Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

What LA's booming coyote population means for the roadrunner

by Jed Kim | Take Two®

Biological Consultant Dan Cooper, environmental science student Evan Lashly and Park Ranger Anthony Bevilacqa begin their search for roadrunners in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation area. Rebecca Hill/KPCC

Now for the second in our series on wild animals in Los Angeles. First, Jed Kim examined how we’re dealing with a growing coyote population. Now, he looks at what that growth means for the age-old struggle between Coyotes and Roadrunners.  

In the cartoons, it’s always the roadrunner that succeeds and the coyote that fails.  In Los Angeles, it’s the opposite - at least when it comes to population. If you ever want to see a coyote, chances are all you need to do is drive around your neighborhood at night. To see a roadrunner, though, takes a bit of work. 

Dan Cooper is an environmental biologist who does wildlife surveys around Los Angeles. He’s agreed to take me to try to find a roadrunner in the wild, so we’re driving to the Satwiwa National Recreation Area at the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a pristine spot where he’s seen a roadrunner before.

[The roadrunner] used to be found all over LA, and you know, in recent decades, its range has sort of contracted to these very wild open areas,” said Cooper. 

As we get out of the car, we’re joined by a park ranger Anthony Bevilacqua and Evan Lashly, a student who Dan is mentoring. Lashly is an environmental sciences major, and he’s doing his senior thesis project on species that have been designated as “of concern” by various federal and state agencies.

"I’m surveying for, trying to confirm the presence of rare species in the Santa Monica Mountains. One of the critters on my list is a roadrunner, in fact," said Lashly. “I’ve got about 25-ish species on the list, and so far I’ve found about five. You know, they’re rare, and so I’m looking for them for that reason. And so it’s not so easy to find a lot of these guys.” 

Two things help when searching for roadrunners. First, knowing that they don’t actually go "meep meep."  The second trick is to go with people who know where to look. Ranger Bevilacqua leads bird walks for the park, and it doesn’t take long before he makes a sighting.  

It’s important to note, in this case, rare doesn’t mean endangered. It means rare to the area. The Greater Roadrunner is all over the desert., it’s just that they used to be around so much more in places like the Getty Center, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks; Places that used to have more open land. Roadrunners feed on reptiles and lizards, and they need wide open spaces to find them. As those kinds of space have dwindled, so has the roadrunner. 

“It’s hard to put a number on how many were back there, but we just know now there are just a handful of pairs total in the Santa Monica Mountains," said Cooper. "I mean, probably 10 or fewer wouldn’t surprise me if it’s that low.” 

Despite that low number, we have quite a bit of success, and soon I get to see a roadrunner with my own eyes. They really are fun to watch, and they do kind of resemble their cartoon counterpart, if maybe a little shorter. When they run, they stick their long tails straight out behind them and fishtail through turns like speedboats. 

Then it’s like a roadrunner bonanza. We see five, maybe six different ones. Good numbers, but still, Ranger Bevilacqua expresses concern for the roadrunners. Habitat encroachment will continue, and then there are always predators. In fact, at one of the sightings, we see a coyote hanging out on an adjacent hillside.

Unlike the roadrunner, which has a pretty limited diet, coyotes will eat almost anything, which is why they're far outpacing roadrunners in the real world, even if they aren’t preying on them. Maybe that means more people will root for the roadrunner from now on. 

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