Tales from the Morgue: Road runners building fences

2014-01-25T00:00:00Z 2014-01-29T17:00:43Z Tales from the Morgue: Road runners building fencesJohanna Eubank Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 25, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Tales from the Morgue presents a tall tale reminiscent of Big Jim Griffith's history and folklore blog, "A storied desert land."

The tale concerns a winter visitor who heard an amazing story about road runners and asked around to see if it could be true. Tucson old timers obliged, many likely sticking their tongues firmly in cheek as they declared it to be true.

They convinced him enough that farmers and ranchers who declared it to be absurd didn't dissuade him.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Friday, Jan. 9, 1914:

 

 

Do Roadrunners Corral Snakes, then Kill Them?
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Old Timers Say They Do, Others Say No, and Bird Authorities Are Silent
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An investigation into whether the well-known Arizona yarn about the road-runner birds building a fence of cholla spikes about the rattlesnake and then killing him at leisure is true is being carried on by John Feeney of Elmira, N. Y., who is spending the winter here.

Mr. Feeney head the story some years ago while in the office of the Elmira Herald. A young man who had spent the winter in Tucson for his health and did not share the uproarious scepticism with which the tale was received by the office force of the Herald. In fact all Elmira took a big laugh of scorn when the story was published in the Herald.

On coming to Tucson this winter Mr. Feeney decided to run the story down and to satisfy himself as to its truth. He has been camping on its trail for some days, and is now about ready to write a story back to the Herald stating that he will take his oath that the road runner really kills the rattlesnake.

The other day he visited the rooms of the Arizona Historical society to get the views of some of the old pioneers about it. Sidney DeLong declared to him that it was not only true, but that he had actually seen a pair of birds entrap a rattlesnake and kill him in just that manner in his early experience in Arizona. John Magee, who was also there, added his approval of the truth of the story. Across the street Mr. Feeney asked the advice of C. F. Davant, and the ex-councilman told him that it was as true as an affidavit sworn to before a notary.

Next Mr. Feeney visited the library and with the aid of the librarian looked up all the authorities on Arizona birds. However, he could not find anything on the subject, except a reference by Hornaday who stated that "some strange stories are told about the Arizona road-runner bird." Mr. Feeney knew that much already.

On the other hand a number of Arizona farmers and ranchers have declared that the story is absurd, and that they won't believe it even of they see it. So there you are.

Mr. Feeney is going to write a learned article for the Herald soon, and will tell the people of Elmira all about it, and it is hoped that a number will come out to investigate for themselves.

Mr. Feeney might have trouble writing a learned article since he didn't actually learn anything definitive, but if it increases tourism, one supposes the local business owners are all for it. Perhaps that is the reason for the stories.

The story wasn't over. From the Arizona Daily Star, Friday, Jan. 30, 1914:

 

ROAD RUNNER MYSTERY STILL IS UNSETTLED
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J. Feeney May Know Whether Bird Does or Doesn't Kill Rattlers, but Now It Appears He's Lost, Too
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The curious story of the investigations in Tucson of John Feeney of Elmira, N. Y., about the truth of the yarn of the road runner killing the rattlesnake after fencing him about with Cholla Spikes, as published in The Star recently, seems to have traveled to the far east, and the New York Sun publishes the following story about the matter:

"Does the road runner or chaparral cock snare the rattlesnake by building a fence of cholla spikes around him and then dispatch the reptile at leisure? The story, received with scepticism, has often been told about this bird of the southwest. Mr. John Feeney of Elmira recently went to Arizona to learn the truth. He learned from some of the pioneers that they had witnessed the capture and death of rattlesnakes in the aforesaid fashion. Mr. Sidney De Long of Tucson affirmed that he had seen a pair of road runners, evidently mates, do the trick. Cattlemen were prolific in experiences of the kind, but the Arizona Historical society had no data.

"The road runner is such a strange bird that anything told about it is believed. Dr. William T. Hornaday is his 'American Natural History' is credulous himself. The bird, he says, 'is remarkably odd in form and also in its habits.' He thus describes it:

"'It is about the size of the small crow, with a tail as long as its entire body and head, and legs that are so long and strong they seem like those of a grouse, save that the toes are longer. The body is slender, but the neck and head are large and the head has a conspicuous crest. The beak is large. Although the bird has wings it seldom uses them, and they must constantly be growing smaller through disuse.'

"Mice, lizards, snakes and centipedes and insects are provender. The doctor testifies that it is the most nervous of birds, abnormally suspicious and phenomenally quick in its movements. It flies little, but leaps far and high with closed wings. He estimates that if the road runner goes on 10,000 years in its present habits it will cease to fly at all and will be able to leap twenty feet in the air. This remarkable description of the uneasy and elusive bird of the Arizona desert prepares one for the 'many strange yarns' that have been told about it, including the story of how it traps the somnolent rattler."

The story of Mr. Feeney's search for the truth of the road runner-rattlesnake story has been widely quoted, and recently a letter was received by Secretary J. F. Myers of the chamber of commerce from Malcom Fraser of Prescott saying that he would like very much to get into communication with Mr. Feeney in order to learn the result of his investigations. Secretary Myers, not knowing whether Mr. Feeney was in the city, stated yesterday that in case he was, a visit at the chamber of commerce would put him into communication with Mr. Fraser.

The Star story as originally published stated that Mr. Feeney intended to state that without further absolute disproof the story was so well supported by trustworthy evidence that it seemed to be trustworthy. Mr. Feeney intended to address his letter to the Elmira Herald.

The Morgue Lady has a bit of trouble believing the road runner traps snakes with a fence constructed from Cholla spikes. However, she has heard that the road runner has been able to convince a particular coyote that rockets strapped to the coyote's back will enable him to catch the road runner. She has, however, never actually seen a coyote with rockets strapped to its back, so this may also be a tall tale.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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