Roadrunners in winter, part 3 of a series

Hanging around in between other people’s doings is what I am doing these days.  First my daughter’s wedding, then my move to Fresno, where she has moved with her new husband.  The apartment I have dibs on is not yet ready.  Thus I spend long days still in Mountain View, fitfully packing, chatting with Elf and Opus, and watching Netflix…

So here’s Part 3 of my series from a 1990s blog in New Mexico, about the seasonal habits of roadrunners.  These characters are so much fun to observe, and their interactions with donkeys sometimes almost caused me to choke from laughing so hard…

Lying in wait in the depths of our big wisteria tree, this roadie was so fixated on a bird feeder hanging on a lower branch that he never moved as I filled it.  The sneaky posture is so snakelike it seems quite natural that Roadrunners frequently catch and devour large rattlesnakes…

Roadies in Winter

As the cool days and icy nights of the high desert winter shrivel plants, send the largest grasshoppers and crickets to arid sandy sepulchres and deliver lizards to hibernation recesses inaccessible to roadrunners, the omnivorous birds scout food over widening areas.  They crouch in tree limbs near bird feeders, scoot along fence lines where windblown detritus is most likely to contain torpid insects and snakes, patrol hay stacks for mice,  poke around manure piles for edible larvae and large insects lurking in warm compost.

The first lemon and peach lights of a midwinter’s dawn sky often reveal large flocks of crows gathered in the donkey paddock.  Like a gaggle of pokey window-shoppers in a mall, these somber suited birds meander through dead weeds, pausing to drink at the stock tank.

The long grey sword of a beak brandished by the roadrunner cleaves the flock in twain as crows drop their dignity to squawk and scatter.  Body gliding, legs pedalling, the dashing bird rides an invisible bicycle, shooting into the heart of the crow flock.  Beak aimed for a sleek, black chest, topknot ruffled high, the roadrunner drives like a missile to the target.  No matter that the moment he scatters the crows one will inevitably swoop back to tap his long downcurved tail, causing him to spring to a fence for safety.  He has to pace dogs, spook donkeys and charge crows.


Because it is the nature of roadrunners to indulge in activities which baffle the rest of us.

As the desert sun steams crystal ice off crisp brown weeds in the paddock, the agile roadrunner foots a mile between himself and slow-motion crows, scooting along the dirt side of a drainage ditch looking for breakfast.

What a pity his beak won’t grin.


Over in California’s Bay Area right now, here is a resident rodent (sort of sounds like roadrunner, doesn’t that?) doing what it loves — teasing Elf and Opus during a mid-day walk.


Roadrunner seasons: Fall

This is the second installment about Roadrunners in the desert west.  The season this time is fall

Roadrunner atop the donkeys’ cement block shed, hollering his war cry.  Quick sketch by Emily A. Lee

In our early years in unincorporated county south of Albuquerque one roadrunner frequently enjoyed a sunbath atop the shed in the corner of the weedy paddock.  Lizards, horned toads, garter snakes and grasshoppers abounded below in the days before our growing long eared herd finished chewing off the weeds.  The view was clear and the flat roof offered shade, thanks to a vigorous young Siberian elm.

One day the bird sought the roof after his morning round of hunting, packed full of grasshoppers and Iams for Less Active Dogs, the latter from our patio.  Skilled stalker, he’d been indulging in a favorite activity, shadowing neighborhood dogs.  Pace for pace he pursued them, freezing inches from a waving tail if the owner paused, gliding when he ambled, matching motions as perfectly as a distorted shadow.  Dogs unfailingly conducted business with no suspicion of what brought up the rear.

The bird’s performance could very well be the reason why cops and detectives “tail” someone.  Except they’d have to follow superlatively invisible to match the skill of Roadrunner.

Now Roadrunner fluffed raggedy feathers, bared a dark patch on his back and dozed.

Jasper, the donkey, had recently joined our family.  Black on top, white on belly and nose, hot in desert sun, he paused for a snack at his hay tub in front of the shed .  I left yard chores to scratch his neck and ears as he munched.  And then…

Above us the bird opened white-gold eyes to pinpoint the source of crunching.  A cautious step brought him to the edge of the roof, where abruptly he let out a sharp, rattling “ZZZZTTTT” — much like a power screwdriver.

Jasper in 1995, about the time of this event 

Jasper levitated, ears whirling.  Whamming backwards, I hit the shed.  Four hooves landed, aimed precisely 180 degrees away from the hay tub as donkey streaked across the field, volleys of heehaws expressing his state of mind.  Moments later the bird raced from the roof, hot on the trail of lizards.   No glee for him — this was all in a day’s work.

There was I pressed against the sun-warmed concrete block shed with the echoes, alone.

Weeks passed, bringing the area a late fall cold spell.  One windy day the roadrunner took another nap in the sun, this time on the good warm ground.  He fluffed pointy feathers and veiled his bright, white eyes.

