road, if approached. The omnivorous roadrunner forages around the roadside for large insects, roadkill and reptiles. It is also known as the chaparral cock, ground cuckoo, and snake killer. Its call is a downward slurring "co-coo-coo-coo-cooooo." Also a clattering "whirrrr" call, like other cuckoos. You can hear these calls in the video; it does not go “beep-beep”.

The Greater Roadrunner is the epitome of the desert Southwest…and it lives on my street; or one has. The Neldner photo to the right was taken on the Christmas Bird Count in La Veta just a couple years ago.

The chicken-like bird is a ground-dwelling cuckoo and the larger of the two roadrunners; there is a Lesser Roadrunner in Southwestern Mexico and Northern Central America. The Greater Roadrunner feeds on snakes, scorpions, and any other small animal it can catch and subdue; including other birds. Two roadrunners may cooperate to kill larger snakes, even rattlesnakes. They eat many venomous prey items including said snakes, scorpions and poisonous spiders, as well as fruit and some seeds.

The ‘racing stripe’ on the side of the roadrunners head is not feathers, it is naked skin. As a male matures the skin behind its eye becomes a beautiful, vivid stripe of red/orange, white and blue. The skin on its back, however, is black. After a cold desert night, a cold roadrunner will turn its back to the sun, fluff its back feathers to expose this dark skin along its back and absorb the warm solar energy. The Greater Roadrunner adult sports a bushy, black crest and a long, thick, dark bill. It has a dark head and is blue-ish on the throat and belly. Like all cuckoos, the roadrunner has zygodactyl feet; four toes on each--two face forward and two face back.

This is a good sized bird; 20 to nearly 22 inches in length with a wingspan of some 19+ inches, though it flies weakly. Even if startled, it usually runs. It weighs about ten ounces. The roadrunner is a ground forager who hunts in open arid and semiarid country with scattered brush. When chasing lizards, it holds its head and tail flat and parallel to the ground while running at top speed…as fast as 25 mph. It is the fastest running flying bird, beat only by the Ostrich (which doesn’t fly, of course), but it measures only about two feet in length, half of which is tail. That tail acts as a rudder when it runs.

While this is an opportunistic hunter frequently capturing small birds and eggs at bird feeders and nest boxes, they have also been observed skulking in tall, dry grass to leap up suddenly and pluck a small bird from the air. I have come across videos of them doing just this, but couldn't find one for this post. It held it's body vertically and jumped straight up to catch the bird. If you find it, please post in comments and acknowledge the author.

This accomplished hunter kills with a blow from its beak to the base of a small animals neck, or by holding it in its beak and bashing it on the ground or against a rock. I wish it also showed the actual 'catch' and swallow. I wonder if it tears up the prey to bite-sized pieces. Probably.

Polly said: "Roadrunner copulation, where else but in the middle of the road! This went on for over 2 minutes. Our Guide, Forrest Davis, said in all his years in he had never witnessed this. In the end their "act of love" was interrupted by an oncoming vehicle ...but not before he passed the "bauble" he is holding to her!" Seems roadrunners are gracious lovers! Food is an important component of the mating ritual, but I hope she didn't consume the 'bauble'. The male tempts the female with a twig or bit of grass or food, such as a lizard or snake which it dangling from its bill while chasing her. His "prance display," "tail-wag display," and vocalizations in front of the female while bowing and making the whirring or cooing sound will get her interested; then he jumps into the air and onto his mate. If the female accepts the offered food, the pair will probably mate. While nesting, they are quite territorial and it's possible Greater Roadrunners mate for life.

Dr. Dean Ransom roadrunner study brings us an interesting and informative video:

This vide was taken in the Texas chaparral. I understand that in a dryer, more desert-like environment the bird nests on cactus. While both care for the young, oddly, it is the male who incubates eggs; his body-temp stays constant, while the female's drops at night.

