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Roadrunners Coming to Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

I just came back from a birding trip to New Mexico. A refuge ranger recognized my accent and started talking to me about the Northeast’s recent cold weather and the local sports teams. Then he said something about our pending introduction of roadrunners. Roadrunners? When I asked him to explain, he became evasive and changed the subject. Are roadrunners headed our way?

– Wendy, Centerville, MA


I love New Mexico, Wendy,

It’s one of my favorite places to visit. The scenery is beautiful and the birds are great. There is only one problem; the rangers can’t keep a secret. But since the word seems to be getting out, I’ll tell you what I know about the coming roadrunners. But first, this.

It’s been well reported that the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife is concerned about our dwindling population of timber rattlesnakes. The once common reptiles have all but vanished from the Commonwealth. To prevent their local extinction, the State decided to establish a new timber rattlesnake colony on an island in the Quabbin Reservoir. The isolated property was the perfect location. Not only would it provide a safe haven for the snakes, but since the serpents would be confined to an island, the local residents wouldn’t complain…or so it was thought. The pushback on the proposed snake colony was immediate. The folks in the area tolerate black bears, mountain lions and extra-long winters, but they draw the line at rattlesnakes (and I don’t blame them). The State pointed out that the snakes would be confined to an island. To which the locals replied, “Snakes can swim.” “Oh, right,” said the State. “We forgot about that.” That was last fall and now officials have come up with a different plan. The Quabbin crowd will love this new idea, but I don’t think many Cape Codders will.

While it is true that snakes can swim in fresh water, no one has ever seen a rattlesnake in salt water. Based on this fuzzy logic, the State has decided to move its controversial rattlesnake colony to a coastal location. Specifically, the new colony will be on an island in Barnstable Harbor. While there has been no formal announcement, an article published in last month’s Serpent Times claims that two dozen timber rattlesnakes will be released on a large manmade island off of West Barnstable. The unnamed island was created from dredging spoils when the harbor was enlarged in 1974. Typically, timber rattlers aren’t fond of sandy soil, but this island consists of rocks, boulders and other glacial deposits. Originally, officials hoped seabirds would breed on the island, and for a while they did; but in recent years, small egg-eating rodents have taken over. The mammal invasion was bad news for the birds, but not for snakes. They will love them. Some people are concerned that the snake population will grow too large for the island and the rattlers might attempt to swim through the salt water to Sandy Neck or West Barnstable. Don’t worry; the State has a plan for that.

Officials spent most of the winter trying to devise a preventative snake barrier. First, they considered a fence, but snakes can climb any fence. Next, they thought about an electrified grid, but there’s no power on the island. Then someone suggested importing natural predators, and that’s what they decided to go with. When the State releases the snakes, they will also release five pairs of New Mexico’s finest roadrunners. Roadrunners seem to be the perfect solution; after all, they eat snakes, including rattlesnakes. Also, these desert-loving birds should have no problem adapting to life on a barren island. Sounds like a nice gig to me.

When I first heard about this plan I wondered if the roadrunners would simply eat all the snakes, causing the experiment to fail. Then I learned how large these snakes could be. Adult timber rattlesnakes grow up to six feet long and weigh as much as ten pounds. No roadrunner, even in the cartoons could stop a snake that big. But the State isn’t worried about the full-sized snakes leaving the island; it’s the babies they want to control. The adult snakes are too fat and lazy to do anything except lay in the sun all day. However, the young snakes (females give birth to hundreds of babies each year) could wander. If the new baby rattlers leave the safety of their rocky dens and slither their way to the beach, our pals the roadrunners will be waiting for them. And just to be on the safe side, area towns will now be required to hire snake charmers, which is a job I won’t be applying for.

No one will ever confuse me with a snake lover. Snakes creep me out so much I can’t even watch them on TV. Therefore, I should be against any plan to bring snakes, especially deadly poisonous ones, to Cape Cod. But it’s hypocritical of me to only support the parts of nature I “approve” of. Consequently, I’ll assume the State knows what it is doing and their plan will not backfire. (Let’s hope at least the roadrunners know what they are doing.)

For obvious reasons the public will not be allowed to take part in the release of the rattlesnakes. But everyone is encouraged to check out the roadrunners. A few hours before they are ferried over to the island, the strange birds will be on display for all of us to see. In addition, state biologists will be on hand to answer questions (or listen to complaints). The preview event is scheduled to take place at the Barnstable Harbor Marina, at twelve noon this Saturday, April 1st.