It was looking at me from behind a large chunk of sandstone. An orange eye with a small flash of orange and blue skin flaring behind studied me, the crest moving slightly on its head. I threw a pebble and my own therapod, modified for the Holocene epoch, ran off in a dead-straight line toward its lair in a tall blue spruce. I heard the clack of mandibles and knew there would be another close by. I growled and it broke cover and made for the tree.
Roadrunners are not my favorite animals, but they come with the territory here in New Mexico. It is easy to imagine that they would be a close fit for the slightly smaller Eosinopteryx dinosaur, whose bones were discovered in China (see Nature Communications, January 22, 2013). The article suggests that Eosinopteryx was a good runner and a poor flyer. Just like my roadrunners, which are only slightly more airworthy than chickens (pheasants are flying aces by comparison) but can run at up to 20 miles an hour.
Since the roadrunner family moved in the lizard population of my garden has been decimated and there are fewer small birds around. Avid carnivores (perhaps unlike their Chinese ancestor), they will eat just about everything. My friend Jake Page would feed hamburger meat to a roadrunner that learned to visit his kitchen. Related to cuckoos, which fly around like ordinary, decent birds, they are expert at robbing eggs and chicks from nests to complement their ground-level diets of arthropods and small rodents. A neighbor told me there was a raptor-to-raptor standoff in his garden between a roadrunner and a hawk that had brought down its fledgling chick. The disagreement ended in a draw. You don’t take on a roadrunner. They are about the size of a crow and tough enough to tackle a snake.
When you look at skeletons of Eosinopteryx and Geococcyx californianus, among the first things you notice is that the newfound dinosaur lacks a breastbone (important for flight musculature) while the roadrunner lacks that iconic dinosaur tailbone but makes up for it with foot-long feathers to complement a foot-long frame. I was interested in seeing the conceptual drawing of a live Eosinopteryx on sci-news.com, in which the sparsely feathered animal is shown to have hand-claws on its “wrists,” just like the young of the wildly exotic Hoaztin bird that lives along the great South American tropical rivers. The Hoaztin is a cuckoo relative, too. And like the European cuckoo it is quite unlike its relatives in habits and outward appearance.
One has to admit that, all in all, roadrunners are handsome birds with a lively avian personality, a good deal of intelligence, and a varied vocabulary that runs from sharp clacks to dove-like coos. It’s just that I wish these State Birds of New Mexico would be a little more civilized instead of playing the role of miniature T-Rex marauders.