The Roadrunner Bird
The legendary roadrunner bird is famous for its distinctive appearance, its ability to eat rattlesnakes and its preference for scooting across the American deserts, as popularized in Warner Bros. cartoons.
The roadrunner is a large, black-and-white, mottled ground bird with a distinctive head crest. It has strong feet, a long, white-tipped tail and an oversized bill.
It ranges in length from 20 to 24 inches from the tip of its tail to the end of its beak. It is a member of the Cuckoo family (Cuculidae), characterized by feet with 2 forward toes and 2 behind.
When the roadrunner senses danger or is traveling downhill, it flies, revealing short, rounded wings with a white crescent. But it cannot keep its large body airborne for more than a few seconds, and so prefers walking or running (up to 17 miles per hour) usually with a clownish gait.
The roadrunner makes a series of 6 to 8, low, dovelike coos dropping in pitch, as well as a clattering sound by rolling mandibles together.
The roadrunner has a long, graduated tail carried at an upward angle.
The roadrunner has long stout legs.
- The roadrunner is uniquely suited to a desert environment by a number of physiological and behavioral adaptations:
- Its carnivorous habits offer it a large supply of very moist food.
It reabsorbs water from its feces before excretion.
- A nasal gland eliminates excess salt, instead of using the urinary tract like most birds.
- It reduces its activity 50% during the heat of midday.
Its extreme quickness allows it to snatch a humming bird or dragonfly from midair.
The roadrunner inhabits open, flat or rolling terrain with scattered cover of dry brush, chaparral or other desert scrub.
Food & Hunting
The roadrunner feeds almost exclusively on other animals, including insects, scorpions, lizards, snakes, rodents and other birds. Up to 10 % of its winter diet may consist of plant material due to the scarcity of desert animals at that time of the year.
Because of its lightening quickness, the roadrunner is one of the few animals that preys upon rattlesnakes. Using its wings like a matador's cape, it snaps up a coiled rattlesnake by the tail, cracks it like a whip and repeatedly slams its head against the ground till dead.
It then swallows its prey whole, but is often unable to swallow the entire length at one time. This does not stop the roadrunner from its normal routine. It will continue to meander about with the snake dangling from its mouth, consuming another inch or two as the snake slowly digests.
When spring arrives, the male roadrunner, in addition to acquiring food for himself, offers choice morsels to a female as an inducement to mating. He usually dances around her while she begs for food, then gives her the morsel after breeding briefly.
Both parents collect the small sticks used for building a shallow, saucer-like nest, but the female actually constructs it in a bush, cactus or small tree. She then lays from 2 to 12 white eggs over a period of 3 days, which results in staggered hatching. Incubation is from 18-20 days and is done by either parent, though preferably the male, because the nocturnally incubating males maintain normal body temperature.
The first to hatch often crowd out the late-arriving runts, which are sometimes eaten by the parents. Usually only 3 or 4 young are finally fledged from the nest after about 18 days. These remain near the adults for up to 2 more weeks before dispersing to the surrounding desert.
In the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of California where there is only one rainy season, roadrunners nest in spring, the only time there is abundant prey to raise a brood. In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, they breed again in August or September after summer rains increase their food sources.
A roadrunner life does have its dangers. Roadrunners are occasionally preyed upon by hawks, house cats, raccoons, rat snakes, bullsnakes, skunks, and, coyotes eat nestlings and eggs. During the winter months, many succumb to freezing, icy weather.
Throughout the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan and southern Great Basin deserts. They are in all the Southwestern states.
Roadrunners are quick enough to catch and eat rattlesnakes.
Roadrunners prefer walking or running and attain speeds up to 17 mph. hour
The roadrunner is also called the chaparral cock.
The roadrunner reabsorbs water from its feces before excretion.
The roadrunner’s nasal gland eliminates excess salt, instead of using the urinary tract like most birds.
The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico.
Weight: 8-24 oz.
Length: 20-24 inches
Lifespan: 7 to 8 years
Roadrunners are ground cuckoos, as are any of about 15 species of birds constituting the subfamily Neomorphinae of the cuckoo family (Cuculidae), noted for terrestrial habits. There are 11 New World species, 3 of which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.
Other ground cuckoos include the Morococcyx erythropygus, a species widespread in Central America and 5 species of Neomorphus, found from Costa Rica to Bolivia. Three species of the very large Carpococcyx, are found in Southeast Asia and acquire a length of 24 inches.
The two species of roadrunners include the lesser roadrunner (G. velox) a slightly smaller, buffier and less streaky bird, of Mexico and Central America, which grows to a length of 18 inches.
-- A.R. Royo
Books on the Roadrunner
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