- Common Name:
- Greater roadrunners
- Scientific Name:
- Geococcyx californianus
- Group Name:
- Average Life Span:
- Up to eight years
- Between 20 and 24 inches long
- Between eight and 19 ounces
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
What is a roadrunner?
The greater roadrunner is so quick, one of the few things that precede it is its reputation.
The bird, which can run up to 17 miles an hour, is a beloved symbol of the American Southwest and the inspiration for Road Runner, a popular Looney Tunes cartoon character.
The reason for their swiftness is simple: Roadrunners aren’t great flyers, due to their relatively heavy bodies, and will only take flight when going downhill or escaping an imminent attack.
The largest bird in the cuckoo family, greater roadrunners have a bare blue-and-orange skin patch behind the eyes, which is usually covered by feathers unless the bird is agitated. Roadrunners also sport a shaggy head crest that the animals can raise up and down to communicate with each other. Their long green and purple tail feathers serve as a rudder as they run.
Though most well known as desert dwellers, greater roadrunners range as far north as San Francisco, as far south as Mexico City, and as far east as Missouri and Louisiana. The flexible birds thrive in many types of landscapes, including swamps, pine forests, rocky outcroppings, and grasslands. As an adaptation to their hot, dry climate, roadrunners have a nasal gland around their eye that allows them to discharge excess salt, instead of excreting the salt through urine, which would dehydrate them.
Roadrunners eat mostly lizards, snakes, small rodents, carrion, eggs, and even other birds. In the winter they supplement their diet with plant material, seeds, and fruit. Quick as they are, roadrunners have predators of their own, including raccoons, hawks, and yes, even coyotes.
Roadrunners are typically solitary until they find a mate, and their courtship can be quite elaborate. It begins with the male dangling a tempting food item, such as a lizard, in its beak, before the female, then performing a dance that features bowing, whirring, cooing, fanning his tail feathers, and opening his wings. The male’s eye patch becomes especially vibrant when courting.
Once mated, a monogamous pair will build a large, shaded nest in a tree or cactus made with twigs, leaves, feathers, and snakeskin. The female lays between two to six eggs, which both parents take turns incubating for about 20 days. Chicks fledge around 20 days later, and though they begin to forage on their own, their parents still feed them for a month or more after they leave the nest.
Both parents hunt and will sometimes work together to kill rattlesnakes. While one bird distracts the rattlesnake by flitting around in front of it, the other pins thee reptile’s head to the ground and smashes it.
Conservationists estimate a total breeding population of 1.1 million greater roadrunners, which means that overall, the species’ status is stable.
However, the birds do face some threats, particularly in California. Human development has led to widespread loss of habitat for these ground-dwelling birds. The mistaken belief that roadrunners kill gamebirds, such as quail, also causes some hunters to kill them. Lastly, greater roadrunners are often hit by cars or eaten by pets.
DID YOU KNOW
Greater roadrunners have zygodactyl feet, with two toes in front and two in back. Their resulting x-shaped footprints means you can’t tell which way they went.
In Mexico, one of the names for roadrunners is paisano, which means countryman or fellow traveler in Spanish.
There is only one other roadrunner species, the lesser roadrunner, which ranges from coastal Mexico south to northern Nicaragua.