Familiar to many as a cartoon character, the Greater Roadrunner lives up to its name and can run at about 20 miles per hour. It is a formidable predator of snakes, lizards, scorpions, and birds. The Greater Roadrunner is actually a large terrestrial cuckoo that is related to the smaller arboreal Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos.
Common in several habitats including desert areas, Greater Roadrunners often dust bathe but do not bathe in water. They also sun themselves, aiming the black skin on their backs toward the sun for several hours a day, particularly when temperatures are low.
The Greater Roadrunner is related to cuckoos, although its muscle structure is slightly different in a way that provides more stability while running, something that other cuckoos don’t typically do. Greater Roadrunners defend territories year-round, and males are somewhat more vigorous in repelling intruders than females.
Poor weather and food shortages can both lead to nest failures. Heavy snow cover can also lead to adult mortality. Greater Roadrunners are thought to breed at age one, and they are believed to be relatively long-lived, but there are few banding studies to confirm this.
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Description of the Greater Roadrunner
The roadrunner is nearly unmistakable with its slender, brown-streaked body, exceptionally long tail, bluish skin behind the eye, and reddish skin behind the blue that is visible only when its crest is raised. Though capable of flight, its preference for running rather than flying is also a useful identification feature. Length: 23 in. Wingspan: 22 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults.
Deserts and arid, open country with brush. Occurs in a variety of open and edge habitats in eastern portions of its range.
Insects, lizards, snakes, birds, scorpions, and rodents are all fair game for this opportunistic predator.
Forages by walking in search of prey. Then dashes rapidly to complete the capture.
Breeds throughout the southwestern and south central U.S. and into Mexico.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Greater Roadrunner.
The roadrunner is actually related to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black-billed Cuckoo.
Cowboy mythology suggests that a roadrunner will enclose a sleeping rattlesnake with a ring of cactus spines. Upon waking up, the snake injures itself on the spines and the roadrunner preys upon it.
A series of coos. Also a rattle produced by rapidly clacking the bill open and shut.
- Hard to mistake with any other species.Ring-necked Pheasant
Female Ring-necked Pheasants also are largely brown and have long tails, but pheasants have shorter bills and spotted rather than streaked plumage.
Builds a platform of sticks lined with grasses and sometimes snakeskin, usually 2-10 feet up in a tree, bush, or cactus.
Number: Usually 3-6egs.
Color: White or creamy white.
Incubation and fledging:
Young hatch at about 19-20 days and fledge at about 14-25 days, though continuing to associate with parents for some time after leaving the nest.
Bent Life History of the Greater Roadrunner
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Greater Roadrunner – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
Most ornithologists are to some extent acquainted with the roadrunner. They have read about him. They have heard strange stories about him. Perhaps, driving along some road in the Southwestern United States, they have even seen him. But he who really knows the roadrunner has risen morning, after morning, with the desert sun; thrilled at the brilliance of the desert stars; seen day turned to sudden night by the dust-storm: pulled cactus spines from his shins. He who knows the roadrunner, who has measured the breadth and the depth of this unique bird personality, has lived with him-not for an hour or so, not for a day, but week after week after week.
First impressions almost invariably give us an inadequate, concept of this strange bird. We hear him scuttle through dry leaves ahead of us, catch a glimpse of him as he slips back of a rock, know from the flight of a grasshopper that lie has gone~ a certain way, and that is all. Or, coming upon him suddenly, we surprise him into flight; note his short, rounded wings, long tail, and coarsely streaked plumage; watch him sail down the arro ‘yo; and marvel that with the shutting of his wings and reckless plunge into the thicket he is so instantly lost to view.
Sometimes, traveling in a motorcar, we come upon him perched on a fence post or telegraph pole close to the highway. Now we have opportunity to observe how slim he is, how long his legs, how noticeable his crest. But as we pass he leaps to the ground, swings off through the cactus clumps, and is gone. Once more only a glimpse! Once more only the retreat of a timid desert creature that appears to be half bird, half reptile.
But lie in wait for the roadrunner! Watch him race across the sand, full speed, after a lizard. Watch him put out a wing, change his course, throw up his tail, change his course again, plunge headlong into a clump of cactus, and emerge, whacking his limp victim on the ground. Watch him jerk a slender snake from the grass, fling it into the air, grasp it by the head or neck, pummel it with his hard mandibles, and gulp it head first. Watch him stalk a grasshopper, slipping quietly forward, making a sudden rush with wings and tail fully spread. frightening the doomed insect into flight, then leaping 3 or 4 feet in air to snatch it flycatcherwise in his long bill. Watch the roadrunner for an hour at his daily business of catching food and you will deem him among the most amazing of all the desert’s amazing creatures. Snake-killer indeed! Chaparral cock! Not by sitting quietly on fence posts, not by slipping shyly from the path, has the roadrunner earned for himself these bloodstirring names!
