Here’s an award-winning grand prize photo. Photographers from all over the world entered more than 22,000 images into the Bird Photographer of the Year 2021 competition. Alejandro Prieto won this year for his poignant image of a Greater Roadrunner stymied at the U.S.-Mexico border wall. He took the photo at Naco, Arizona, a border town south of Bisbee. I’ve rarely seen a bird photo that has so much meaning in it.
The cartoon roadrunner evades wily coyotes by throwing sticks of dynamite, but the actual roadrunner has its own interesting features. It is a member of the cuckoo family, Cuculidae, distinguished partly by its zygodactyl feet – two toes forward and two toes back. Fast on their feet, roadrunners eat insects, small reptiles such as lizards and snakes, rodents, spiders scorpions, centipedes, snails, small birds, eggs, and fruits and seeds like those from prickly pear cactuses and sumacs. Using its blue beak and legs, the roadrunner forages on the ground and usually runs after prey from under cover. It may leap to catch insects, and commonly pummels certain prey against the ground. Because it is quick, the roadrunner is able to prey upon rattlesnakes. A particularly notable feature is the crest of black feathers, raised or lowered at will.
The Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californicus, ranges throughout the southwestern U.S. into Mexico, and as far north as northern California and southern Missouri. Geococcyx, from the Greek, means ground dwelling cuckoo. Does the word coccyx ring a bell? Perhaps, because it is a small triangular bone at the base of the spinal column in humans and some apes, formed of fused vestigial vertebrae – our tail bone. The coccyx is curved, like the bill of a cuckoo and some imaginative taxonomist decided to give that moniker to the roadrunner genus. The species name of the Greater Roadrunner, californicus, needs no explanation; the species name of the Lesser Roadrunner is velox, meaning fast or rapid. It is a smaller version of the Greater and only found in Mexico down to Central America.
Roadrunners rarely fly but when they do they might flap their wings a few times, reach an altitude of ten feet and quickly glide to a landing. Their wing bones and carina are reduced, reducing their ability to fly. Preferring to run, they can reach 40 mph in a short sprint but slow to about 20 mph after that. The bird is very maneuverable on the ground, using its wings and tail as breaks and rudders and can change direction in an instant; a critical ability when chasing lizards and other small, fast animals. Their legs are elongated and powerful, enabling them to jump four feet or more into a tree without the use of wings.
The roadrunner is suited to a desert environment because as a carnivore, it eats moist food; like seabirds, it has a nasal gland to excrete excess salt rather than flushing it out the urinary tract with water; and it reduces its activity by 50% during the heat of the day. Unfortunately all these adaptations will not get the bird over the border wall.