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Reprise 10: Canyonland Roadrunner Captured on Film

April 28, 2020

Editor’s Note: Entry number ten in our tenth anniversary march of time was originally posted 4-1-12 and is fourteenth in overall popularity. It was the eagerly-awaited third installment in our SMBAS Monograph Series – Spring Quarter.


While the official consensus of the western American ornithological community is that there is only one form of Geococcyx californianus, the Greater Roadrunner, there have long been whispers in back corridors of biological institutions scattered across the western states that the systematics of this species are  more complex than officially recognized, even – it was hinted – that evidence of this complexity had been suppressed by mysterious persons with sinister motives.   This suspicion was strengthened recently when the unique and until-now elusive central New Mexican form was captured on newly-developed high-speed film equipment.   Close examination of this footage by specialists in Geococcyx revealed a bird quite unlike the form familiar to Americans from California to Oklahoma.   Leading roadrunner specialist, Dr. Thaddeus “kook” Kookaburra, BS, MS., PhD, LSMFT, avers it is a new species altogether.  “Well,” said Dr. Kookaburra, located in his laboratory at Central Texas University – Midland: “We will of course make our final determination after a full DNA analysis has been completed, but just look at it, for cryin’ out loud!   It’s completely different!    Any idiot can see that!” he said, laughing loudly.   Calming down, he added,   “In my humble scientific opinion of course.  We’re calling it the ‘Canyonland Roadrunner’.”

Widespread nominate form of Greater Roadrunner – Geococcyx californianus. (G.Commeau photo)

Numerous Morphological Differences
One frame of the film sequence is reproduced below.   A cursory comparison of the two forms reveals certain morphological differences. In the new bird (G. c. sp. nov.) overall plumage is a plain, unstreaked gray to blue-gray.   Crown feathers extend into a dark, long and flowing crest.   Eyes are located at the front of the head, rather than the side, presumably producing improved frontal binocular vision while impairing peripheral vision.   The bill is thick and upcurved, giving the bird a permanent amused expression.   The neck is extremely elongated and slender, resembling that of an egret more than the nominate G.californianus.   Wings are stunted, extending only slightly past the base of the tail; primaries are so weak and abbreviated that the bird must be flightless, and indeed, has never been seen to leave the ground, except when suddenly accelerating or making a U-turn.   The tail is long and flowing, unlike the stiffened retrices of the nominate form.   The body is extremely small.   The legs are very long, especially the tarsometatarsi; again, they resemble those of an egret rather than the typical roadrunner.   The feet are disproportionately large and thick.

Taxonomic Problems, Classification Uncertain
According to Dr. Kookaburra, this bird presents several taxonomic problems, causing it’s classification to remain far from certain.

Plumage – Nominate form is dark brown above with whitish edging on the back feathers, lighter brown below, cryptic plumage in its brushy, rocky habitat.   The Canyonland form is gray with gray-blue wings and crest.   In brush it would be easily seen by predators; on highways it blends in well with the gray pavement.   Dust clouds kicked up by its large feet are often the only indication of its presence.
Long Crest feathers – Do they serve a function other than sexual attraction for a prospective mate?
Cervical Vertebrae – How many are there?    Until an actual specimen is obtained – a difficult endeavor – this cannot be determined.
Digestive System – The torso is so small, one wonders how it can contain a system capable of digesting anything, yet it must contain systems for respiration, circulation and reproduction as well.
Feet – Bioengineers quickly see the problem of having large, fleshy, weighty feet on the ends of long, thin legs; every step tends to throw the creature off balance.   It’s incredible speed demonstrates that somehow evolution overcame this problem.   The feet may be quite light, like foam rubber, and serve as insulation from the hot, stony surfaces prevalent in its habitat.   If so, this is a unique adaptation.
Voice:  The nominate roadrunner call is a series of 5-10 soft “coos”, much like that of many other members of Cuculiformes, as well as many Columbiformes species.   The call of G. c. sp. nov. (G.accelleratii-incredulus if full species status is accepted) is radically different: a two-note call, described variably as  “meep meep,” “beep beep” or “bweep bweep;” the tone resembles that of the horn of a very small car.

The problem of the cervical vertebrae and several other important morphological and behavioral differences has led some ornithologists, particularly Dr. Kookaburra, to maintain this to be not just a new species, not just a new avian Family, but a unique and monotypic Order, tentatively called “Rapidiaviiformes,” or “fast-bird-form.”

Rare photo of “Canyonland” Roadrunner in motion. (tentatively G.c.accelleratii-incredulus)

Not Significantly Different, says Expert
Leading spokesman for the the opposing viewpoint is Dr. William C. Oyote, Vice President in charge of Pursuit Vehicle Research at Acme Industries, and world-renowned expert on G.californianus.   We met at his research facility at Acme Industries Plaza,  located on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM.   Dr. Oyote, who prefers the sobriquet “Dr. Willie” [pronounced ‘Wiley’ locally], was elegantly dressed in a long fur jacket and pants, despite the 110° temperature outside.   I asked about the origin of his odd name.   “First American,” he replied.   “My people go back a long, long way in these parts.   We honor all those who call it home, including roadrunners.   Especially roadrunners,” he added, with a wide, toothy grin.

“I have studied this high-speed footage in detail,” he mused, ” and frankly, I don’t see anything warranting species status.   Those who speak of elevation to new family or even order status are – in a word – cuckoo.  I grew up in this region of New Mexico, as I said, and in my younger years became well acquainted with this species in general and this local morph in particular.   And that’s all it is: a regional color morph with a few insignificant phenotypical variations, well within the general range of variation for this species.   They’re fast and they look slightly odd, but that’s all.   Their apparent preference for highways is an illusion:  people often see them there because that’s where people usually are.   I call that “the streetlight effect.”   Like most cuckoos, these birds are not very bright, and they elude easy capture only because of their speed.  Their flavor is rather delicate: a delightful blend of Western Fence Lizard, sage and southern-slope cactus fruit.   This bird needs no special protection; they take care of themselves quite well, and there’s plenty of them out there, if you know where to look.”

The complete film – first ever for this interesting bird – was removed from YouTube by evildoers (They who shall not be named), but alternate footage of a later sighting can be found here:
Warning:  This film contains scenes some viewers may find disturbing.   Natural selection in action is often not pretty to see.

Those who found this article plausible, should also read:
2011:   New Hummingbird Species Discovered in Los Angeles County!
2010:  The Western Roof-Owl: Bird of Mystery
[Chuck Almdale]

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