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Greater Roadrunner

Geococcyx californianus ORDER: CUCULIFORMES FAMILY: CUCULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A bird born to run, the Greater Roadrunner can outrace a human, kill a rattlesnake, and thrive in the harsh landscapes of the Desert Southwest. Roadrunners reach two feet from sturdy bill to white tail tip, with a bushy blue-black crest and mottled plumage that blends well with dusty shrubs. As they run, they hold their lean frames nearly parallel to the ground and rudder with their long tails. They have recently extended their range eastward into Missouri and Louisiana.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
20.5–21.3 in
52–54 cm
Wingspan
19.3 in
49 cm
Weight
7.8–19 oz
221–538 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Rock Pigeon; about the size (but more slender than) a Common Raven.
Other Names
  • Grand Géocoucou (French)
  • Correcamino californiano (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Roadrunners hold a special place in Native American and Mexican legends and belief systems. The birds were revered for their courage, strength, speed, and endurance. The roadrunner’s distinctive X-shaped footprint—with two toes pointing forward and two backward—are used as sacred symbols by Pueblo tribes to ward off evil. The X shape disguises the direction the bird is heading, and is thought to prevent evil spirits from following.
  • For a generation of Americans, the familiar “beep, beep” of Warner Brothers’ cartoon Roadrunner was the background sound of Saturday mornings. Despite the cartoon character’s perennial victories over Wile E. Coyote, real-life coyotes present a real danger. The mammals can reach a top speed of 43 miles an hour—more than twice as fast as roadrunners.
  • Roadrunners have evolved a range of adaptations to deal with the extremes of desert living. Like seabirds, they secrete a solution of highly concentrated salt through a gland just in front of each eye, which uses less water than excreting it via their kidneys and urinary tract. Moisture-rich prey including mammals and reptiles supply them otherwise-scarce water in their diet. Both chicks and adults flutter the unfeathered area beneath the chin (gular fluttering) to dissipate heat.
  • Greater Roadrunners eat poisonous prey, including venomous lizards and scorpions, with no ill effect, although they’re careful to swallow horned lizards head-first with the horns pointed away from vital organs. Roadrunners can also kill and eat rattlesnakes, often in tandem with another roadrunner: as one distracts the snake by jumping and flapping, the other sneaks up and pins its head, then bashes the snake against a rock. If it’s is too long to swallow all at once, a roadrunner will walk around with a length of snake still protruding from its bill, swallowing it a little at a time as the snake digests.
  • Based on banding records, the oldest roadrunner was at least 7 years old.

Habitat


Scrub

Greater Roadrunners occur throughout the Southwest and into northern California in semi-open, scrubby habitat from below sea level to nearly 10,000 feet. Habitats include areas dominated by creosote, mesquite, chaparral, and tamarisk, as well as grasslands, riparian woodlands and canyons. At higher elevations roadrunners live in pinyon-juniper woodlands and cholla grasslands. Greater Roadrunners have expanded their range into southwest Missouri, western Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and Louisiana, where they occupy less typical habitat that includes red juniper landscapes, scrubby woods, loblolly pine forests and upland hardwood stands. Roadrunners avoid heavily forested and densely populated areas, but can tolerate sparser suburban development and open farmland.

Food


Omnivore

Greater Roadrunners eat mostly animals, including almost anything they can catch: small mammals, reptiles, frogs, toads, insects, centipedes, scorpions, and birds. Roadrunners also eat carrion and prey on bird eggs and chicks. They kill rattlesnakes by pecking them repeatedly in the head. They slam large prey, such as rodents and lizards, against a rock or the ground multiple times to break down the bones and elongate the victim, making it easier to swallow. These opportunistic predators have also been known to grab birds from backyard feeders or nest boxes. In winter, fruit, seeds, and other plant material make up 10 percent of the roadrunner’s diet.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.4–1.8 in
3.5–4.6 cm
Egg Width
1.1–1.3 in
2.8–3.3 cm
Incubation Period
19–20 days
Egg Description
White covered with a chalky yellow film, sometimes stained with brown or gray.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed but chick strong and active, with black skin and white down along the feather tracts.
Nest Description

Male Greater Roadrunners bring twigs to the female, which she fashions into a compact platform with a nest cup about 4 inches deep. A male that pauses for too long in his stick-gathering may get reminded with a whining call from his partner, prompting him to get back to work. The finished nest can reach over 17 inches in diameter and 8 inches high, lined with leaves, grasses, feathers, smaller sticks, snakeskin, and flakes of cattle and horse manure. The parents may continue to work on the nest during incubation and build up the sides of the nest as the chicks grow. Pairs sometimes reuse a nest from a previous year.

Nest Placement

Tree

The pair chooses a nest site 3–10 feet or more off the ground, on a horizontal branch or in the crotch of a sturdy bush, cactus, or small tree. The shaded, well-concealed nest is often located next to a path or streambed that the Greater Roadrunners use when carrying nest-building material and food for nestlings.

Behavior


Ground Forager

True to its name, the Greater Roadrunner races along roads, streambeds, and well-worn paths, defending its large territory and chasing lizards, rodents, and insects. While on the move they startle and flush a meal by flashing the white spots on their open wings. Roadrunners can also jump straight up to snag insects, bats, and even hummingbirds in flight. Although agile on the ground, roadrunners don’t fly well. A threat may trigger a short, low burst of flight to seek a hiding place; otherwise, flying is limited to gliding from a nest or perch to the ground, or between perches. In the morning, roadrunners often “sunbathe” to warm up after a cold night in the desert: with its back to the sun, the bird raises the feathers across its back and wings to expose its heat-absorbent black skin. In winter, birds may sunbathe several times a day. Male roadrunners perch atop fence posts and rocks, calling out with a mournful coo-cooo-coooo to advertise territorial boundaries. When threatened or displaying to a rival, they erect their crest and reveal a bright orange patch of skin behind the eye. Both members of a pair patrol their territory—which can measure up to a half-mile in diameter—and drive off intruders. Roadrunner pairs form lifelong bonds that they renew each spring with a series of elaborate courtship steps and calls. Mating is equally orchestrated: the male roadrunner leaps onto his partner’s back while holding a mouse or other food offering, which both partners grasp as they copulate. Afterward he circles his mate, bowing, cooing and flicking his tail in a stylized display.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Greater Roadrunners are numerous and their breeding populations are stable, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.1 million, with 62 percent occurring in the U.S. and the other 38 percent in Mexico. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Threats to roadrunners include illegal shooting, often in the mistaken belief that they threaten populations of popular game birds. Habitat loss is a bigger threat, as roadrunners need room to roam and are susceptible to development that fragments their territories and eliminates prey and nest sites. Household pets, feral animals, pedestrians and traffic can also displace or kill roadrunners. Southern California has seen a significant drop in roadrunner numbers over the past several decades.

Credits

Range Map Help

Greater Roadrunner Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Find This Bird

The best way to find Greater Roadrunners is to travel along quiet roads in open country, particularly arid grasslands and low deserts. Seeing one is usually a surprise, as the bird darts out of shrub cover or across a road—so keep your eyes peeled. Roadsides often teem with roadrunner prey lizards and snakes basking in the open or mice and birds drawn to seed-bearing plants. On the edges of its range, the Greater Roadrunner can be quite scarce and very hard to find. Listen for their dovelike, low-pitched, cooing, which they usually give from an elevated perch.