Jasper noisily shook his ears as he edged along fences, nibbling weeds.  By now these were his fences.  He knew the way around inch by inch, including the dried remains of every bindweed that wove its way through the wires in summer.  Hooves silent in the loose soil, he munched ever closer to the dozing bird until he stood just behind, his shadow angled away in the honey glow of the sun’s late afternoon rays.  Up went his head.  With a mincing step forward the donkey set a hoof gently down on the roadrunner’s back.

Tailfeathers from … guess!

Feathers flying in all directions, the startled bird took his turn shooting across the field.


After that a truce took effect:  that particular roadrunner did his ground sunbathing elsewhere and he never hollered from the shed roof again, either.


And here with the musical thought for this post is the remarkable Silvio Rodriguez of Cuba.  The music of his long career as a folk singer and guitar master never fails to inspire creative visions.  This song could be designed for Roadrunners — as it is called I Dream of Snakes.  Sueño con Serpientes.

Sueño is a metaphor about ridding oneself of nasty things only to find them coming back bigger than ever.










The pink donkey applies her smarts

Gigi soon after her release from the quarantine pen

Gigi was a slender, pink roan donkey jenny, half an inch shy of being what people classify as mammoth.  She was smart, the boss of her  companions.   And she was possessed immense powers of observations, as well as uncanny skills which we will hear more about soon.

Gigi spent her first six months on a small ranch of 300-some acres in the rippled plains of south Texas.  Her forebears had arrived two decades earlier,  where mesquite — some grown into enormous trees — stood alongside oak, hickory,  bushy huisache and plenty of brush.  And prickly pear, miles of it.

Those forebears had come through a BLM auction in Arizona, as many as would fit into a good sized stock trailer, to be turned loose on the place in South Texas, where they were often left to their own devices.  There was, for a few years, a man who took a great interest in them, visiting from Houston, sometimes for long periods at the ranch. Eventually he grew sick and the donkeys did not see him any more.  They did remember the stench of cancer, however.

From time to time long horned cattle shared the scanty bounties the land had to offer.  A local veterinarian leased some of the acreage for them, hunters paid to bag mule deer, dove shoots took place every spring. These things are how some ranches survive in the region.

The ferocious weather did what it always does in South Texas — floods the land four feet deep in low spots or hurls drought at it till the earth spits apart and wildfires rage.  In between there are lots and lots of fiestas amongst the people of the area.

Over the years the nearly wild donkeys learned about the dry oven-like and humid sauna conditions that made up well over half the year in those parts.  They endured the flash floods for which the region is infamous, and the great droughts that left the cattle with nothing but prickly pear cactus to survive on.  Over time the parched earth gleamed with plenty of bleached cattle bones alongside the more delicate ones of the donkey herd.

The nearly wild donkeys watched the weekend rancher in his worn out jeans or shorts as he went around with a weed burner — trying to flame vicious thorns off the myriad prickly pear for the cattle.  At other times they watched him doing his best to ignite the thin, dry grass of late winter into enough of a fire to bring on fresh green grass the next time it should rain. The fires seldom caught, much, but the donkeys would throw themselves down onto the burnt patches, rolling and grunting with that immense pleasure they take in getting dust rubbed all over themselves.

They saw the man clearing weeds in places around the ranch’s few stock tanks, at other times shaking his head as the tanks dried out for lack of rain. They also watched his scowl deepen as armadillos bumbled their way across the land, leaving deep holes wherever they dug for food.  The man would grab them by their tails and swing their heads against whatever tree or wall was handy.

When Gigi was born there was only that one man taking care of the ranch. He did spend a couple of weekends a month there, repairing   fences, buildings, equipment, bush hogging encroaching brush, setting up blinds for deer hunters, feasts for dove hunters.

Nobody was around when the tiny jenny made her appearance into this harsh world, so nobody knew how her front left pastern came to be so badly broken.  When the weekend rancher arrived one day he was surprised to find a mature jenny leading a badly limping foal.  He summoned a vet to bind the leg and did his best to keep an eye on her.

Months later there was only a slight limp.  Baby bones had healed well.  Which was good, since the friendly jenny found herself climbing into a beat up horse trailer, rumbling and jiggling along unpaved ranch roads, away from her herd.  Across dusty, arid West Texas and the Llano Estacado of eastern New Mexico — said to be the flattest spot on earth — she rode, and then up and up, a mile and a half high, slightly down again, through the southern Rockies.

There she — and the strange stick-walking woman who drove the truck to which her own clatterling chamber was attached — promptly ran into a terrific haboob.  A high desert sandstorm that, for 80 mph traffic, reduced visibility from ten miles to 0 — in under ten seconds.

There were uncomfortable maneuvers and a couple of startled brays from Gigi before the punishing sandblasting ended, and there she was, descending from the trailer, led into a small panel corral.  Beside it her future companion — Jasper, the former pack donkey from the Navajo Reservation — was so excited to see another donkey that he took off buckfarting and braying all over the dry lot he lived on.

Gigi had landed  in the middle of New Mexico, joining a family who loved donkeys a lot more than they understood them.  Which suited the red roan girl just fine.

One of the first items to be settled was a name for the new girl.  The three humans lined up to take turns saying — loudly — the names they had in mind for her.  Three sets of eyes were fixed on her, awaiting reactions.  When the name Gigi elicited a particularly alert look on her part the jenny got her name.

She took on her manners fast enough during her days of quarantine in that panel corral.

Gigi in her small corral

Shocked to find that her new humans did not take kindly to normal donkey herd antics like quick nips to the shoulder and kicks to the shin, she would start to take a chomp or let fly a hind hoof, only to freeze, then rescind the motion as though nothing had happened.


Trying to let them know that she, Donkey, was the boss of them, Humans, she would start to drape her big head over someone’s shoulder, which would quite abruptly be removed.

But she did get her lessons down very well, outwardly.  Inside, the pink donkey held onto her innate wildness.  She could work her system to her own advantage when she wanted to.

The food was steady, the water tank filled afresh daily, her short Texas winter coat gently brushed out in a hot New Mexico spring.  The carrots and apples were great, especially since they appeared  faster than they had back there in the bigger, wilder herd.

She and Jasper — who was at least as clever as she was, Gigi rapidly discovered — settled their territorial disputes in no time.  Gigi was allowed to assume the natural dominance of jenny over jack or gelding.  In the wild jack donkeys form loose bands and stay there for much of their lives.  Jasper, however, excelled in shrugging off Gigi’s bossiness by pretending to be a stud herd all his own.

The people went to work, the girl to school — and there she was, this pink donkey who had once had hundreds of acres to roam upon, confined to an enclosure ringed with oil field pipe and wire mesh — about half an acre.  She could see far and wide, though exercise was confined to circular gallops with Jasper, round and round till the two would collapse for side-by-side rolls in the dust.

Resting after rain
Jasper, Gigi and Ambrose, the pinto donkey who took Chipper’s place, lounging in mud after a thunderstorm.  Oso the German Shepherd was limping in his leg brace after pulling an ACL.

Boredom set in.

Lessons learned at her mother’s shoulder resurfaced in Gigi’s quick donkey brain.  Dovey, a champion lock picker, had taught her offspring well.  But this tiny place had lock challenges less often encountered on the Texas ranch.

Gigi was not familiar with the chain link locks that included the gates to her paddock.  A plan of attack was hatched ….  For days she ambled gently after the man who picked up manure and chopped back some of the six foot ragweed every day.  For her private amusement she frequently tipped over the wheelbarrow of dung when he was turned away.

Shuffling along quietly behind him when he opened and closed the big gate, she kept a brilliant eye — half hidden beneath her thick forehead fringe — on what moved, rattled, shook and stayed still around that big old gate.

One day a bolt fell out, the man leaned down to retrieve and refasten the thing and Gigi knew what she had to do.

Donkeys were not endowed with their strong, flexible, prehensile lips for nothing.  Those lips, with sensitive whiskers, serve donkeys well in their natural niche as browsers.  They are unlike horses in their specialized relation to the land as they do not really graze.  Using those lips they  finesse bites of soft grass, woody shoots or leaves out from amongst things like sharp thorns, crevices and fences.  They learn how to bite off and carefully chew all manner of thorny things.

Jasper and Gigi chomping dried, viciously prickled tumbleweed at their big gate.
Me, in those donkey days, reading Andy Merrifield’s wonderful book: The Wisdom of Donkeys, Finding Tranquillity in a Chaotic World.  …  The particular chaos of donkeys includes — you might like to know – eating books.  But they never got this one.

In barns and pens they unfasten girths, remove one another’s fly masks, pluck their halters and lead ropes from hooks, carry buckets, toss large rubber balls, run side by side with another donkey as each holds one end of a long stick, fling plastic chairs  — and undo screws.


Gigi had her eye on a rose garden a few acres away from her fence line.  The lavish garden had been slowly established on the far side of a weedy field by people who first built a spacious home for their retirement.

Surrounded as she was by five foot fencing, the only way Gigi could see to getting into that garden of prickly delights was to undo the gate when no one was around to stop her.

And so, every day for a good long while Gigi watched her people drive off and disappear into the home office to write, then settled into the tedious process of removing nuts from bolts holding the chain link to the gate post.  Some of those nuts were frozen in place after years in the sun, rain and snow, yet they gave way to infinite donkey patience — and those strong lips of hers.

Next the determined jenny began pushing the bolts out.  She started at the bottom, and the humans failed to notice that the chain link was slowly, ever so slowly, coming away from the post.

That is, not until the day when the woman drove into the yard to see zero donkeys standing at the gate with their usual welcoming brays going full blast.  A crooked, bulging gap separated chain link from its post and also suggested the exit of round bellied creatures.

A visual search of the loafing shed and stalls established that there were no donkeys present.

In due course the human noticed unusual motions down the street in that rose garden…  What a very big butt was sticking out of some distinctly short rose bushes!

A few minutes to get down there with her daughter, find that the neighbors were not at home — and that there were not many roses, either.  Just two sleek, well fed donkeys gazing benignly at the glaring humans.  Ready to trip their dainty way back down the road, just in time for:  Dinner!


If there was ever a song that expresses what I feel in remembering the 15 years I had with my donkeys and mule, it would be this one, sung by Mercedes Sosa and Joan Baez:  Gracias a la Vida