The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is a ground-dwelling bird native to the arid deserts of the southwestern United States and much of Mexico. It is slightly larger but otherwise similar to the lesser roadrunner, which resides farther south into Central America. Named for its habit of running along roads in front of cars before darting off into brush, the greater roadrunner is a chicken-like bird with brown, black and white feathers. It has a recognizable crest of black feathers on its head which can be raised or lowered at will. The bird has a long tail with a blue beak and legs. Greater roadrunners are two feet long and weigh about 10 ounces.
Contrary to popular belief, the roadrunner is not a flightless bird. It has useable wings to propel it onto perches and over obstacles, but otherwise keeps its feet on the ground. When on ground the roadrunner has a top speed of nearly 20 miles per hour, making it the fastest running bird capable of flight. It uses this speed to run down its prey of insects, snakes and small mammals. Roadrunners are also known to prey upon poisonous snakes and scorpions and have the ability to leap up and catch small birds. However, the greater roadrunner is not a pure hunter as it also will dine on fruit, seeds, and carrion when available. If roadrunners eat enough food with high moisture content they do not require water.
Greater roadrunners make rudimentary nests out of sticks low in bushes or cacti. Mating seasons depend upon weather conditions, but when a new pair is courting the male will attempt to impress the female by offering her food; if she accepts the male, the two will likely mate for life. Roadrunner broods contain 2-8 eggs that must be incubated for 20 days. Young roadrunners develop quickly, and are able to leave the nest and catch their own food within a month. However, it is not uncommon for parents to continue to feed them for longer than this.
In the wild, greater roadrunners can live up to 8 years. The mated pair will maintain and defend their territory year round. Doing so means they must avoid predation by carnivores native to the desert environment including hawks, coyotes and raccoons. In recent years greater roadrunners have expanded their range north and east into the southern plains of the United States. Their inherent curiosity and lack of fear of humans means they are becoming more common in inhabited areas. However they are rarely considered a nuisance, as their diet helps reduce the pest population.
GREATER ROADRUNNER FACTS
- Greater roadrunners have special glands in their eyes that can excrete excess salt from their blood; a trait usually only found in seabirds.
- Roadrunners frequently ambush and prey upon small songbirds at bird feeders.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology