Birds are common around farmsteads, where assorted sparrows and cardinals can find food and shelter. But the 2-foot-long bird that’s a regular at Mike Thompson’s farm often stops visitors in their tracks.
“Most people have never seen a roadrunner around here, so it kind of surprises them,” said Thompson, who lives about 25 miles south of downtown Wichita. “We looked out the window (about two years ago), and he was coming down the driveway. He’s been here ever since.”
While most Kansans’ only exposure to roadrunners is the animated kind on cartoons, the birds are living well in parts of the state. So are several other species of unique wildlife that many residents don’t know live in Kansas.
Max Thompson, Mike’s brother and a retired Southwestern College biology professor, said roadrunners have been in the lower part of south-central Kansas since at least the 1950s. While they’ve nested as far north as Great Bend, he said, Kansas’ main roadrunner range is basically from Cowley County west, particularly in the southern tier of counties.
For more than 40 years, Ken Brunson has watched the roadrunner population increase around Pratt and south through the Red Hills. Once a “guess-what-I saw-today” kind of animal, they’re now much more common
“Anymore they’re a regular occurrence,” said Brunson, who has been a biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for nearly 40 years. “I think it’s a sign of climate change that’s allowed them to move further north because of the milder winters.”
While he often sees them in remote areas, Brunson, like Mike Thompson, can often look out his window and see a roadrunner. Brunson said roadrunners adapt quickly to life around humans. They’ve learned to catch mice around buildings and feedlots. The carnivorous birds also will hide near bird feeders and grab small birds.
Like the animated version, wild roadrunners can be entertaining.
“They’re goofy birds – that’s why I love them,” Brunson said. “They’re very personable and so very curious. We’ve had them come up and try to make friends with their reflection in a (glass) door. We’ve had them jump in the cab of a pickup or onto the seat of a tractor to investigate things.”
A few years ago, Brunson had one that would take meat from his hand. Mike Thompson often sees the one on his farm poking around in his buildings. A family near Coldwater had a roadrunner that was a regular at their house, often carrying something in its mouth. It once arrived with a cigarette butt in the corner of its mouth, like some tough guy from a 1930s Hollywood movie.
Also like the cartoon version, Kansas roadrunners seem pretty good at thwarting a familiar predator.
“To live as long as he has around here, he also has to be pretty smart,” said Mike Thompson. “We have coyotes run up and down our shelterbelt all the time. They’ve never gotten him.”
Another cartoon animal is doing well in parts of Kansas, though you’ll never find one in the company of a moose named Bullwinkle. Yes, parts of eastern Kansas have flying squirrels. Many locals don’t even know it.
“They’re very tiny, they’re silent, and they’re nocturnal,” said Kelly Haggard, a science teacher at Perry-Lecompton High School near Lawrence, who has studied the animals. “I could sit out where I knew there were flying squirrels and never be able to find one.”
Haggard initially studied the species while working on his master’s degree about 20 years ago. His main technique for finding them was to place wooden boxes with small holes on the sides of trees in mature hardwood forests. Flying squirrels normally nest in cavities in trees, like big woodpecker holes, so they adapted quickly to the boxes.
In Neosho County, he found a pecan grove that seemed to hold about seven flying squirrels per acre. He counted at least 93 flying squirrels within just two research areas.
Haggard said their bodies aren’t much bigger than a large mouse, and an adult flying squirrel could fit easily in the palm of his hand. Still, they have teeth that can pierce a leather glove. While they don’t actually fly, they can glide sizable distances on sections of extra skin on each side of their body.
As well as old trees and new research boxes, flying squirrels will sometimes make a nest inside the attics of old houses. While helping to clean out the southeast Kansas farmstead of his grandparents several years ago, Haggard found flying squirrels living in the attic.
“I recognized the (droppings) and eventually saw the flying squirrels themselves,” he said. “That was neat.”
Often Kansans don’t need to see the animal to know a porcupine is around.
“Most of the calls we get about porcupines are because their dogs have come back with a nose full of quills,” said Charlie Cope, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologist for the Wichita area. He said he gets regular reports of road kills in the area. The animals are regularly seen, alive and dead, beside roads near Kingman.
Curtis Schmidt of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University has studied the range of Kansas’ porcupine population for about 10 years. It, and the number of animals, is growing. Eastern Kansas is about the only place where the animals are nearly non-existent.
“They’re dirt common in the Red Hills these days. I don’t think there’s a night you can’t find one if you do some looking,” Schmidt said.
Area ranchers aren’t fond of the animals, because curious cattle often get too close and end up with a nose full of quills that aren’t easily removed.
Still, that doesn’t mean people need to be afraid when they come across a porcupine in Kansas. Despite the myth, they cannot shoot quills from their tails. As long as you don’t touch one, Schmidt said, there shouldn’t be any problems.
“They’re fun animals to mess with,” he said. “They don’t really run away, because they really aren’t scared of you.”
Many Kansans equate pelicans with ocean beaches or vast waters like the Great Lakes. But Kansas certainly has the big white birds, best known for their 3.5-gallon, pouched bill.
“On (January) 21st, there were a couple of hundred of them out at Cheney (Reservoir),” said Pete Janzen, an author of several books on Kansas birds. “You can see thousands of them during the peak of migrations. April and October, mostly.”
The birds are nearly impossible to mistake for anything else. Their 108-inch wingspan dwarfs that of a bald eagle. They can weigh up to 30 pounds, and that yellow bill is the longest of any bird in Kansas.
Their need to feed on fish keeps them located mostly on larger reservoirs and marsh systems. Janzen said he’s seen several hundred at a time on large sand pit lakes in north Wichita.
Gregarious by nature, pelicans are often seen in flocks that are entertaining to watch.
Karl Grover, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area manager, said the birds often get in a line and beat their wings as they push schools of fish to shallow water, where they’re easily caught. He and Janzen said they like watching flocks of flying pelicans as they use thermals to keep them aloft. Often the entire flock will be spinning in assorted circles well above the ground. It’s an act that’s been spotted over downtown Wichita several times.
Both experts said it’s getting easier to see pelicans annually, as more and more nonbreeding birds stay in Kansas all summer. A few have even stayed through the winter.
“I imagine we’ll continue to see that in the future,” Janzen said, “as we keep getting more of these super-mild winters.”