One of the most amazing bird stories I have ever known has occurred, most appropriately, near the Feather River, home of feathered birds! For some time I had heard reports about the sighting of a roadrunner in the Kelly Ridge housing area above Lake Oroville but, even though I searched out the alleged locations, I had never seen the phantom of the hill.
Since I have worked at a bird refuge in the center of the City of Oakland, I know that eye-witness descriptions sometimes leave a lot to be desired. An "albatross" in a parking lot turned out to be a pigeon and, generally, the majority of the public doesn't know a blackbird from a crow, so it was with some dubious thoughts that I entertained the stories of a roadrunner in the Sierra foothills.
Although the ancient range of the bird reached the northern sector of the Sacramento Valley, modern activity and agriculture presumably has pushed the desert-loving speedster back near the Mojave Desert, and certainly to Death Valley where I once saw a handsome specimen running around the Furnace Creek campground. It also ranges throughout the Southwest deserts and is the state bird of New Mexico.
So it was with some interest and perhaps doubts that I agreed to go to a house on Kelly Ridge where they claimed that the roadrunner roosted. "About four o'clock every day it runs onto our deck and flies up to the rafter," Barbara Adkerson had said on the phone. The description sure sounded like a roadrunner, but ... Roadrunners, in Oroville?! That sounds like "Cows, in Berkeley?!" an old milk commercial.
I reached the Ackerson house before four, and Leonard was out in the yard sweeping some leaves. "Haven't seen it yet, but I'm sure it will soon arrive." He took me behind the house tothe wraparound deck anchored to the second floor of a lovely place, overlooking a steep hill with a nice view of Bidwell Marina. He pointed out the steps the roadrunner sometimes uses to reach the lookout deck, and the glass doors where he said the bird often pauses to watch its reflection. There was the rafter perch - a narrow, five-inch shelf snugged up against the supporting timbers under the roof, hardly big enough for a starling.
"You mean that a long-tailed roadrunner squeezes onto that small shelf?" I exclaimed.
"Pushes the tail into the corner and wedges there all night," Leonard explained. "Once our grandchild ran out and scared the bird, but it simply flew to the neighbor's roof until things quieted, then returned to the rafter corner." Well, it certainly would be sheltered with a roof over its head, and away from fox or dog, and perhaps it depended on the owners' presence to deter any prowling owls.
It all sounded pretty convincing though, and I went back to my car to load my camera and watch and wait. He had said that sometimes it came down the hill and across the road, and I was ready.
But I waited, and waited, until almost five, and nothing had happened. I began to think I was on a wild goose - er, roadrunner - chase after all. It seemed like such an unlikely place for a bird of the open spaces. It was an expensive neighborhood, with finely tended lawns and landscaping, quite out of the logical habitat of a roadrunner. It seemed everything was there except cactus, which is the plant most often associated with roadrunners. I did see fan palm, exotic trimmed hedges, and a host of other imported species. Two bold deer walked down the wide street, and picked out a juicy yard for nibbling. Then I knew what Ron Scherer meant when he said, rather annoyed, that deer ate everything he planted on Kelly Ridge.
A large flock of robins flew overhead, making a run for a roost somewhere, after searching all day for worms on the rain-saturated lawns after our first big winter rain. A Sharp-shinned Hawk zoomed through the branches, and two crows entered the picture. Everything was interested in the last steps of day and had to decide where to spend the night - it could be a crucial decision, a matter of life and death! Predators were on the prowl, and the night is tinged with terror for a tender, tasty bird!
Mrs. Adkerson returned from downtown, and soon Leonard came to the front door and motioned for me to come! My heart actually beat faster as I anticipated a roadrunner!
There it was, standing in front of the glass door, admiring its image - or did it think the reflection was the spirit of an ancestor?! It was a genuine, long-tailed roadrunner in all of its brown-streaked glory, sporting a nifty touch of red and blue near the eye. It was that comical cartoon roadrunner. The tough feet had two toes pointed forward and two backward, and the ease with which it quickly darted to the deck's end and onto the iron railing was achieved like a streamlined missile.
