Sunday, November 6, 2011

Apple #557: Roadrunners

I've had a number of requests, which is always very exciting for your Apple Lady. I'm going to take them in turn. Up first is road runners. What do they look like in real life? Do they bear any resemblance at all to the cartoon Road Runner? What are some facts about them, like what do they eat and so on?

First, here's the cartoon Road Runner (Fastius tasty-us)

Note the blue feathers with a tuft of darker blue feathers on top, the yellow beak, the long plume-like tail, orange legs which are super long, and the characteristic Meep Meep. Any resemblance to the real life roadrunner?

A real-life roadrunner
(Photo from White Wolf Journeys)

  • Feathers: not blue but mainly brown and white speckled. Also a patch of bright red or orange above the eye.
  • Tuft of feathers on the head: a real road runner does have a little mohawk or crest of feathers, but it's brown, not blue
  • Beak: not yellow but brown, and not thick and curved upward but long and pointy with a downward curve at the end
  • Tail: long, but the feathers stick straight out, not in a curvy plume
  • Legs: not very long at all, more of a pinky-beige color
  • Vocalizations: of course you didn't expect a real roadrunner to say "meep meep." Their primary sound is a cooing almost like a pigeon. They make a variety of other sounds, including crows, clacks, and clucks.
  • Name: the cartoon Road Runner spells his name in two words. The real life roadrunners spell their name in one.

Real life roadrunner running
(Photo from Picture Depot)

  • The real-life roadrunner does not run so fast its legs become a circular blur, but it can run up to 18 miles an hour. When running at top speed, it holds its head and tail in line with its body and parallel to the ground.
  • The Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is actually a type of cuckoo.
  • Roadrunners live in the desert, mainly on the ground. They can fly, but they don't. They walk or run.
  • They eat mainly venomous desert-dwelling animals such as snakes, scorpions, spiders.
  • Their speed is what enables them to catch prey as intimidating as rattlesnakes, though sometimes two roadrunners will team up to go after larger snakes.
  • A roadrunner will use its wing like a matador's cape, and when it's distracted, snap the rattlesnake's tail and with the snake's tail firmly in its beak, crack the snake like a whip, banging the snake's head against the ground until it's dead.
  • It will swallow the snake whole. It make take a long time to work the snake through its system and it may even walk around with the end of the snake hanging out of its mouth, but it will eventually swallow the entire thing.

Roadrunner with a snake by the tail
(Photo from Canku Ota)

  • They can also snatch dragonflies or even hummingbirds out of the air.
  • Roadrunners have also been seen hopping straight up into the air to knock down and eat small birds lingering at feeders.
  • They've adapted well to desert life. Their skin is black which helps them warm up after a cold night in the desert and retain more heat at the end of the day.
  • They also have special salt glands in front of their eyes. Excess salt is excreted out of these glands, which allows them to go longer without water. In fact, roadrunners don't have to drink water, but they can often get enough moisture from the animals they eat.
  • They reduce their activity levels by half during the hottest part of the day. In winter, when food is very scarce, they eat mostly plants.
  • They make their nests in low-lying bushes or cacti.

Roadrunner nest
(Photo from Gardening for Wildlife)

  • Roadrunners have adapted to desert life so well, they've expanded their range from southern California as far east into Missouri and Louisiana.
  • Other species of roadrunner live in Central America, Costa Rica, and Bolivia. Still other species live in Southeast Asia.

Real roadrunners go anywhere they please. They do not keep only to the roads.
(Photo from Gardening for Wildlife)

So how did the animators get from the real-life roadrunner to the cartoon blue version? I could not find a satisfactory answer to this. Chalk it up to artistic inspiration, I suppose.

I did discover that
  • Chuck Jones, the animator and creator of the Coyote & Road Runner cartoons said, "'I first got interested in the coyote as an animal while perusing Mark Twain's 'Roughing It' at the age of 7. 'I thought of it as a sort of dissolute collie. And actually, that's just about what a coyote is! No one saw it more clearly than Mark Twain.''
''And we had very strict rules about Road Runner,'' he added, citing the list in his book, which includes the following: (1) The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going ''beep beep.'' (2) No outside force can harm the Coyote - only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products. (3) No dialogue ever, except ''beep beep.'' (4) The Road Runner must stay on the road; otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner. (5) All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation. (6) The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
Perhaps Chuck Jones' book would have more information about where his Road Runner came from.

Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist

Here's another interesting difference between cartoon Road Runner and the real-life roadrunner. The cartoon bird's chief characteristic is how he eludes capture, while what makes the real-life bird so interesting is the ways in which it captures other animals, especially animals that you would think would be its predators. Cartoon: preyed upon. Real-life: predator.

But they do have one thing in common, which is that they are quite wily. (Yes, as opposed to the coyote, har har.)

Desert USA, The Roadrunner
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Greater roadrunner
Field Guide to Birds of North America, Greater Roadrunner
Canku Ota, How Roadrunner Became the Leader of the Birds
Glenn Collins, Chuck Jones on Life and Daffy Duck, The New York Times, November 7, 1989

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