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The Roadrunner: The Cuckoo's Fascinating Southwestern Cousin

A mature roadrunner drops by.

A mature roadrunner drops by.

A Rare Visitor, a Lucky Day

It was one of those rare days: a roadrunner day. As a child, my mother often told me that a roadrunner crossing in front of you was good luck. I've always felt that just getting to see them was a bit of good fortune -- no extra luck necessary. Although they're inextricably identified with the American southwest that I call home, they're not a common bird by any means. Seeing them isn't an everyday occurrence -- in fact, I see cardinals here in this desert on the edge of the Tonto National Forest far more often than I see roadrunners.

I've also learned they're challenging to photograph. You don't set out and say, "I'm off to photograph roadrunners." You'd better have your camera close at hand when they visit–and you'd better be quick to get the shot, because they don't hang around. They're a rambling bird, well suited to their name, and they don't stand still for too long. Roadrunners are the desert's rolling stone.

Today, one came calling. He was a young fellow, and a little bit confuzzled perhaps. He was on the front porch when I returned from the barn, and apparently, he enjoyed nipping the tender sprouts off my green onions in the pot by the door. I crossed my fingers that he might wait while I fetched my camera. To my surprise, I could still find him nearby by the distinctive rattling of his beak. That's why I think he was confused, or simply very juvenile–he not only stuck around for a few minutes, but he let me get within two feet of him. It was a good thing: my zoom lens failed, and I was forced to shoot the picture with my standard lens.

In years of photographing the desert around me, I've had little luck getting great photos of two of my favorite birds: the roadrunner and the phainopepla. The phainopepla is common once you know to look for them; they're just shy and reticent. The roadrunner is both elusive and quick to leave your company. Today was special.

Although there's chicken-wire in the background, this little guy is happily wild, perched in front of my fence.

Although there's chicken-wire in the background, this little guy is happily wild, perched in front of my fence.

The roadrunner's camera-shy neighbor, the phainopepla, in the ubiquitous mesquite tree.

The roadrunner's camera-shy neighbor, the phainopepla, in the ubiquitous mesquite tree.

Cuckoo About Roadrunners

My kindergarten teacher had a "thing" about roadrunners. I still remember the porcelain roadrunner we gave her as a year-end gift–and the thank you note, written in her dignified, formal hand–on roadrunner note paper. In the 1960s Arizona, roadrunners were everywhere–an iconic image of the land. From Ted DeGrazia's brushy paintings of roadrunners to figurines at the Sky Harbor gift shops, we native Zonies grew up with them.

But we weren't just cuckoo about roadrunners–roadrunners are cuckoo, too. They're part of the Cuculidae family–cuckoos. Many years ago, I read that they are Arizona's only member of the cuckoo family, but in fact, the Groove-Billed Ani, another cuckoo cousin, ventures across the Mexican border into southern Arizona at times, and even true cuckoos (the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo) make their way into the lower end of the state. It is the roadrunner, though, that is the only permanent, year-round cuckoo cousin in the state. The rest, like winter visitors from the Midwest, are just snowbirds.

The Great Greater Roadrunner

The roadrunner is known as the "Greater Roadrunner" or, to the ornithologist, Geococcyx californianus. (The "geo" in Geococcyx refers to the fact he is a ground bird.) He's a scruffy bird, largish, with a distinctive appearance and even more distinctive habits. Most people associate them with their habit of running across open ground (and that most un-roadrunner-like cartoon character, Roadrunner, and his happy "beep-beep.")

That's just the beginning of their unusual nature. They love to eat reptiles–specifically snakes and lizards–and they're the very rare animal that will actually pick a fight with a rattlesnake. Even more amazing, they will team up to hunt them (rattlers are quite the roadrunner delicacy). Since roadrunners rarely hang out together, it's a tribute to their native intelligence that they'll join forces to kill rattlers. The method? Like coyotes baiting loose dogs, one roadrunner will engage the snake's attention while the other snatches it behind the head. They will then smash the rattler against rocks to kill it.

The roadrunner can fly, but with such a natural skill at running, why would he? If they do fly, they're more likely to just skim the air above the ground, much as quail will do, but gliding. We have a set of encyclopedias, published in 1933, that my husband grew up with. Curious, I looked up the entry on roadrunners. To my surprise, the book says, "When it runs, it spreads wings and tail into a sort of airplane, and speeds along at an amazing rate." Just in case the World Book hasn't gotten smarter in the past 80 years, rest assured roadrunners do not spread their wings, airplane-like, when they run. They hold them at their side, streamlined, aerodynamic, head held low.

When it "stops" (and I put that in quotations because it's used loosely), the roadrunner constantly tilts and raises his tail, darts his head about, and otherwise makes a comical character of himself. It's no wonder he inspired a cartoon.

The World Book was right about size, though–the roadrunner comes by its "Greater" designation honestly. With a 22" wingspan and close to two feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail, the adult roadrunner is a good-sized bird.

The view from my backyard:  home to a roadrunner, here and there, and a lot of rattlesnakes.

The view from my backyard: home to a roadrunner, here and there, and a lot of rattlesnakes.

Crests and Nests

The roadrunner's unique appearance includes a wonderful crest that rises and lowers depending on his level of alertness. The female roadrunner also has a crest, albeit much less pronounced. When the crest of the male rises to its full glory, the bird is thoroughly impressive. The male also boasts a small but readily apparent patch of red behind the eye.

