Roadrunners Are Fast, Focused, and Born to Run
In 1949, a hapless, hungry Wile. E. Coyote began chasing an elusive and unbelievably fast roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) in a series of Warner Brothers cartoons. That chase lasted for many years, and that poor coyote died many times right before our eyes as we giggled (we always knew he would get right back up due to some pretty ingenious writers).
The truth is roadrunners are very fast, and although they are birds, they really don't fly that well (it appears as though their speed has been gained at the expense of their flight ability), so they sprint along the ground most of the time searching for food - food like crickets, frogs, lizards, snakes, and small birds. They also will eat scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas, along with a multitude of other unsuspecting creatures. They have been found at elevations as high as 5,000 feet and as low as sea level, although they are found most often in open, flat areas where cacti grow.
A roadrunner will batter its prey against the ground, breaking the bones of the prey to allow for easier digestion then swallow the head first. They have a habit of piling up snail shells, and when you see such a sight in the Southwest, you can be pretty sure that a roadrunner is close by.
Some more truth to ponder is that Wile E. Coyote could have probably caught the roadrunner in the first episode, as a coyote is capable of speeds up to about 40 miles per hour but a roadrunner on its best day can only sprint up to about 20 miles per hour. That, however, would have ended the cartoon, so we remain grateful for the writers who took liberties with the details of the animals. I'm pretty sure the public's fascination with and love of roadrunners began when Wile E. Coyote was born in the Warner Brothers studios.
The Snake-Eater's Tracks
Native Americans called the roadrunner "snake-eater." They, along with some Mexican peasants, have believed that tracks from the roadrunner's feet with two toes facing forward and two facing backward, confound evil spirits or the devil, unable to determine in which direction the bird was traveling.
Is That a Hummingbird Feeder?
The Roadrunner vs Rattlesnakes
Mainly a bird of the American southwest where there is an abundance of rattlesnakes, a roadrunner delivers pecks to the head of a small rattlesnake with lightning speed turning the rattler into lunch. In an article in National Wildlife Magazine, written by Michael Lipske, the author referred to the roadrunner as "one part terminator and one part Hoover vacuum cleaner." A roadrunner will eat black widow spiders right along with the fruit of a prickly pear cactus.
Bigger prey requires a bit of additional effort on the roadrunner's part. They will peck the prey until it becomes helpless, then beat the body against a hard surface until enough bones are broken to allow digestion. This process often takes up to an hour.
The prey is swallowed whole without suffering any damage - not even from a snake's deadly fangs or a horned lizard's spikes, although they are very careful to swallow horned lizards head-first with the spikes pointed away from the bird's vital organs. Their incredible gut allows them to digest almost anything, which is advantageous to the roadrunner, as they seem to live to eat.
Note: When we lived in Heber Springs, Arkansas several years ago, we saw a few roadrunners from time to time. The first time I ever saw a live roadrunner, it was sitting on the hood of a car in a bank parking lot there. Since we have lived in the Southwest, however, they regularly visit our large backyard which houses an abundance of whip-tail lizards, squirrels, and hummingbirds.
Roadrunner Mating Season
Roadrunners are believed to mate for life and their mating ritual also includes food. When a roadrunner comes upon a fitting female he will approach her with a gift of some sort of fresh food in his beak (usually a lizard). The female will accept the gift from him during copulation and after mating, they will build a nest somewhere in a small tree, a shrub or a cactus clump for the female to lay her eggs. The nests are usually made of sticks or twigs lined with assorted things like grass, feathers, etc. The parents have been known to use the same nest repeatedly.
The female usually lays up to about a half dozen eggs, although as many as 11 have been reportedly seen in a nest (fewer than six are typical). The eggs are white and covered with a chalky yellow film, sometimes blotched with brown or gray. They will incubate up to 18 days and are lovingly cared for, and incubated by both parents, although the male is responsible for incubation most often.
The hatchlings will fledge after 17 to 19 days and live to be around eight years old and again, both the parents share the responsibility of foraging for food and feeding the babies. After only a few weeks, the young roadrunners are able to catch their own food and ready to become fully independent.
Roadrunners, members of the cuckoo family raise their own young, unlike cuckoo birds. Some ornithologists believe that roadrunners possibly lay their eggs in other birds' nests, much like the female cowbird. Also, the female occasionally lays her eggs a few days apart resulting in a single nest containing babies of several different ages.
Sometimes They Hunt in Teams
Occasionally, two roadrunners (probably those that have mated) will hunt together to bring down larger prey. If they find food in short supply, the parents will sometimes eat a chick that appears to be a weakling. The surviving chicks are capable of feeding themselves within only a few days after they leave the nest.
New Mexico Roadrunners Love a Cool Drink
An interesting fact that scientists have discovered (reference #3 below) is that under the same ambient conditions, nocturnally-incubating male roadrunners maintained considerably higher body temperatures than the roosting non-incubating females.
In order to save calories, the roadrunner's body temperature drops several degrees and when morning comes they sunbathe with raised wings in order to raise the body temperature. They are able to boost their metabolism without sacrificing internal energy due to the bare skin absorbing warmth from the sun to circulate throughout the body. In colder months of winter, they may sunbathe several times a day.
Roadrunners, members of the cuckoo family, often reach up to two feet in length from the bill to the white tail tip, with a bushy blue-black crest and mottled plumage that blends well in their environment. As they run, they hold their body in a position that is almost parallel to the ground, using their long tail as a rudder.
A roadrunner is arguably the most famous bird in the southwest, featured in folklore as well as cartoons. It is known for its long tail and expressive crest that it raises and lowers depending on its activity. When threatened or excited, a roadrunner will erect the crest, revealing a bright orange patch of skin directly behind the eye.
A roadrunner is distinguished by its bushy crown of raised feathers. The upper body is streaked with black and green, with flecks of white. The neck of the bird is dirty white or a pale, chestnut brown and its belly is white.
The Ugly Truth
Threats to Roadrunners
Hunters have killed roadrunners believing them to be a threat to the populations of popular game birds. When they do so, they are killing them illegally. An even larger threat, however, is habitat loss. Housing and business developments limit their area in which to run, fragments their territory, and eliminates prey and/or nesting sites. Plus, they are often killed by larger household pets, feral animals, and traffic. In Southern California, there has been a significant drop in the number of roadrunners over the past few decades, although they are not considered an endangered species.
- Lipske, Michael (1994), Beep Beep! Varoooommm!, National Wildlife Magazine (February-March 1994)
- https://www.nature.org/newsfeatures/specialfeatures/animals/birds/roadrunner.xml (Retrieved from website 8/05/2018)
- https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v084n02/p0203-p0207.pdf (Retrieved from website 8/05/2018)
- https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Greater_Roadrunner/overview (Retrieved from website 8/05/2018)
- Skramstad, Jill (1992), Wildlife Southwest, Chronicle Junior Nature Series, Pages 44-45
- Great Book of the Animal Kingdom (1988), Arch Cape Press, Page 214
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney