Roadrunners are fun, quirky birds that are easy to recognize thanks to their long tails, swift legs, speckled plumage, jaunty crests, and curious attitudes.
What Is a Roadrunner?
A roadrunner is a slender fast-running bird of the cuckoo family that lives in the southern United States and Central America.
But how much do you know about roadrunners? How fast do roadrunners run? What do these birds eat? What other birds are their closest relatives? What noises do they make? This roadrunner bird trivia will have you running to amaze your bird-loving friends.
The most famous roadrunner is the Road Runner (two words) created by Chuck Jones in 1948 for Warner Bros. The bird first debuted with his nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, in 1949 and has appeared in numerous cartoons, comics, commercials, and video games as well as the movies Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam. The cartoon bird bears little resemblance to wild roadrunners, however, and in fact, coyotes often do catch and eat roadrunners, though Wile E. Coyote never did.
Although we love to think of roadrunners as cartoon caricatures, they are actually friendly and funny birds to behold. In case you are lucky enough to spot one, here are a few things to know about these kooky little cuckoo birds.
Roadrunner Physical Characteristics
- Roadrunners have zygodactyl feet with two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. These feet leave X-shaped footprints along dusty paths or dry ground that can be easy to identify.
- Roadrunners are far more often seen than they are heard, but they can make a variety of sounds. Coos, whirrs, and buzzes are all part of their vocalizations, and they will also make a rapid clacking noise by clicking their bills.
- Can roadrunners fly? Yes, but only short distances. As terrestrial birds, roadrunners are powerful on the ground but weaker in the air and typically fly in low, short, awkward glides onto fences, low branches, or rocks. Whenever possible, they prefer to walk or run rather than fly.
- Roadrunners run up to 15 miles per hour but can have sprints up to 26 mph. This is the fastest running speed for any bird that can also fly, though larger flightless birds are faster than roadrunners. While running, roadrunners use their long tails for steering, balancing, and braking.
- These birds prefer dry, relatively barren, or scrubby habitats, such as deserts, canyons, washes, open fields, or agricultural areas where they can find their favorite prey of rodents, reptiles, snakes, insects, small birds, and their eggs. At the fringes of their range, they may be found in woodland edges, and they can become accustomed to suburban habitats in sprawling communities as well.
- Because water is scarce in many roadrunner habitats, these birds get the moisture they need from the blood and tissues of their prey. Like many seabirds, they have special glands in front of their eyes that secrete excess salt to keep their body chemistry balanced.
- Roadrunners are also called earth-cuckoos, chaparral cocks, snake killers, and ground cuckoos. While they are generally solitary birds or are found in pairs, a flock of roadrunners can be called a marathon or race.
- Roadrunners mate for life and renew bonds each spring with courtship dancing, calls, chases, and sharing food. When they are ready to breed, males bring nesting materials such as twigs, leaves, grass, snakeskin, and bits of dung to their partners, and the female will build the broad platform nest.
- Both parents work together to guard and care for hatchlings. Young roadrunners can run and begin catching their own prey when they are three weeks old, but they will not be sexually mature until they are 2 to 3 years old. The average lifespan of a roadrunner is 7 to 8 years.
- While these birds may be named for roads, they will run along a wide variety of natural pathways as they patrol their territory and chase away intruders. Roadrunners will use gullies, dry streambeds, and other paths as they patrol and hunt.
- When desert temperatures drop at night, roadrunners can enter a slight state of torpor to conserve energy. In the morning, they will sunbathe, turning their backs to the rising sun, drooping their wings, and raising their feathers so their black skin can absorb heat more easily.
- There are two types of roadrunners, the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and the lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox). Both birds are in the Cuculidae family, which includes approximately 150 different bird species such as cuckoos, koels, anis, coucals, and malkohas.
- While neither type of roadrunner is endangered, these birds do face some grave threats. Habitat loss and fragmentation from roads and urban sprawl limit where these birds can comfortably exist, and loose pets, feral cats, and increased traffic all take their toll on roadrunners. Illegal shooting and agricultural pesticides are also problems for both greater roadrunners and lesser roadrunners.
- The greater roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico. Ancient indigenous and Mexican peoples also honored roadrunners and considered the birds to be good luck as well as symbols of strength, courage, speed, and endurance. Roadrunner feathers have been used to ward off evil, and it has been believed that a roadrunner's tracks can lead someone who is lost back to a trail. Roadrunner references have been found in the religious beliefs, folklore, and legends of the Pima, Hopi, Pueblo, Anasazi, and Mogollon tribes.
- Greater roadrunners are found throughout eastern, central, and northern Mexico. Their range spreads into the southwestern United States to central California, southern Utah, central Colorado, southern Missouri, and western Louisiana. Lesser roadrunners are found in western Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and their range extends south into northern Nicaragua. Neither of the roadrunner species migrates.