So odd, so even funny a creature is the roadrunner that it is natural to caricature him a bit in describing him. This J. L. Sloanaker (1913) has done when he writes:
Of all the birds on our list the Roadrunner is doubtless the most unique; indeed, he is queer, and would certainly take first prize in the freak class at the Arizona state fair. He is about two feet in length, with a tail as long as his body, color above brown streaked with black, bare spaces around eyes blue and orange, feathers of head and neck bristle-tipped, eyelids lashed, * * * his whole plumage coarse and harsh. Could you imagine such a looking creature? Try and think of a long striped snake on two legs, a feather duster on his head and another trailing behind; or a tall, slim tramp in a swallow-tailed coat, a black and blue eye, and a head of hair standing straight on end! There you are!
Elliott Coues (1903) describes roadrunners as “singular birds/cuckoos compounded of a chicken and a Magpie.” Mrs. Bailey (1902) considers them among the ‘-most original and entertaining of western birds.” Other writers call them “odd,” “anomalous,” and “unique.” They are.
Throughout much of his range the roadrunner is known as the chaparral cock, or merely the chaparral. He also is called lizard bird, ground cuckoo, cock of the desert, and, as we have stated above, snake killer. The Mexicans call him the paisiano or the correo del camino. The first of these names means compatriot or fellow countryman; according to some writers it expresses affectionate regard, and is to be freely translated “little friend.” The latter is almost the equivalent of our name roadrunner.
That the roadrunner has at times been known as the churca we learn from an interesting note by Elliott Cones (1900) who quotes from an anonymous Franciscan priest the following description, published in 1790: “The Churca is a kind of pheasant which has a long bill, dark plumage, a handsome tail and four feet. It has these latter facing outward in such fashion that when it runs it leaves the track of two feet going forward and two going backward.”
Cones himself calls attention to the fact that the word “toes” must replace the word “feet” in the above paragraph if the description is to fit the roadrunner. The error may well have been the translator’s. At any rate, anyone who has observed a roadrunuer’s tracks in the sand knows how faithfully these record the zygodactylism of the bird’s foot.
Many a fanciful tale is told of the roadrunner. According to the best known of these, the bird builds a fence of cactus spines about a sleeping rattler, letting the doomed reptile buffet itself to weariness until finally, in desperation, it is impaled on the spines or bites itself to death! According to other stories (some of which probably have a grain of truth in them), the bird will deliberately race the swiftest horse across the plains!
The speed of the roadrunner is remarkable. Not when he is flying, a flying roadrunner is as much out of his element as a swimming chicken-but when be is afoot. A. W. Anthony (1892) tells us of a pair of birds that apparently enjoyed being chased by a hound that could never catch them. He says:
At Hatchita … a pair came regularly to one of the mines for water, a small pool having been formed near the shaft, from the pumps. The visit was made at nearly the same hour each forenoon, and was eagerly looked forward to by a foxhound owned by one of the workmen. The dog never failed to give chase as soon as the birds were sighted, and the race was as much enjoyed by the birds as by the dog; they seemed to have no difficulty whatever in keeping well out of danger without taking wing, and usually found time during the chase to stop at the water hole and get their daily drink, after which they quickly disappeared.
H. C. Bryant (1916) quotes from Heermarm that the roadrunner “may, however, be overtaken when followed on horseback over the vast open plains,” and Heermann is known to have seen “one captured by a couple of dogs.”
Richard Hunt (1920), who was able to check with a speedometer the actual speed of a roadrunner encountered “en route from Soledad to the Galiban Range” in California, writes: “At the top speed to which we provoked our victim, the famous runner was moving at the tremendous rate of 10 miles an hour on a practically level piece of road.”
H. H. Sheldon (1922a), who also checked the roadrunner~s running speed with a speedometer, writes of the incident: “The car gained on the bird until about five yards separated us, and I saw it was running at its utmost speed. I instructed my friend, who was driving, not to press him further, and for fully three hundred yards the bird ran from the big monster in pursuit, the while the speedometer registered exactly fifteen miles per hour. When finally we approached very closely, the bird gave up and flew into a palm, where I plainly saw it, beak agape and apparently very much fatigued from the unusual exertion.”
There is no doubt in my own mind that a, fully adult roadrunner, can, for short distances, run faster than 15 miles an hour. Athletic directors tell us that an average man (not an athlete) can run 9 yards a second, or about 18 miles an hour. I know I can run as fast as the average man, and I know I have failed many a time to gain on a roadrunner that happened to appear on the road a, short distance ahead of me. I distinctly recall catching two young roadrunners (with tails 7 or 8 inches long) in a little gully near Fort Worth, Tex., in about the vear 1913. 1 had quite a chase and might never have caught them had they not been forced to run up a steep embankment.
