I Was a Roadrunner Grandmother
Regular readers will remember my excitement at becoming a roadrunner grandmother last spring. Much like with human grandchildren—according to the universal complaint—visits have been few and far between since then. For most of the summer, I didn’t see the two juveniles—or their parents—at all. I know my monastic Buddhist neighbors buy chicken and feed it to them raw (though they themselves are vegetarian), so I figured that what my dad used to call “cupboard love” had won out.
Then recently, one of the youngsters showed up and started hanging out with me, following me around as I gardened or did chores outside. I was happy to have a little buddy to talk to. Roadrunners are surprisingly conversant and are very good listeners.
This one took up sleeping in the corner of the garden shed, like its (real) grandparents used to do. Unlike the previous generation, this kid was in bed before sunset and stayed put until the sun was high in the sky. Its predecessors were on the hunt before sunrise and didn’t hit the hay until well after dark. Maybe knowing there’s a supply of raw chicken next door makes a roadrunner lazy.
This “garden shed”—basically an open area with two walls and a corrugated plastic roof—was the favorite nesting spot for the mourning doves this spring. There was a rolled up sun shade under a potting table that three different mothers-to-be set up shop on top of. All three were killed by something in the night, leaving behind a pile of feathers and a nest with abandoned eggs each time.
It’s my understanding that the male picks the nesting spot and flaunts his real estate holdings in the courting ritual. So I was quite pissed that this ding dong wannabe dad sent three brides to their death. By dead wife #3, he finally got the message and moved the next one elsewhere.
I suspected my beloved roadrunners had gotten the doves. I mentioned this to a wise, longtime desert dweller who said “cat.”
It’s true that bobcats have traditionally roamed the area, and my security camera once caught a young mountain lion on my porch, but with the near extinction of the rabbit population do to the tragic “bunny ebola,” I haven’t seen as many critters here as I used to. This could explain why a cat might have bounded the fence and come in so close to the house. Still, having seen roadrunners in action, I did wonder if the grandkids were the culprits.
Then one morning, I saw this pile of roadrunner feathers—where I’d previously seen dove feathers—and I was truly shocked.
The crumpled chicken wire below the roadrunner’s sleeping corner indicated something sizable had attacked it. The telltale footprints in the dust on the table confirmed what that wise desert dweller had said regarding the doves: “cat.”
My hope was that it was simply a scuffle and that the roadrunner had gotten away—minus a few feathers but still kicking. After all, roadrunners are tough motherfuckers. That cat probably got way more than it had bargained for, a classic case of “you oughta see the other guy.” My buddy was likely spooked and hiding out—I thought—but after a few chicken dinners next door, it would soon be back, following me around the yard.
Then, one evening a week or so later, I found its stiff little body under the big tree in my yard—strange little feet pointing heavenward.
I was on the phone with an old friend at the time. My friend and his longtime partner both had the Covid, but were recovering. I gave him a ton of unsolicited advice while I dug a hole at the base of a rock, by the light of a headlamp strapped to my forehead.
Something about the experience—talking with a sick friend in an age-stratified higher risk category, while digging a grave—brought up a crushing feeling of grief and a sense of our looming mortality.
When the grave was ready, I broke off the roadrunner’s exquisite tail feathers—both because they wouldn’t fit in the hole and because they were so beautiful—then covered my little pal with dirt. I stuck the tail feathers in the ground as a grave marker.
I no longer experience the big cries I once did, where the flow of tears literally dehydrates me and leaves me crumpled in a fetal position. Best I can muster these days are a few big drops that splash onto my glasses, leaving salty trails to dry on the lenses. I had a good cry that night, though. The roadrunner’s death dredged up buried sadness like a badly knitted row that has to be ripped out but soon leads to the destruction of the entire scarf, pulling out row after row until nothing is left but a pile of yarn on the floor.
Two days later, I was in the kitchen when I heard the familiar chirp of a roadrunner trying to get my attention at the sliding glass door. Despite our collective cartoon memory, the sound roadrunners make is nothing like “meep meep.” It’s more like a Tommy gun from an old gangster movie, but can also be a single loud bark. I went to the glass door. It was the other juvenile. It walked across the yard, to the grave. It made another single bark, knocked the feathers over, looked at me, and walked away.
I’m here to tell you, you’ve never been called an asshole until a wild animal calls you an asshole.
A week after that I heard a loud, mournful wail, like a big animal caught in a trap. I went outside. The sound stopped. As I turned to go back in, the mournful howl resumed, even louder. The brother or sister of the dead roadrunner was at the very top of the big tree, crying. As a cuckoo, roadrunners have a wide vocal range. This particular sound was one I’d never heard before, and hope to never hear again.
“I didn’t do it,” I yelled up to it. “I miss him, too.” The bird fell silent. Then it dropped from the tree and ran off.
I hope it comes back sometime, but it seems unlikely.