I could hardly believe my eyes to see the perfectly healthy, desert-loving wild bird on a house deck! As it sat on the railing, I took a flash picture, and annoyance was expressed in head feathers that puffed into a ruffled position. With the second flash shot, the bird just dove off the railing and sailed effortlessly to the earth, but after a few minutes it was back and flew up to the rafter niche, cramming that long tail up against the corner. It seemed to rivet a piercing gaze at me, plainly recognizing a stranger.
What is even more amazing is that the bird has been using that roost for seven years!! Very little is known about their longevity, but one is recorded as living 5 years and 3 months in the National Zoo, Washington, D.C. Shortly after sunrise, I was told, the roadrunner glides across the fence to a clearing, and evidently prowls the community. Every evening it returns alone, and goes through the ritual of crossing the patio deck, stopping to see its reflection, and then flies up the perching place.
"It sometimes returns with a lizard or a piece of a snake, and carries the food up to the rafter, but it never leaves any mess nor any droppings," Mr. Adkerson said.
"We call it Freddy, although we don't even know if it is a boy." Imagine the number of lizards and snakes required to keep it fed! Maybe at least four a day. That figures out to near 10,000 for seven years! They do, however, apparently eat insects and about any small animal thing they can catch.
Is "Freddy" the only roadrunner on Kelly Ridge? Is it the last of a local tribe - much in the mode of Ishi, the last of the Yana Indians, who appeared in Oroville in 1911? Had the rest of the bird's family been killed, leaving it to live out its days alone? There are more questions than answers. Why had it picked, of all places, an obscure rafter of one particular house in a sea of houses as a sleeping place? Was it an escaped pet? No one is sure.
I polled several people in the neighborhood, and everyone it seems has seen the roadrunner, and some even think there are several, but no one has ever seen two together. Freddy is a fast mover.
One more mystery. For two months, July and August, the bird disappears but then returns in September. Does it indeed have a girlfriend someplace? Or does the ceiling site become too hot during those days? Does it hop up into a cool tree to roost? Where do roadrunners on the desert spend the night? Certainly more research is needed. The scientific name is Geococcyx californianus, a member of the cuckoo family! There are 127 species of cuckoos known worldwide. Most cuckoos live in trees, and a species in Missouri, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, is called "raincrow" because of allegedly "coo-cooing" before a rainstorm.
The roadrunner is said to nest in low shrubs and trees, not on the ground where their running reputation has been achieved. Ginger Chew, versatile California State Park Interpretive Specialist at the Lake Oroville Visitor's Center, observed the roadrunner running on their porch railing and was quite surprised to see it dash into a tree where some kind of nest existed. There has been no verification that it was a roadrunner nest, nor is there proof of two birds present. The Visitor's Center is about a mile, "as the crow flies," from the roosting site, so we wonder about the range of its territory.
I was reminded of another strange bird occurrence at Lake Merritt Refuge in Oakland, California. For nine years a Cattle Egret named McCatty has returned alone to the refuge for the winter, appearing in November and disappearing in March. That little white bird hangs around the feed house door awaiting the 3:30 PM feeding time, when a few smelt are tossed to it, another alteration of lifestyle for a bird ordinarily prone to snatch insects off lawns and cattle yards. I saw it on January 31, 2000, so another year has been added to its legend.
No one knows the secret life of McCatty, and it is as much a mystery as that of Freddy the roadrunner. The marvelous flying ability of birds enables them to come and go in perfect freedom, and man the watcher can simply witness those remarkable flights and try to understand the reason of migration and wildlife distribution and consider wonders like the strange presence of Freddy and McCatty - special birds adopted by local bird lovers.
I am saddened to think of those lonely birds, Freddy and McCatty, confronting the challenges of life without comrades to interact with. At least, it has not been established that there are two roadrunners on Kelly Ridge. It is that Ishi feeling, of being the last of a group in a world of strangers.
At one time there had to be a last Passenger Pigeon before they became extinct. Imagine the futility of it all - the last one with time ticking toward the end. I can only muse about those endings, and feel a tinge of sympathy for their fate. Or do I read it wrong? Does the roadrunner or the Cattle Egret prefer the hermit mode and the fullness of freedom? No wonder the Audubon Society has a hotline for rare bird sightings. You never know what you will see!
© 2000 Rex Burress
February 1, 2000