Spring: We have seen the roadrunner sneak off through the weeds-a frightened bird. We have seen him capture lizards, snakes, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas-a veritable monster. But not until we have heard him sing do we know the finer side (as Aldrovandus of old would say) of his nature. On fine spring mornings he sings as the sun rises, and he may continue his fervent if somewhat monotonous performance for an hour or more. His favorite songperch is the eastern rim of a mesa where, full in the fresh sunlight, he can see far and wide. If there is no mesa, he chooses a dead tree or a high cactus. Here, directing his bill downward until it almost touches his toes, he begins to coo. Coo, coo, coo, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, he calls, pumping out the syllables in a hoarse, throaty voice, his head rising a little with each coo, until the bill points upward, the pitch of the song meanwhile dropping gradually lower. So lie starts with head low and coo high, and ends vice versa. Cattlemen say that before he begins his song he “lays his beak on the rock.”
The pumped-out series of coos we have just described doubtless is the roadrunner’s love song. Before giving it he may parade in a prominent place, strutting with head held stiff and high, and wings and tail drooping. On May 2, 1914, 1 witnessed what I believe were certain courtship antics of the male before the female not far from Fort Worth, Tex. According to the published account (Sutton, 1922) of this performance, the bird’s “wings were spread, and he may have been preening and taking a sun bath, but circumstances * * * led me to think otherwise. Now and then he bowed, and affected a close examination of his feet, only to raise his bead again, drop his wings, lift them again and spread his tail. * * * Before I knew it [I] was discovered and then, without wings spread, leaped from the dead branch to the next lower one, whence on out stretched wings he sailed to the ground. I rushed up to where he had been, and was surprised to see two birds scuttling off through the vines.”
Nesting: The nest, which usually is situated in a low tree, thicket, or clump of cactus 3 or 4 to 15 feet from the ground, is a rather compact, though not deeply cupped affair, about a foot in diameter and 6 to 8 inches high, with foundation of sticks and lining of leaves, grass, feathers, mesquite pods, snakeskin, roots, and dry flakes of cattle and horse manure. It is sometimes well hidden, sometimes not. In the Black Mesa country of the far western Oklahoma Panhandle John Semple and I found several nests in small cedar trees that grew on the mesa sides. Here the nests were well hidden, and since cedar trees were numerous our usual method of locating nests was watching the parent birds.
Rarely the nest is built on the ground. Such a nest, containing six eggs, was found by W. W. Brown in. Sonora, Mexico, on May 15, 1905. This nest is preserved in the John E. Thayer collection.
A. C. Bent writes me of a nest found by F. C. Willard in Cochise County, Ariz., on April 23, 1916, “7 feet from the ground on a packrat’s nest in a dense thicket of hawthorn.” This nest was “merely a few leaves, etc., in a slight hollow in the rubbish of the rat’s nest.” While Mr. Bent was hunting ravens’ nests among the abandoned oil derricks in the Kettleman Hills, Calif., his companion, J. R. Pemberton, told him that roadrunners sometimes built their nests in tile lower parts of the derricks, using the sticks dropped by the ravens. Griffing Bancroft (1930) describes a nest with complete set of two eggs found in Lower California in the heart of a date palm * * * so well concealed that it could not be seen until much of the foliage had been cut away.”
Eggs: Roadrunner nests contain, as a rule, three to five or six eggs. Occasionally two eggs comprise a complete, set; and sets with as many as 12 eggs have been recorded. Where large numbers of eggs are found in one nest it is supposed that more than one female has deposited them. Coues (1903) describes the eggs as “ovate or elliptical, white in ground color with an overlying chalky film which may take a slight yellowish tint, ranging in length from 1.45 to 1.75, averaging 1.55 x 1.20. They are laid at considerable intervals, incubation begins as soon as a few are deposited, and is believed to last 18 days for each egg. The development of the chicks is rapid;perfectly fresh eggs and newly-hatched young may be found together; and by the time the last young are breaking the shell the others may be graded up to half the size of the adult.”
[AUTHOR’S Note: The measurements of 55 eggs average 39.2 by 30.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 44 by 30, 41 by 32, and 34 by 27.5 millimeters.]
William L. and Irene Finley (1915) describe a typical nest in which there were “one fresh egg, one ego- just ready to hatch, two featherless, greasy, black young, and two young ones about grown and ready to leave home.” These authors were in a position to watch this nest almost continuously for several days. They did not observe more than one female parent. If, then, the several eggs were laid by more than one female, it may be supposed that the species is to some extent parasitic or promiscuous in this regard, as the yellowbilled and black-billed cuckoos also are thought to be.
Frank L. Burns (1915) also gives the period of incubation as “18 days.” It is supposed that only the female incubates. That incubation sometimes begins with the laying of the first egg rather than as soon as a few are deposited” (see above quotation from Coues) has been observed by M. French Gilman (1915), who tells us of a nest with four eggs in which “one hatched July 20, the others on the three succeeding days.” In cases of this sort it is natural to suppose that all eggs are laid by the same female.
Eggs are usually laid in April and May. W. E. D. Scott (1886) tells us, however, of several nests found on the San Pedro slope of the Catalina Mountains in Arizona, the earliest of which, discovered March 17, 1885, at an elevation of 3,000 feet, contained two fresh eggs. That two broods of young are sometimes, if not frequently, reared in one season has been reported by numerous authors, though I believe it has not been proved beyond doubt that fresh eggs found in July are laid by females that have already succeeded in bringing out one brood.
