Cochise County: The Complex Relationship Between Male and Female Greater Roadrunners (Californianus Geococcyx)

Californianus geococcyx, the greater roadrunner, is a common sight in Cochise County…but we’ve read nothing about the complex romantic relationship between the genders. This is not terribly surprising when one considers the difficulty in telling boy bird from girl bird. They look pretty much alike, right down to the head crest feathers that can be raised or lowered at will.

Today, however, I was blessed with the opportunity to observe a roadrunner pair in obvious courtship mode. There are plenty of folks who raise skeptical eyebrows at the very idea that Pam and I can often “sense” the difference in genders when we’re watching various species of wildlife be, you know, wild. Yet we can. Not always, admittedly. Give us a pair, though, let us eyeball their interactions for a while, and we often end up knowing.

Masculinity and femininity are traits that show themselves across the board.

The photo op? I had stopped briefly at Allen’s abode and was coming back down a dirt street, heading for Ramsey, when the birds made their appearance. Usually, stopping the truck and rolling down the window is enough to spook the average roadrunner off into deep cover. When a couple of birds can think of nothing but each other, that wary survival rule goes bye-bye. Not unlike us humans.

First, since he was out in the open and standing tall, the male had his picture taken.

Male greater roadrunner, Californianus geococcyx.  His mate is several yards behind him, hanging out in the grass.

Male greater roadrunner, Californianus geococcyx. His mate is several yards behind him, hanging out in the grass.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these two “Jack” and “Jill.”

Jack looks back, checks on Jill, calling out to her. These roadrunners have a gentle call, almost like a dove except with a rolling “R” sound–or at least that’s the best way we’ve found to describe it. Sort of a soft “K-R-R-R.” Jack isn’t the least worried about the dude sitting in the truck with his camera clicking away; he’s all about the lady.

Looking back toward his mate, uttering his trademark soft "K-R-R-R" sound.

Looking back toward his mate, uttering his trademark soft “K-R-R-R” sound.

On her part, Jill seems to attempt to think things through. First, she keeps an eye on Jack’s position.

Jill, the girl roadrunner, keeping an eye on her mate.

Jill, the girl roadrunner, keeping an eye on her mate.

Unlike the oblivious male, Jill also takes a moment to look me over.

Looking straight at the camera.

Looking straight at the camera.

Satisfied that I’m no immediate threat, she replies to Jack’s call.

Replying to her mate's call.

Replying to her mate’s call.

As it happens, a huge, beautiful, healthy prickly pear cactus looms in the background.

That's one fine looking prickly pear cactus.

That’s one fine looking prickly pear cactus.

Watching two roadrunners court is in large part a matter of watching a game of follow the leader. Jill finally takes off, leaving the grass, dashing across open ground in front of the big cactus in order to join up–more or less–with Jack.

Jill dashes to get closer to Jack.

Jill dashes to get closer to Jack.

Her feathers clearly a bit ruffled, Jill cuts a bit to the left.  She has a sneaky plan in mind.

Her feathers clearly a bit ruffled, Jill cuts a bit to the left. She has a sneaky plan in mind.

Interestingly, follow the leader (greater roadrunner style) is not completely straightforward. Instead of simply coming up behind her mate and meekly admitting, “Okay, here I am,” she circles around a mesquite tree…and squats, wings lifted, in obvious invitation. Feminine wiles in action, and she definitely gets Jack’s attention.

Jill makes her intentions clear.

Jill makes her intentions clear.

The drama between these two increases. When Jack simply stands there in slack-beaked amazement, Jill turns around in a bit of a huff, not impressed one bit with her boy bird’s lack of romantic action. She looks as miffed as any human girl might in a similar situation, though the homo sapiens female would most likely choose different surroundings than a stickery mesquite tree overhead and plain old dirt below.

At this point, Jill is not impressed with her boy bird.

At this point, Jill is not impressed with her boy bird.

Jill tries again. Surely not even Jack can ignore such a friendly offer, right? And admittedly, the male is intrigued, his back to the camera now, giving her a good looking over.

Jill tries again.  Jack thinks it over.

Jill tries again. Jack thinks it over.

Jack, no fool he, decides he is having none of it. Instead, he takes off, heading back north, abandoning the more than willing female. She turns in shock, staring after him.

Jill in shock at Jack's sudden departure.  "I can't believe he did that!"

Jill in shock at Jack’s sudden departure. “I can’t believe he did that!”

In the end, Jill isn’t about to let Jack get away. He has a forty foot head start by the time she decides to chase after him, but the frustrated girl bird cranks it up to high roadrunner gear in short order.

Jill is a blur as she chases after her husband.

Jill is a blur as she chases after her husband.

"Don't think you can get away without fertilizing these eggs!"

“Don’t think you can get away without fertilizing these eggs!”

The roles in this complicated relationship, the oblivious male trying to ignore the estrogen-fueled female, could have as well have been played by young adult humans. As someone who believes in reincarnation, I had to laugh. Perhaps the couples we’ve known who acted like this were simply repeating old habit patterns they’d acquired during past lives as greater roadrunners?

Or perhaps not. However that may be, I do hope that young roadrunner pair ended up getting a room.