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D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     May 2005

Big Bird

Las Cruces' giant roadrunner sculpture celebrates its fifth anniversary along I-10. But the only "Beep! Beep!" you'll hear will be from passing cars.

By Melody Groves, Photos by Myke Groves
 

After long hours driving on Interstate 10, you might not be surprised to see a roadrunner on the outskirts of Las Cruces. But a really big roadrunner? Really, really big? Twenty feet tall and 40 feet long? Don't worry: You're not hallucinating.

Made entirely from recycled parts, the roadrunner sculpture now guards the western entrance to the Mesilla Valley.

As locals and regulars at the rest area near mile marker 134 surely know, this regal roadrunner, perched on the west mesa overlooking Las Cruces like a sentinel guarding the Mesilla Valley, is a sculpture. This month marks the fifth anniversary of the roadrunner's perching in its current location, in May 2000.

But what you may not know is that the giant roadrunner is stuffed. And this is where it gets really interesting. It's stuffed with. . . stuff. All kinds of stuff—rejected tennis shoes, old computer keyboards, bicycle tires, broken hair dryers, plastic plates, paint brushes, along with a myriad of unidentifiable "objets de trash."

In fact, the entire bird sculpture comes from trash. The body of the bird is composed of wire fencing and sturdy material found at the city's sanitary landfill, which was its original nesting area after its creation in 1992. Much like the plight of its flesh-and-feathers counterpart, however, the roadrunner's habitat, in fact its very life, was threatened by "progress." The city closed the landfill area on the east mesa to allow housing to be developed.

After much discussion by various interested parties as well as the sculpture's creator, Olin Calk, "Big Bird" flew the coop west and landed in between the mesquite bushes at the rest area. For the past five years, the giant roadrunners has served as ambassador and greeter to guests. What a way to meet Las Cruces!


Olin Calk, a blacksmith by trade who makes home accessories such as beds, tables, wall hangings and gate work, came up with the bird idea after reading about roadrunner folklore. His passion for recycling and environmental education, as well as his move to the Southwest in 1991, fueled his creativity. "Moving out here from Tennessee was quite an awakening," Calk admits.

Fascinated by public art, Calk chose to "integrate public sculpture with education to promote recycling." What cemented his choice to use a roadrunner as the icon was the folklore surrounding the state bird: "It's said that following a roadrunner will put you back on the right track." Blatant consumerism is out of control, he feels, so what better way to use "pitched material"?

The Las Cruces recycling program center, State of New Mexico Energy and Minerals Department and various nonprofit entities served as funding sources for this "art happening" sculpture and subsequent public school workshops. Once the grant was written and approved, Calk got busy digging through other people's trash. When he had compiled enough "stuff," he set to work creating "Big Bird." Armed with a blowtorch and an MFA degree from the University of Houston, Calk sculpted, configured and stuffed until his vision took shape.

The roadrunner was unveiled in September 1992 and became an instant hit. As time went on, maintenance proved simple. If parts fell off or were "borrowed," Calk would search the landfill until suitable material was found. Now that the roadrunner's home is on the west mesa, reconstruction is a bit trickier, but the expense is still minimal. It's currently missing part of one tail feather, probably due to vandalism, Calk believes, but he'll replace it. No hard feelings, no problem.


Calk says that "Big Bird" is "the most successful work in this area." The more people who see it, walk up to it and, yes, even talk to it, the more the public is taking ownership, an important process, says Calk. "Art is interacting with people."

Motorists who stop to inspect this work of art should be aware that sometimes Calk "hangs out" at the rest area himself. He brings his kids and a barbecue grill. The whole family eats, plays and chats with the tourists. He loves to listen to what visitors say about his sculpture. Not once will he let on, though, that he built "Big Bird," that it was all his idea. "It's wonderful to watch peoples' faces," Calk says. "At first they're confused and surprised; then their perception changes and they find the humor in it." That's enough thanks for him.