Young: Newly hatched young are odd, “featherless, greasy, black” creatures with a reptilian appearance. I had a good deal to do with young roadrunners in the vicinity of Fort Worth, Tex., as a boy, so I quote my own description here (1922) :
The nestling bird, be It ever so young, has an unmistakable cuckoo-like expression in Its face, though its eyes, upon which a good portion of the facial expression depends, are quite different from those of the adult, being of a deep dull brown with a bluish pupil. * * * The eyelashes are small, In fact scarcely apparent. Its whole external appearance Is very sombre, and rather dirty looking, as though the creature had been bathed in some unrefined oil, which had not been properly administered. The white hairs, each of which marks a coming feather, all lie In rows and look as if they had been rudely combed Into place. The rather large, pale blue-gray feet are strong In the toes, but very weak at the heel, so that the birds cling to the fingers or the twigs of their nest with some power, but are quite unable to rise. Whenever there were very many young birds in the nest they presented a peculiarly scrambled appearance, due, I believe, to the constant disturbance at feeding time more than to restlessness, for they usually lie quite still. By May I [the birds were taken from the nest on April 29] feathers were appearing rapidly on my young birds, first on the top of the head, back, and wings, and then on the belly, tall, and throat. Once the blood-quills had started to burst, development was very rapid. On May 4 the birds were quite well feathered, the tails being one and one-half inches long, and they were quite able to walk unsteadily. It is at this period, or a little before, that the young leave the nest, though there must be Innumerable dangers for the rather weak-legged creatures. Several times I have come across young birds able to run well, but still in trees, which leads me to believe that the young may, like young Green Herons, spend a portion of their early active life climbing about from branch to branch.
During the spring and summer of 1914 1 reared these two young roadrunners, feeding them uncounted hundreds of grasshoppers, cave crickets, tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, lizards, snakes, mice, cotton rats, and small birds. They were the most entertaining pets I ever had. Eventually they learned to capture their own food. Concerning this period of their life I have published the following paragraphs (1936) :
After three weeks they became sturdy enough to catch part of their own food. With patient coaxing they were taught to pick up grasshoppers tossed to them, and finally to run after and capture crippled insects. Content at first, perforce, with sluggish, wingless nymphs which were abundant, they stole about through the weeds, wings pressed neatly against their slender bodies, snapping up the insects as fast as they could find them. Grasshoppers, often still alive and kicking, they swallowed with a toss of the head and a hollow gulp. Large green or gray cave crickets, which live in piles of boards, or in (lamp, shadowy places, were especially prized. When a yellow- or coral-winged grasshopper rose noisily from the path, the birds crouched in momentary fear, but soon began to mark the return to earth of the clackety aeronaut and to steal up behind clumps of grass, intent upon a killing.
Finally they learned to capture the biggest, noisiest, and wariest grasshoppers on the prairies. They would watch a coral-wing in his courtship flight and, running stealthily, wait until the performer dropped to the ground. With a bound over low weeds, a dart across the open, and a final rush with outspread wings and tail, they would frighten their prey into the air, leap nimbly after him, nab him unerringly with their bills, and descend gracefully on outspread wings to beat him to insensibility with a whack or two on a stone.
Once they had learned to capture grasshoppers, their food problem was largely solved and, since they showed no inclination to run away, they were at liberty most of the time. They ran about the yard, playing with each other, or catching insects. In the heat of mid-day they sought the shelter of broad, cool leaves, and sprawled in the sand. Daily, often many times daily, I took them for a walk ‘across the prairie. Following me closely or running at my side, they watched the big world with eyes far keener than my own. Grasshoppers which I frightened from the grass they captured in side expeditions. If I paused near a flat stone, they urged me on with grunts, bit gently at my hands, and raced back and forth in an ecstasy of anticipation.
I entertained misgivings concerning these flat stones. What savage creatures might Dot they conceal? Could young Road-Runners manage swift-tailed scorpions, sharp-toothed mice, or poisonous spiders? Under the first stone there were scorpions. The Road-Runners hesitated an instant, as if permitting an untried instinct to take possession of their brains, then rushed forward, thrust out their heads, and attacked the scorpions precisely at their tails. Perhaps these venomous tails received more than the usual number of benumbing blows, but the scorpions were swallowed with gusto.
I had not supposed that a Road-Runner would capture and devour a tarantula. One day, however, we paused at the tunnel of one of these big, furred spiders. Somewhat in the spirit of experimentation, and following the method known to all Texas boys, I teased the black Arachnid from her lair by twirling a wisp of grass in her face. She popped out viciously and jumped a good ten inches to one side. With a dash one bird was upon the monster before she had opportunity to leap a second time. A toss of the bird’s head and one of the eight legs was gone. Free again, the spider leaped upon her captor. The other bird now entered the combat, snatched tip the spider, and flicked off another leg. One by one the legs went down, and finally the two birds pulled apart and gulped the sable torso.
