Unforgettable: Southern Utahns chatter about roadrunners after sighting of unique bird

ST. GEORGE — “Mheep! Mheep!”

A roadrunner wanders near the Virgin River, St. George, Utah, July 13, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Greater roadrunners, or California earth-cuckoos, are “the most famous bird in the southwest,” gracing folklore and classic cartoons filled with high jinks and coyotes, according to Audubon. These speedy critters occupy Utah’s southwest corner, blending in with desert shrubbery or, in rare cases, grabbing the spotlight with snow-white plumage.

The birds are known for their long tails and “expressive” crests, Audubon states. They boast mottled feathers in streaks of black and tan with hints of green and blue.

Roadrunners can be found in shrubby, rocky landscapes speckled with short trees in the desert hills throughout the southwest. While uncommon, the species is “fairly widely distributed,” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesperson Adam Kavalunas told St. George News.

In St. George, the ground-based species is often found near subdivisions, where there are fewer predators, or on golf courses where there is plenty of water and food, Kavalunas said.

A roadrunner wanders near the Virgin River, St. George, Utah, July 13, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“I bet they’re actually out on the course quite often,” he said, adding, “There’s always a lot of life around a golf course because of the amount of water.”

Throughout the summer, multiple SunRiver residents reported sighting rare white roadrunners, but it’s unclear if the birds are albino or leucistic — phenomena affecting approximately 1 in 30,000 birds, with leucism being much more common, Kavalunas said.

While albino animals have no melanin, causing their eyes to appear pink as you can see their blood vessels, leucistic critters’ eyes come in common colors, like black.

White specimens typically lead shorter lives as they “stick out like a sore thumb,” making them easier prey than their mottled counterparts, Kavalunas said. Additionally, they are more likely to have skin and eye issues as melanin protects these “vital surfaces” from sun damage.

A white roadrunner suns in St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Sharon Goetzman, St. George News

The birds were seen resting in shaded yards, racing along the Virgin River Trail and sprinting near the SunRiver Golf Course. One couple saw the roadrunner wandering through yellow grasses as they took their morning walk, while another local discovered the elusive creature perched on a branch.

Residents excitedly chattered about the bird, pointing those carrying cameras in the direction of previous sightings, but few were lucky enough to capture it.

Roadrunners often sun themselves until midmorning before retreating to shade as the afternoon sun bakes the city later in the day. They can also be seen racing across the landscape in the cooler evening hours.

Roadrunners commonly hunt insects, lizards, snakes and small birds or mammals. According to the National Wildlife Federation, their predators include “raccoons, hawks, and, of course, coyotes.” Various sources report that roadrunners can run 15-25 mph, with a faster sprint when giving chase, and fly only when necessary.

Two roadrunners interact, St. George, Utah, July 9, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

While roadrunners are often solitary creatures, they may also mate for life. Males put on displays to attract mates, sometimes dangling food offerings from their beaks or wagging their tails and bowing while cooing, the federation states.

A mating pair typically produces between two to eight eggs, colored white or pale yellow. Both parents feed the young, but occasionally they are “brood parasites,” sneaking their eggs into another bird’s nest. Once hatched, the fledglings begin hunting after about three weeks and reach maturity in two to three years.

While the birds are not federally protected, the federation states that some areas have seen a “significant drop in roadrunner numbers over the past few decades.” And while they are not hunted in Utah, illegal shooting is still a threat to the species, along with traffic and habitat loss or fragmentation.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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