Shunning a plaque or signage indicating who built it or even why, Calk stresses that a sign would take away community ownership, something he values. So he prefers to remain anonymous and listen in on conversations.

An environmentalist and artist, Calk has returned to school preparing his venture into the classroom. When he's not working on his master's degree in education at NMSU and re-envisioning his future, or blacksmithing, Calk is working on private commissions and speaking engagements. He visits classrooms to spread the word of "art as a process tool for community recycling projects."

Who knows? He may be inspiring the sculptor of the next generation's "Big Bird."

 

Roadrunners: The Real Thing

You can't live in New Mexico more than 10 minutes without seeing a roadrunner somewhere. Not necessarily a real one, but drawings, logos or cartoons seem to sprout up at every corner. And that's not a bad thing. The roadrunner is New Mexico's official state bird and with good reason. They're everywhere. Kind of like our official state cookie, biscochitos.

Just as unusual as its sculpture counterpart, the real Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is somewhat of a legend and an odd duck, so to speak. Part of the cuckoo family (that explains a lot right there), this species is found mainly throughout the Southwest, including Nevada, southern Utah, Mexico, Arkansas and western Louisiana. Unlike New Mexico's human "snowbirds," roadrunners do not migrate, but instead establish territories where both male and female birds live year-round.

The pair nests in short trees, bushes or even cactus, usually the cholla, with the nest off the ground, but never higher than 12 feet. Pale yellow eggs are laid, with the male doing most of the incubating. Babies hatch after about 20 days, but stay in the nest another 18.

Greater Roadrunners are large birds (though not 20-by-40-feet like their Las Cruces sculptural incarnation), growing to 20-24 inches in length, half of it tail, with a wingspan of 32 inches. Since their natural habitat is the desert, these birds are camouflaged with long pale legs and feet, with brown, black, tan and white streaks on their neck, wings and back and a buff-colored underside. They have a shaggy, spotted dark crest and a thick black hooked beak with a curious dash of blue and red by the eye. (Only in Looney Tunes cartoons are they blue.)

Yes, roadrunners can fly, but they prefer running—hence the name. If provoked or startled, they fly only short distances, such as up to a barbed wire fence from the ground. To run, they flap their wings to get going, hold their head low, then sprint, up to 15 miles an hour. Two of their toes point forward and the other two point backward, so the roadrunner leaves a sort of mirror-image track in the shape of a cross. Was it coming or going? Remember, it's a member of the cuckoo family.

Roadrunners are best seen during early morning to early afternoon. Even though they are native desert dwellers, they are busy during the hot days darting from mesquite bush to rock in search of a tasty morsel. One curious habit is their morning "sunbathing" routine: They lower their body temperature by up to five degrees at night (probably to conserve energy), then in the morning they sit with their backs to the sun and ruffle their feathers. This exposes the black skin near their backbones, which soaks up heat. Now packing heat, they head off in search of breakfast.
 

Contrary to the cartoon image of roadrunners, they can be somewhat vicious, even bad-tempered birds. A true story that bears repeating involves a kitten and a roadrunner. Jim Mooney, owner of Mooney's Moving Company in Albuquerque, was called after hours one early evening to his storage facility on the outskirts of town. There he discovered a roadrunner in hot pursuit of a hapless kitten. Before Mooney could decide exactly what to do, the kitten climbed up under his car and became wedged under the dashboard. Meanwhile, the roadrunner raced back and forth, checking under the car for dinner, waiting for the feline to dislodge itself.

Mooney could not get the cat out of his new car, so he called the automaker's 800 number for a dash schematic. When he explained the situation, the woman on the other end, obviously "not from around here" as indicated by her thick Brooklyn accent, literally dropped the phone laughing. About to hang up on him, she gave him one more chance to prove his sanity: "Just how big is this roadrunner? And what color is it? Blue?" She struggled to get the words out over her peals of laughter.