Plumages: The newly hatched roadrunner’s only plumage is coarse, long, white or whitish hairs. These do not by any means cover the dark-skinned body, but they apparently give the bird all the protection it needs. At this stage the light-colored egg tooth is noticeable, the feet are dark colored like the rest of the body, the mouth lining has a peculiarly blotched appearance, and the irides are dull brown.
As blood quills replace the long white hairs, the egg tooth disappears, the legs and feet turn blue-gray, the skin about and back of the eye lightens, and the blotching of the mouth lining becomes less conspicuous. The sprouting feathers now bear at their tips the white hairs of babyhood. Some of these hairs cling to the plumage long after the bird leaves the nest.
When young roadrunners begin to capture their own food they wear a plumage that is much like that of the adult. J. A. Allen (Scott, 1886) describes this plumage thus: “The chief difference in color consists in the broad shaft stripes of the feathers of the neck and breast being less sharply defined in the young than in the adult, and in the brown edgings bordering the shaft stripes being paler.”
At this stage the bare skin about the eye becomes pale blue, and the naked patch back of the eye light orange. Too, the eye itself changes, a light-colored ring, which contrasts sharply with the brown or gray,-brown of the rest of the iris, forming about the pupil. As the bird becomes older the bare skin of the face brightens. Fully adult males, at the height of the nesting season, are fairly resplendent with their high, steel-blue crest, brilliant eye, and bright orange patch back of the eye.
The plumage worn by the young bird after it loses its natal hairs is apparently the first winter plumage. Judging from such specimens as I have seen, the postnuptial molt is the only complete molt of the adult bird. Whether there is a partial prenuptial molt in young or adult birds I cannot, say. The roadrunner’s life is so strenuous that he doubtless loses feathers frequently. Spring birds with half- ‘ grown tall feathers may therefore not be performing a, molt in the usual sense of the word.
Food: Lizards (including the armored horned “toad”), small snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and other spiders, centipedes and millipedes, mice, cotton rats, ground-inhabiting small birds and their eggs and young, young quail, insects of all sorts, various fruits and seeds, including prickly pears: all these are eaten by the roadrunner; and this considerable list but hints at the rapacity and digestive powers of the gaunt bird. One of the most thorough-going reports on the roadrunner’s food habits I’s that by Dr. Harold C. Bryant (1916). Informing us that animal food makes up slightly over ? percent of the total food of the species in California, Dr. Bryant says:
Almost any animal, from the smaller rodents down to tiny insects, appears to be relished by this bird. Although the stomachs examined showed is large percentage of vertebrates, other published records show that reptiles sometimes form a large part, if not the entire diet. Even these larger elements of food are usually swallowed whole at one gulp. That the digestive apparatus is powerful is evidenced by the fact that bone, hair, and feathers pass through the digestive tract, and are not thrown back out through the mouth in the form of pellets, as is the case with some hawks and most owls.
A diagram in Dr. Bryant’s paper makes it plain that grasshoppers and crickets form a considerable part (36.82 percent) of the roadrunner’s food in California. Beetles form 18.2 percent; and seeds and fruits, cutworms and caterpillars, bugs, ants, bees, wasps, scorpions, lizards, mammals, fly larvae, birds, and “miscellaneous” items go to make up the rest.
Game officials are usually opposed to the roadrunner, for the bird is reputed to be an enemy of young quail. Regarding the bird’s reputation as a quail destroyer, W. L. McAtee (1931) tells us that “the Road-runner is persecuted almost throughout its range as an alleged destroyer of Quail eggs, and state bounties are even paid for its destruction. Yet the Road-runner never has been known t., be a special enemy of Quail,” and it doubtless “eats more scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas, those poisonous nuisances of the Southwest, than it does Quail eggs.”
Aldo Leopold (1922) writes of shooting a roadrunner “-with a lightcolored object in his bill.” Examining the spot -where the bird had fallen he “found a dead [quail] chick, still limber and ‘warm but unmutilated still in the downy stage, with 1/8-inch pin feathers on the win-smaller than a domestic chick when hatched.”
S. S. Visher (1910) writing of birds found by him in Pima County, Ariz., tells us that roadrunners “have been seen leaving the nest of Gambel’s Quails carrying an egg in their beak.”
That the roadrunner will occasionally capture birds as large as a mockingbird is apparent from several published accounts including that by Robert S. Woods (1927a) who tells us of “an immature but full-grown mockingbird” captured though not actually killed by a roadrunner near Azusa, Calif.; and that by Dr. W. K. Fisher (1904) who reports that a roadrunner was seen to “remove from a nest a young mockingbird and devour it” in Mission Valley, near San Diego, Calif.