As to the desert environ, roadrunner is equipped with salt glands in front of its eyes to excrete excess salt from its blood. This is also common in ocean-going birds that can drink seawater. The roadrunner is able to do without water if it eats juicy enough food, but it will drink when water
is available.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

P.Nelder where acknowledged
Wickipedia for still-shots
YouTube for video clips

Monday, September 12, 2011

Native and Natural Foods for Wildlife...

It has been awhile since I've posted something; funny how life gets in the way, sometimes. Still, I enjoy writing, the weather is cooling, I'm unemployed and running out of excuses. So, I've picked a piece I started awhile ago, because while at the "year-end sale" at my favorite plant nursery, Perennial Favorites in Rye, I finally met two sort of heroes of mine: Diana and Merrilee. They are the owners of the nursery...a wonderful place and a delight to visit.

I'd first discovered the nursery while on one of the first birding-trips I ever experienced. A lovely man, Dave Silverman, has been a birder for probably longer than I've been in Colorado (some 35 years) and has headed up the Spanish Peaks Christmas Bird Count for the last 20+ years. Needles to say, he's an expert birder...heck, he often birds by ear! This day we were bird-watching around his home turf in Rye and Colorado City, and as is his custom, he took the group to this outstanding nursery where we saw a many birds happily flitting about. I go back at least once a year, ever since.

To make a long story short, before I drove up to Perennial Favorites yesterday, I checked out their Facebook page and website. There I discovered Diana is the one who intends to write a piece about growing your own birdseed...on their blog. Well, here are some photos that perhaps will spur her I told her I'd be watching for the article. As it turns out, I had planned a similar article for my blog! I have created several posts on the topic, found when clicking the Label: Native Plants (or this link)

So, here we go. The following are pictures I've taken of some plants in my yard that I've seen birds enjoying. Of course, they like more than just seed; the flowers are important, too. As are the insects that they attract.

Grasses might be the some of the most important foods for birds and other critters. Birds not only eat the seeds, but also hide in the tall tangles. I almost always plant some annual (here) purple fountain grass in pots around the yard. Along a lot of my fences are many grasses, wild I assume, that I let grow tall.

Seed-heads from various grasses and forbes are an important food source for birds and winter-hungry critters.

Some flowers offer nectar, like this columbine and pink penstemon, while some offer both pollen and seed, like the yellow tickseed. Each of these plants is drought resistant, very easy to grow and propagate freely.

On an earlier visit to Perennial Favorites, I purchases the Ornamental Thistle for it's stunning architectural look and wild leaves. The purple thistle is much like the inside of an artichoke, and offers seeds all winter. The native vine, Virginia Creeper, is an ivy that produces dark fruit in the late fall and early winter. I've seen birds mobbing the fences where I have it growing. It is absolutely stunning in the fall; turning crimson as the weather cools. It was within this vine that I saw my very first Hermit Thrush...and then three...feeding on the berries under snow-laden leaves.

Black-eyed Susans (behind the Russian Sage) and a stunning Purple Cone-flower also offer ripe seeds after their petals fall. While the cone-flower prefers some moisture, these plants can be somewhat drought resistant after they have settled in. Finches love 'em.

Yes, birds love Sumac seed and so do humans! It is often used as a spice, for it's citrus-like flavors. In my neighborhood phoebes, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, wood thrush, hermit thrush and even common crows love this plant. I've planted it in the far back of my yard where it can grow and spread into a small spite of my allergy to it's 'itchy' leaves. There is another sumac called Low-grow Sumac that also provides berries and does not itch. I've planted that under my New Mexican Privet in a place I might develop for additional plants and wouldn't appreciate an allergic reaction! The unknown yellow plant grows rather like a vining black-eyed susan and appeared out of nowhere. It sure makes good seed.