They build a flattish nest from branches and twigs, as is necessary to bear the weight of a bird their size, placing it in shrubs, cactus, or the lower branches of trees. Their family life is non-traditional, if not downright dysfunctional at times–the parents (who mate for life) take turns incubating the eggs, with the male handling the bulk of the responsibility. However, in an interesting nod to the harsh environment, the eggs do not hatch at the same time. As a result, the youngest babies may be cannibalized by the rest of the family if food is not readily available. Should the chicks survive, they leave the nest at about three weeks of age.

The roadrunner's appetite is hearty. Not only will he eat rattlesnakes and his own young, but he'll also feed on cactus fruit, small rodents, other birds, insects, and a variety of plants–including my tender young onions.

Questions & Answers

Question: I saw a roadrunner stop moving on an embankment, facing uphill. He spread both wings wide. He remained nonmoving in this position for 10 minutes. Another Roadrunner passed by; he didn’t move. He eventually walked off. What was he doing?

Answer: If it was a cold day or if you were in a cooler climate, this is typical behavior of a roadrunner that is sunbathing. They have black skin, and by puffing up and opening their wings, they are absorbing the heat of the sun.


Gus Lauer on September 05, 2017:

We have a lake house on Greer's Ferry Lake in Ark and see a roadrunner constantly in the same place darting in front of the car. How come??

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 26, 2014:

Hi, Kenneth,

Many thanks for your comment -- I truly appreciate it. I'm looking forward to reading your hubs. Sincere thanks!

Best -- Mj

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on April 26, 2014:

Hi, MJennifer ,

Just wanted to let you know that this was a great hub. Wonderful subject and terrific writing. I voted up and all of the buttons on this one. You deserved it because you put a lot of work into this story.

I liked your presentation and graphics too.

I cordially invite you to check out a few of my hubs and become one of my followers. I am going to leave you some fan mail now and follow you.


Kenneth/ from northwest Alabama

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 26, 2014:

Hi, Peggy! Thank you so much. I know that as a fellow photography enthusiast, you understand how disappointed I was when my zoom lens expired just as I had that young roadrunner in my sights. (I have since replaced it with a couple of new lenses.) I hold out hope that someday, somehow, I will get the roadrunner photo I envision.

Thank you for commenting and tweeting!

Best -- Mj

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 26, 2014:

I have seen roadrunners out in west Texas and you are correct in that they do not stand still for good camera shots. That is a great photo you captured of that juvenile one against the chain link fence. Beautiful view you have from your backyard! It was interesting to me how they gang up to kill and then eat rattlesnakes. Will give this a tweet!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 25, 2014:

Andrew, thank you so much for your kind words. It makes me happy to know that you were as tickled to see the roadrunner as I always am -- and who can resist hummingbirds? Yes, we are fortunate to have the Tonto National Forest right behind us -- we get to see everything from bobcats to javelina right here at home. We could have used a roadrunner the past week when a young rattlesnake showed up on the front patio within three feet from the door. I love the desert creatures (being one of them myself)!

Best -- Mj

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on April 25, 2014:

I really enjoyed this read. I met a roadrunner in Taos, New Mexico when on holiday four years ago, a dream come true I have to say. Such a canny bird. It was walking along a wall on a street, quite at home. Never knew they ate snakes. What a brave bird.I also saw my first hummingbird on that trip. A real treat.

The view from your backyard looks interesting!

Votes and a share for this special hub.

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 08, 2014:

Hi, Adrienne! Thank you so much. I'll have to pay more attention to how my pups react when they see roadrunners. I find it so interesting how they are attuned to the wildlife around them depending on type and location of the creatures. Our McNab was instinctively cautious of rattlers, but doesn't even notice the bull snakes; bunnies can be quite literally two feet from him outside of the fenced portion of the yard and he'll do nothing, but heaven help them if they come into the small rear fenced area! The lab, on the other hand, would alert us to ANY snakes, venomous or user-friendly -- and bunnies were just one more creature he was intended to love and nurture. Only the papillon would have an interest in birds at all -- she would round up the stray chickens for me and corner them until I caught them.

Thanks again -- I always enjoy your hubs as well!

Best -- MJ

Adrienne Farricelli on April 07, 2014:

I love reading your hubs as I get to always learn something new on wildlife in Arizona. I love your pictures too! We occasionally see them in our yard, and Kaiser, our male Rottie, must find them odd as he reacts to them whining and growling, but never does that with other types of birds. I guess it's the way they move! Voted up!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on September 06, 2013:

Hi, Aviannovice! Yes, you should certainly have them in your area. I hope you have camera in hand when you do see them and that you have much more luck than I've had in getting good photos.

Thank you for stopping by!

Best -- MJ

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on September 06, 2013:

Excellent! I have yet to see one of these special birds. A friend told me that they are quick. They are around here somewhere!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on September 05, 2013:

Liz, thank you! I'm a believer in serendipity -- I bet you'll see one shortly. I hope so, because can't we all use a little bit of extra good luck?

Thanks for sharing!

Best --MJ

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on September 05, 2013:

I live in the desert (Las Vegas) but I don't think I've ever seen one...and if I did, I probably didn't know it was a roadrunner. I'm going to have to keep a lookout for them now and if I see one I'll let you know! Voted up and shared!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on September 05, 2013:

Thank you for saying hello, Ann! I enjoyed seeing pheasants on a recent trip to Wyoming -- and briefly had a pet Ringneck as a child, but I have to admit I'm fairly pheasant-deprived. I'm glad I could share a couple of roadrunners with you.

Thank you for your comment!

Best -- MJ

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on September 05, 2013:

What a beautiful view you have! I grew up in Nebraska and saw pheasants, but I've never seen a road runner. Interesting article.