In a letter to A. C. Bent, Mr. Woods (who is quoted above) speaks of a short article written by the late Rev. St. John O’Sullivan, of San Juan Capistrano Mission, “describing a roadrunner’s method of killing a swift by lying in wait in a creek-bed near Palm Springs and suddenly springing into the air to knock down one of the birds which passed within its reach.” This capturing swifts in air seems perfectly plausible to me, for I recall seeing my captive roadrunners capturing English sparrows in much the same manner. Walking about with a noncommittal air that was comically suggestive of the chickens that fed nearby, they gradually grew nearer to a sparrow, then with a dash to one side and a tremendous leap snatched the fleeing victim from the air.
A. W. Anthony (1896) tells us of suddenly coming upon a roadrunner that had just finished dispatching a wood rat (Neotoma). “The bird reluctantly withdrew as I came upon the scene,” he writes, “leaving the rat, which I found to be quite dead.”
My own captive birds caught and killed a cotton rat (Sigmodon) that lived in a stone wall near our house in Fort Worth, Tex. Two or three times a day this rat scurried across a gap in this wall, and the birds came to look upon him as a possible meal. At first. his speed and considerable size kept the enemy at a safe distance, but their interest sharpened daily, and eventually they formed the habit of loitering near the runway. One day I heard a squeal of terror and ran up in time to see the bewildered animal running this way and that, trying to escape two lightning-quick demons who never really held him, but pinched him, tossed him, dealt him blows, buffeted him, made him weary with fighting for life. Over his limp form the roadrunners had an argument. He was heavy. No sooner would one bird start to swallow than the other would be tugging at the bind foot or tail, and down be would drop. I finally cut the rat in two.
Carroll Dewilton Scott has contributed a note conecerning roadrunners that catch half-grown “gophers” in his garden at Pacific Beach, Calif. Describing one of the birds he says: “Finally, after ridiculous gulpings and twistings of his neck he got the gopher down, balanced his tail, and ambled away from another conquest.”
Mrs. Bailey (1928) tells us of two roadrunners observed at Carlsbad, N. Mex., that “snapped their bills and chased each other up into a cottonwood on the bank where there were caterpillar nests. To determine what they had been eating, one was shot and its gizzard was found to contain not only caterpillar skins but a number of large grasshoppers, a large black cricket, beetles, a centipede six inches long, and part of a garter snake a foot long. The rest of the snake was down in the crop and the barely swallowed end up near the bill.”
Regarding the economic status of the roadrunner in California, Dr. Bryant (1916) says: “A preponderance of evidence favors the bird. The destruction of such unquestioned pests as grasshoppers, cutworms, caterpillars, and wireworms and of such rodents as mice is to be desired even if the amount of destruction be relatively small. The taking of this sort of food on wild land is evidence that this bird when feeding in cultivated fields is likely to be distinctly beneficial.”
Behavior: Anyone who has observed the roadrunner closely knows what an entertaining creature it is. Its voracity keeps it on the alert for food. To capture a grasshopper one moment, a race-runner lizard the next, and a tarantula the next requires strength, speed, and prowess. If nymph grasshoppers are numerous, the bird has no trouble in obtaining a meal. But flying grasshoppers are difficult to overtake; lizards escape because of the brittleness of their tails; and tarantulas have burrows into which they can pop when danger threatens.
Not often does one see a wild roadrunner capturing its food. I recall watching one a year or two ago, not far from Packsaddle Lake, a small, artificial body of water in western Oklahoma. I had climbed a sandy mound. Peering through the sagebrush, I saw a roadrunner under a bush not far away, busy feeding. He ran out into the sunlight now and then, but his attention was directed principally to grasshoppers that must have been feeding on the leaves. These be snatched, with nimble leaps upward, in the tip of his bill. To reach the insects that were in the midst of the bush, he scrambled noisily through the twigs, caught a few, then sprang back to the ground to catch those that had fallen or jumped out.
W. E. Allen (1932) gives us a breezy description of the capture of a small bird by a roadrunner that had been running just ahead of him. He says:
Before we had gone as much as a hundred yards, however, his [the roadrunner’s] pacing routine was broken by a sudden dash from a slouchy pose and the development of a brown streak across the road which ended in his emergence on a bank beyond a parked automobile. Somewhere beneath the car he had struck a full-fledged young bird (probably a “California Linnet”) at full speed * * *. The victim appeared to have been caught by the neck, which probably accounts for the fact that it made no outcry. It must have been badly stunned also by the stroke of the heavy beak because it struggled only feebly.
After becoming satisfied that I was not disposed to interfere, the captor moved on to a point about 10 feet farther away. Here be hammered the hard ground two or three times with the body of his victim, evidently destroying all signs of life. Then he dropped it, grasped a wing near its base, and with a skillful jerk stripped nearly every feather from it * * *. After stripping the wing he spent three or four minutes in picking at the birdling’s body with some hammering and jerking mixed in. Apparently this was for the purpose of getting rid of feathers. At any rate, they were thrown around profusely, and the movements were different from those a little later which seemed to be devoted to mauling and crushing the body into a shapeless mass.
Finally this mass (which seemed to be about as large as the roadrunner’s head) was picked up with a kind of tossing motion which landed it in the back of his mouth. The first effort at swallowing, consisting of tossings of the head and spasmodic movements of the jaws and throat, only resulted in getting the mass started into the throat. After a short rest another series of these movements shifted It along to a visible extent but it was Dot till the fourth series was finished that the food appeared to have been swallowed completely. After this was accomplished the bird turned toward me and slouched into a curious pose of indifference mixed with satisfaction.
A roadrunner’s program is full enough with only himself to feed. But when he has a nestful of hungry young be must indeed wear himself ragged catching insects and lizards and snakes. These he brings from near and far, going and coming in such a way as to keep himself hidden. With what satisfaction must he start a foot long garter snake on its way down the gullet of one of his offspring, knowing that one voice at least will be stilled so long as any of that snake remains to be swallowed!
Many an interesting account has been written of the roadrunner’s foraging activities. A. Brazier Howell (1916) tells us of difficulties he had in retrieving small bird specimens before roadrunners stole them. He writes:
While I was out collecting, these abundant birds would often be seen skulking about with eyes open for any opportunity, and it was always necessary, in such cases, to make a dash for a specimen after it was shot. On two occasions a roadrunner darted in and grabbed a bird when I had almost reached it, once hopping two feet in air to nip a sparrow that had lodged in the branches of a bush. At another time I was watching a small flock of sparrows as they busily fed in the brush, when I noted a roadrunner stealing up like a cat, taking advantage of every bit of cover. When at the proper distance, It rushed out and sprang into the air at the retreating sparrows.
J. Eugene Law (1923) tells us of a roadrunner that tried to pull a dead golden-crowned sparrow through the 3/4-inch-mesh wire of a sparrow trap. This writer states that he did not actually see the roadrunner kill the sparrow, though an autopsy showed “the entire brain area” to be “dark with blood infusion.”
My pet roadrunners did not capture horned “frogs” unless other food was difficult to obtain. They killed and ate these well-armored reptiles, however. A horned lizard, confronted by its ancient foe, would flatten out, rise high on its legs, and sway back and forth as if about to leap or inflict a dangerous bite. But a roadrunner is not to be bluffed. Grasping his tough victim by the head or back he beat it against a convenient stone. Thirty or forty blows were needed to render it sufficiently quiescent for ingestion. If swallowed while yet alive it had to be coughed up for further battering.
When not engaged in pursuing food a roadrunner may rest, seeking either a cool spot on the ground or the shadowy heart of a tree. In the morning it sometimes takes a sunbath. Henry W. Henshaw (1875) tells us that “it loves to meet the first rays of the rising sun, ascending for this purpose to the top of the mesquite trees, and, standing erect oil the topmost branch, loosens its feathers, and appears to catch all the grateful warmth possible, remaining in this attitude for many minutes.” My captive roadrunners took sunbaths every day, spreading their wings and exposing the featherless tracts of their backs.
The roadrunner has a streak of domesticity in his nature. Mrs. Bailey (1922) has given us a delightful account of a remarkably tame though uncaged bird that lived about camp. Concerning this bird (which was known as “Koo”), Mrs. Bailey says:
It was not his potential usefulness as a camp watchman or killer of “varmints” but his ready friendliness and attractive ways Nvbieh attached us to our rare camp visitor. If we were busy when be came he would call koo, koo, and then wait for us to discover him. Sometimes we would look hard before finding him and finally make him out standing on the mesquite slope above us, his feathers puffed out spreading the streaks on his chest till they and his light underparts toned In perfectly with a background of straw-colored ground and dry weed-stalks-completely camouflaging him. It was astonishing to see how such a large, marked bird could disappear in its background. And what a contrast that round, bird-like form made to the grotesque running figure we were familiar with-long neck, slender body, and long tail, one straight line.
J. K. Jensen (1923) tells us of a pair of roadrunners that fed “with the chickens on a ranch near Santa Fe,” that “came regularly for a ‘hand out’ and often went to roost in the poultry house.” This author does not specify what the “hand out” was. Needless to say, it hardly could have been corn or wheat.
Frightened from the nest a roadrunner may scuttle off to remain hidden for some time. Again, it may stay close by, attempting to lure the intruder away. M. French Gilman (1915) describes a mother bird that was “very anxious about the eggs,” that “ran around close to me in a mammalian sort of way, flat on the ground, tail dragging, and head stretched out in front only about three inches from the soil. She did not look like a bird at all, and though making no fluttering demonstration, her antics were calculated to excite curiosity and distract attention from the nest.”
