Observations in Nature: Roadrunner by John R. Leeper


I must admit that I have had an affinity for roadrunners. It began when a pair took up residence in a lot across from my mountain cabin in New Mexico a couple years ago. We could not communicate, but took interest in each other’s comings and goings.

Since moving to Vail, I’ve witnessed roadrunners crossing the road as well as scampering away when encountered during desert walks. That all changed while on the trail in the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve one still chilly October morning. I noticed movement to my right and turned to see a lone roadrunner with what appeared to be a limp lizard tail dangling from its mouth. With an upward flip of its head the lizard slid down into the roadrunner’s gullet.

The bird was on the small size so I automatically assumed it to be a female.

I made a noise; she looked up, cocked her head and assessed the situation (Photo 1). She must not have determined me to be a danger since she went back to pecking at the ground and low hanging branches of the desert plants.

She worked her way through the scrub parallel to my trail and I followed, taking photos along the way. I made another noise and she strode to within two yards of me and reevaluated the situation before resuming her foraging.

She eventually crossed my trail and continued her search for food, stopping to expose her back to the morning sun to collect its warming radiant energy in what I call a “warming pose” after which we parted ways to go about our morning’s business.

The bird goes by the common name greater roadrunner, also known as roadrunner, chaparral bird, chaparral cock, ground cuckoo, snake killer, el churea, el corrrecaminos, and el paisano. Its scientific name is Geococcyx californianus. The generic name is derived from Greek, “geo” for “earth” and “coccyx” for “cuckoo”, combined to mean “cuckoo of the earth.” This describes its terrestrial habits and places the genus in the cuckoo family (Cuculidae). It is, without a doubt, the bird most identified with the desert Southwest.

The greater roadrunner is among the largest species in the cuckoo family which is characterized as slender birds, lacking sexual dimorphism (males and females look the same), possessing rounded wings, down-curved bills, and long tails with three shorter feathers on the edges. Another morphologic feature unique to the Cuculidae is zygodactyly; their feet have two toes facing forward and two toes facing back to form a characteristic “X” shaped footprint. This feature facilitates the bird’s climbing and grasping abilities.

G. californianus is a non-migratory species. Although it appears to favor the scrubby Southwest desert habitat, its geographic range extends from California east to Louisiana and from Colorado, in the north, into central Mexico in the south. With its extensive range and numbers, the greater roadrunner is not considered an endangered species.

G. californianus adults are large, slender birds that can measure up to 2 feet in length from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail, with half of that length being tail. Its wingspan can be as wide as the bird is long. And, it can stand almost a foot tall.

Greater roadrunners are long-legged birds that prefer to run than fly and can attain a ground speed of over 20 miles per hour. When running, their bodies become streamlined, parallel to the ground, and their tail becomes a rudder assisting in making sharp turning maneuvers. They are rather poor flyers, preferring to glide close to the ground, and tend to limit themselves to short bursts of flight to avoid predators or other dangers. Although they are characterized as a terrestrial bird, they have been seen perched on fences and power line and telephone poles and lines.

The greater roadrunner is well camouflaged with shades of brown streaked with black and white on most of the upper body while the lower chest is whitish to light tan in color. The dark black to blue head feathers lay flat or stand erect to present a crown or crest. A featherless orange, blue and white patch of skin, immediately behind each eye, may be exposed from time to time (Photo 2). The tail is composed of three short peripheral feathers and long white tipped center feathers that are predominantly brown to black which may take on a dark bluish hue. At rest, the tail is often cocked up at a sharp angle.

The head showing feathers standing erect to present a crown or crest and the featherless orange, blue and white patch of skin immediately behind each eye.

The head showing feathers standing erect to present a crown or crest and the featherless orange, blue and white patch of skin immediately behind each eye.

Good eyesight and speed make the G. californianus adroit at catching its favored prey: snakes, lizards, small birds and insects. It is particularly noted for its fearless ability to catch rattlesnakes by the tail and then repeatedly slap them on hard ground or a rock, until dead, before making it a meal. Additional food sources, especially in winter, include seeds and berries.

The greater roadrunner has adapted ways to obtain and retain its water requirement. Most of its liquid needs come from the prey it consumes. It also reabsorbs fecal moisture before excreting it. And, it reduces its need to urinate by eliminating excess salt through specialized nasal glands.

Temperature regulation is another interesting adaptation of the roadrunner. When cold, the bird goes into what might be described as a “warming pose” (Photo 3). It positions its back to the sun, brings the wings down from their normal position over the back to its sides and fluffs up the black back feathers to absorb the sun’s radiation. When sufficiently warmed the wings rapidly return over the back to retain the heat. This pose can be repeated throughout the day as the need to warm itself arises. In spite of this ability to warm themselves, freezing temperatures have been reported to pay a toll on roadrunner populations.

The roadrunner exposing her back, taking on the “warming pose”, to absorb the sun’s radiant energy.

The roadrunner exposing her back, taking on the “warming pose”, to absorb the sun’s radiant energy.

Greater roadrunners live alone or as a breeding pair. They mate for life and maintain their territory year round. When found in a group, it is appropriately called a “marathon” or “race.”

G. californianus pairs breed in the spring through mid-summer and may have a second clutch if environmental conditions and food supply are conducive. A male initiates courtship by parading around his mate; bowing, spreading and flapping his wings and tail, and may offer her food. Both parents collect the materials for building the nest but it is the female that does the actual construction in low growing shrubs or cactus.

Females lay clutches of up to a dozen white eggs over a three day period. Both parents incubate the eggs before they hatch after 20 days. The eggs do not hatch simultaneously and the first chicks to hatch frequently force their younger siblings out of the nest when a brood is too large. Both parents feed the nestlings which leave the nest at between 14 and 21 days of age. The young typically remain with their parents for another two weeks before separating to establish their own territory.

The vocalizations of a greater roadrunner are definitely not reminiscent of the “beep-beep” of the Warner Bothers cartoons that so many of us enjoyed as children, but a series of three to seven distinctly loud cooing sounds. Greater roadrunners also snap the mandibles of their bills together to make a distinct clicking sound.

Native American cultures have incorporated the roadrunner into their beliefs and traditions. The Pueblo and Hopi Tribes believe that the bird offered protection and would draw the characteristic “X” footprint around burial sites to protect their dead from evil spirits. Plains tribes were known to hang roadrunner skins over the entrances to their lodges for protection from evil spirits. And, the Tarahumare, of Mexico, credit their running endurance to eating roadrunner meat.

Other beliefs are that a roadrunner brings good luck if it takes up residence near a home or crosses one’s path. And, lore has it that, if lost in the desert, following a roadrunner’s tracks will lead the way to a road or trail, allowing one to find the way safely home.

For additional information on the greater roadrunner, conduct a web search using the scientific name Geococcyx californianus.

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