Roadrunners are a common sight in the west and southwest, but, as New Mexico’s state bird, they are part of the regional narrative. We love our roadrunners. They are a charismatic, fearless, long legged member of the cuckoo bird family, aka Geococcyx californianus (California earth cuckoo). The formidable fowl is the ubiquitous symbol of the Southwest, made famous by Chuck Jones, though, in reality, the coyote and roadrunner rivalry depicted doesn’t play out favorably for roadrunners. Coyotes are twice as fast.
After seeing Jurassic Park, I view them as mini velociraptors. They kill their prey by bludgeoning their victims to death. It is vicious. They feed on anything they can chase down. Insects, spiders (including black widows and tarantulas), scorpions, bats, mice, small birds (including hummingbirds), lizards and small snakes (including venomous snakes, like small rattlers) are fair game for a roadrunner.
Small but Fierce
From beak to tail, roadrunners are approximately 2 feet long. They have evolved to thrive in the desert. They get most of their moisture from prey. Rather than excreting via kidneys or a urinary tract, they secrete a solution of concentrated salt through a gland in front of each eye.
They are not shy. Once a roadrunners realizes that a human is not a threat, they can be quite social; seemingly as curious about humans as we are about them. A friend of mine was recently accompanied on her afternoon walk for about a 1/2 mile by a congenial roadrunner. She talked to it while passing. It decided to hang out. As the many photos in my personal collection attest, they are not the slightest bit camera shy, with a penchant for posing. Strike a pose!
Although capable of limited flight, roadrunners spend most of their time on the ground, with a normal ‘top speed’ of about 20 mph (32 km/hr). There have been cases of roadrunners reaching speeds as high as 26 mph (42 km/hr). That makes it the fastest running speed clocked for a flying bird. The bird clocked may have been highly motivated to flee or, perhaps, was the Usain Bolt of the roadrunner realm. Regardless, 26 mph is half the speed of an ostrich.
Roadrunners mate for life. They renew their vows each spring with a series of elaborate courtship rituals. Nesting sites are 3–10 feet off the ground. The shaded, well-concealed nests are often close to paths or stream beds that can be used as a thoroughfare while collecting material for the nest and for transporting food to hatch-lings.
Males bring materials to the female to construct the nest. The finished nests can be more than 17″ diameter and 8″ high, with about a 4″ next cup. They are lined with leaves, grasses, sticks, feathers, flakes of manure and snakeskin. It is elaborate. Mating pairs reuse viable nests from prior seasons.
Roadrunner habitat is pretty much everywhere in the Southwestern United States, including areas dominated by creosote, mesquite, chaparral, and tamarisk, as well as grasslands, riparian woodlands and canyons. At higher elevations roadrunners live in pinon-juniper woodlands and cholla grasslands. They have been migrating further north, with roadrunners spotted as far north as Missouri.
For New Mexicans the roadrunner is a familiar and frequent sight, often a backyard buddy. For those from other parts of the world, who have never seen one, it is a real bird, but don’t let the cartoons fool you. The coyotes definitely have the edge.