By now the kitten was squalling, the bird fervently circling the car, and two of Mooney's employees were making bets on who would win. The Brooklynite suggested getting Wile E. Coyote to come to the rescue. Mooney found no humor in her recommendation. However, she did give him another 800 number to a dealership in Hawaii that was still open at this time of day. To this day, he can still hear her cackles in his nightmares.

By the time Hawaii was on the phone, the kitten had extricated itself from the car, the men had chased the hungry roadrunner off, and Mooney had provided enough stories to last a week for a Brooklyn woman. As with all happy endings, the kitten has ended up as a revered pet in Mooney's household.

 

Roadrunners just naturally create legends. In Mexico, roadrunners are called paisano, "countryman," a fitting name indeed. Some Mexican Indians believed that eating roadrunner meat would help them to become swift runners. New Mexico Pueblo groups felt that tracing the roadrunner's tracks around a deceased person would confuse nearby evil spirits.

But the most widely circulated legend involves roadrunners penning rattlesnakes. The story goes that the birds pen sleeping rattlesnakes within a cactus fence, peck the snake to roust it, then watch as it impales itself on the surrounding cactus spines. Not really true. Roadrunners do kill rattlesnakes in an odd way, though: When the bird spots the tasty reptilian tidbit, the roadrunner circles it, dropping its wings to indicate docility. If and when the rattler strikes, the roadrunner leaps out of harm's way, then jumps forward, grabbing the snake in its bill. The bird flings the snake in the air. After it lands, the bird bites the snake on the head, then proceeds to beat it to death against a rock. Lizards, rodents and small birds are all part of the roadrunner's dining menu.

 

Spring is the traditional mating time for birds, and roadrunners are no different. The male sings a gentle cooing to attract females. Perched on a rock or fence, he lowers his head then raises it as he sings. If a female comes near, he offers her a bit of food as a gift. Probably not chocolate.

Found throughout most of New Mexico, roadrunners are more frequently seen dashing across the back roads. But there are several "hot spots" for roadrunner sightings. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, near Alamogordo, with its creosote flats, perennial stream complete with cottonwoods, is ideal roadrunner habitat. Take US 54 south out of Alamogordo 8.5 miles from where it branches off from US 70/82. Look for a sign indicating Oliver Lee State Park on your left; turn east. This road, 3.9 miles long, is flat, perfect for roadrunner sightings.

Percha Dam State Park, the premier birding spot in the 75-mile region between T or C and Las Cruces, is a roadrunner mecca. The birds are frequently seen along the road just before the park entrance. Take I-25, exit 59 (Percha Dam State Park), then follow signs west to the dam.

The gravel road to Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains, as well as the area around Ft. Selden, are other havens for roadrunners.

And of course, there's always the giant roadrunner reliably found at the rest area just west of Las Cruces. Talk about a bird sighting!
 

Melody Groves grew up in Las Cruces and now lives in Albuquerque. She has published two Western novels, The Quest and Sonoran Range, has a Guide to Rodeo book in the works for the University of New Mexico Press, and has written for New Mexico magazine, among others. She last wrote for Desert Exposure about Picacho Avenue's history.

 

Beyond "Beep! Beep!"

No wonder most non-New Mexicans who've never seen a real, live roadrunner think they're blue and go "Beep! Beep!": Warner Bros.' Road Runner cartoon character has been pursued by Wile E. Coyote in more than two-dozen popular cartoons. But even though the cartoon Road Runner breaks some rules of bird biology, its adventures nonetheless strictly adhere to some principles laid down by creator Chuck Jones. According to Jones' autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, the animated desert of the Road Runner and the Coyote had to follow these 10 rules:

  1. Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "Beep! Beep!"
     
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote—only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.
     
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime—IF he was not a fanatic. (Repeat: "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim."—George Santayana)
     
  4. No dialogue ever, except "Beep! Beep!" (Plus the occasional dialog sign just as Wile E. realizes that his efforts are going to bring him nothing but pain.)
     
  5. Road Runner must stay on the road—for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
     
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters—the southwest American desert.
     
  7. All tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
     
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
     
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
     
  10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.