J. R. Pemberton (1916) describing a “variation of the broken-wing stunt” by a roadrunner, writes:
As I was climbing near the nest the bird hopped to the ground. Immediately it began to squirm, scramble, and drag Itself away across an open space and in full view. The bird was simulating a broken leg instead of the conventional broken wing 1 The bird held its wings closed throughout the demonstration though frequently falling over on its side in its enthusiasm. The whole performance was kept entirely in my view, the bird gradually working away from. the tree until it was some 35 feet distant when it immediately ran back to the base of the tree and repeated the whole show. I had been so interested up to now that I had failed to examine the nest which when looked into contained five young probably a week old. When I got to the ground the bird continued its stunt rather more frantically than before and in order to encourage the bird I followed, and was pleased to see it remain highly consistent until I was decoyed to a point well outside the grove. Here the bird suddenly ran away at full speed and in a direction still away from the nest.
Voice: We have already described the spring song of the roadrunner. Howard Lacey (1911) tells us that the bird “makes a loud chuckling crowing noise * * * and also a cooing noise that might easily be mistaken for the voice of some kind of dove; it also makes a sort of purring sound in its throat, perrp, perrp, perrp.”
As for this “purring sound,” I am not at all sure that it is vocal. One of the roadrunner’s most characteristic alarm. sounds is not a, cry at all; it is an incisive, clacketv noise made by rolling the mandibles together rapidly and sharply. Even young birds just out of the nest can produce this sound, though the softness of the bill muffles the sharpness somewhat.
Young birds in the nest make a buzzing sound when begging for food. Well do I remember a nest full of these “infant dragons” that I found in April 1914. Concerning these I have written (1936): “Accidentally I touched an upturned beak and four great mouths, wobbling uncertainly on scrawny necks, rose in unison. I jerked back my hand-the pink-blotched lining of those mouths bad an almost poisonous appearance. From the depths of the small frames came a hoarse, many-toned buzzing which gave the impression that a colony of winged insects had been stirred to anger.”
Enemies: There is little doubt in my mind that the roadrunner’s worst enemy is man. Man wants quail to shoot. Man sees a roadrunner chasing young quail or finds a young quail in a roadrunner’s stomach and lo, thumbs turn down, another name goes on the black list, and the roadrunner’s doom is sealed. In many a southwestern State there have been chaparral-cock drives and contests, bounty on roadrunners, newspaper stories and editorials defaming the bird. Too, there are those who eat roadrunners, or who chase and shoot them for “sport.” In populated sections the roadrunner has a bard time. Where man appears the roadrunner all too frequently disappears.
Certain predatory birds and mammals doubtless prey occasionally on the roadrunner, though adult birds usually are swift or wary enough to evade such enemies as coyotes and hawks. Crows and ravens doubtless eat some roadrunner eggs and young,. Even the snakes themselves may take a hand in keeping the snake killer tribe from becoming too numerous. Remains of a roadrunner were found in the stomach of a red-tailed hawk collected by Dr. Josselyn Van Tyne in Brewster County, Tex., February 28, 1935 (Van Tyne and Sutton, 1937).
W. L. McAtee (1931) in his timely “Little Essay on Vermin” so justly states the case of roadrunner versus mankind that his comments are of special significance here:
The Road-runner is persecuted almost throughout its range as an alleged destroyer of Quail eggs, and state bounties are even paid for its destruction. Yet the Road-runner been has been shown to be a special enemy of Quail, and it cannot eat their eggs except during a brief season. The Road-runner is as nearly omnivorous as any of our birds, eating anything in its habitat that is readily available and swallowable. No doubt it will eat Quail eggs, but it is equally certain that not one meal in a thousand of all the birds at all times consists of Quail eggs.
The Road-runner actually lives up to its repute Of killing rattlesnakes; without doubt, it eats more scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas * * * than it does Quail eggs, and it is a voracious consumer of grasshoppers. It is a unique bird, not only in our fauna but in that of the world, has extremely interesting habits, and in its choice of food in the long run undoubtedly does more good than harm. Its persecution is all but baseless and is thoroughly unjustified.
Range: Southwestern United States south to central Mexico.
The range of the roadrunner extends north to north-central California (Navarro River, Owens River, and Death Valley); Colorado (Meeker, Canon City, and Las Animas) ; and southern Kansas (probably Caldwell and Arkansas City). East to Kansas (Arkansas City); central Oklahoma (Norman) ; Texas (Fort Worth, Kerrville, and San Antonio); Tamaulipas (Matamoras, Soto La Marina, and Tampico); and Pueblo (San Salvador). South to Puebla (San Salvador) ; Mexico (Tenango) ; and Jalisco (Zapotlan). West to Jalisco (Zapotlan) ; Baja California (Cape San Lucas, San Cristobal Bay, and Rosario); and California (San Diego, Mentone, Santa Barbara, Sebastopol, and Navarro River).
Casual records: The roadrunner is not known outside of its normal range, but a remarkable occurrence was the finding of a specimen at Marshall Pass, Colo., at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, on October 12, 1907.
Egg dates: Arizona: 20 records, April 5 to June 24; 10 records, April 20 to June 3, indicating the height of the season. California: 73 records, March 4 to July 16; 37 records, March 25 to May 2. Mexico: 5 records, April 16 to May 16.Texas: 57 records, March 18 to July 5; 29 records, May 3 to June 1.