The beautiful, tall 'candles' of the wild Mullen become long spires of seed that small birds love. Underneath a sunflower feeder, one is apt to find shoots that, if left alone, will develop into these beautiful, large, yellow seed-heads. At Perennial Favorites the other day, we watched a Black-capped Chickadee come and go from such a plant, bent totally over by it's weight so that the little bird had to hang upside down to collect seed.

In every yard I've ever had in Colorado, I've planted New Mexican Privet and treated it like a wild screen. While it can be clipped and shaped, I like it's willowy and tall growth habit. The yellow and highly scented flowers appear before the leaves in spring and black berries appear as the leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. This plant is also referred to as the Desert Olive, though I've not ventured a taste.

I use a Miscanthus gracillimus-Morning Light or three in every garden, too. As an ornimental statement, they are a stunning 'fountain grass' that reach over five feet when in 'bloom'. And the plants shape and seed heads last nearly all winter. When they get too big, dig 'um up, saw into quarters and re-plant in at least three new locations!

I looked high and low for these two plants: a Thornless Hawthorn and a tiny-fruiting crab-apple. I don't want trees with wicked, four-inch thorns anywhere in my yard (heck, I go for thornless roses too), and was tickled to find this multi-trunked beauty near by. It's grown into a beautiful screen against the fence and the birds love it after a few freezes. The same thing goes for crab-apples; birds really can't 'bite into one' until after the fruit freezes and thaws a few times. I look for what is called 'persistent fruit'; fruit that doesn't fall and litter the grass, but stays on the tree all winter, giving the critters time to enjoy them. The Centurian's fruit is about the size of a large coffee bean and grows rather like cherries. Oh, I have a couple of sour cherry trees they enjoy, too.

I bought the Purple smokebush more for its color than anything else. Last year it had some sort of wilty-virus on one branch. I cut it off; the bush revived and looks great today...though I'm not sure it's anything birds enjoy. After the blouzy flowers (that look like smoke), it does get a tiny, one seeded who knows. It's the chokecherry though, that critters enjoy; everything from birds to bears! And some folks make jam with its berries, too.

I grew up in California where we had pyracantha bushes. I thought they were beautiful, especially when laden with bunches of bright-red fruit. The birds loved the fruit which are like little, soft apples and would eat until they became drunk. However, this is another plant with huge spikes or thorns nearly four-inches long...if memory serves. And they are poisonous and hurt like the dickens if one manages to get pricked; which is pretty easy to do...they're covered with the daggers. Another name for them is Firethorn; go figure. However, I have found an almost identical plant sans thorns; the cotoneasters! That's pronounced "co-toney-aster" and there are several varieties. I have several, some will be small, others like small trees. And the birds love the berries, too. Beautiful plants all year long; without thorns.

Ninebark berries, if you can save some from the birds, make wine just as lovely as does elderberry; I grow it for the birds. It looks great all year, with bright fall colors coming with the colder weather. I usually look for species plants; plants not mucked with too much by breeders. Plant breeders breed for looks or flowers or scent, but generally not for rich nectar or healthy berries. I'm trying to feed a balanced diet, here! Keep in mind that the tiny bugs and spiders that live amongst the leaves and twigs are great food, too. Even hummingbirds need protein.

I have a large patch of red raspberries, too, though they prefer an almost boggy existence for really good berries. I break down and flood them a bit, once or twice a season, so they do okay for me and the birdies. Chokecherries, on the other-hand seem to produce abundantly even during a bit of a drought.

Hummingbird nectar not withstanding, it seems to me birds are not going through the food I provide, like they do in some months. Perhaps there are fewer of them just now (I remember things slowed down to the point I wondered if there were any birds left last September, but I also think the reason is that there is an abundance of natural/native food that is available to them. Because I have great variety and try to use native plants, none of the bugs or diseases become too much for any plant. I never spray or toss out poisons. The galls on the chokecherries this year provided good eating for warblers; spider mites are eaten, too. It's all good.

Photos by me, except privet and Miscanthus...from Wikipedia