I’m afraid we’ve got it all wrong about roadrunners. Close your eyes and picture a roadrunner — what do you see? It’s a bird, right? Tall and leggy like an ostrich with a billowy blue tail? When it runs, all you see is a streak of dust? And it’s constantly being pursued by one wily coyote named, yes, Wile E. Coyote, but always, without exception, escapes?
Like I said, all this information is incorrect. Real roadrunners don’t even say, “Beep Beep” as Warner Bros. would have us believe. You have been duped by television, again.
They Can Fly, But Why?
Roadrunners are unique among birds, though — mostly due to their ability to run at speeds up to 27 miles per hour (43 kilometers per hour). Most closely related to cuckoos and about the size of a crow, both species of roadrunner — the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and the lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox) — are scrawny desert birds with long tails and curved beaks. They just love to hang out on the ground despite the fact that it can get hot in the deserts and shrublands of the southwestern United States, Central America and South America.
“Roadrunners are quite capable of powered flight, but they spend most of their time on the ground,” says Dean Ransom, wildlife biologist and roadrunner researcher in the Department of Biology at Baylor University, in an email. “When they do occupy the trees they usually hop up to the lowest branch and hop up to where they need to go. But it’s the terrestrial running habit that makes them somewhat unique. They are a midsized predatory bird that feeds on reptiles, insects, and small mammals like field mice and rats. They chase down their prey, and then either kill it with beak strikes to the head or grasp it by the tail and slam it down on a rock for the killing blow.”
A Hard Desert Life
Roadrunners mate for life, but are normally pretty solitary otherwise. They nest in trees and are prolific re-nesters, meaning if they lose their first nest to predators, they’ll go right out and look for different real estate.
“Roadrunners lay and hatch eggs asynchronously, which means there will be noticeable size and age differences among a brood of young roadrunners,” says Ransom. “In years of food scarcity, the oldest young often eats one or more of its younger siblings. Sometimes, for the same reason, the adults will eat their young to survive and breed another day.”
Brutal? Yes, but it’s tough out in the desert, and roadrunners don’t get a break from it since they don’t migrate, living year-round in the same stomping grounds. To deal with the extreme heat of the days and the plummeting nighttime temperatures, roadrunners employ a physiological process called torpor, in which they lower their body temperature on cold nights to conserve body heat and energy expenditure. In the mornings when the sun comes up, they bask in the sun to warm up, putting on quite a display in the process: They turn their backs to the morning sun and erect all their feathers, exposing black pigmented skin underneath that absorbs heat.
Roadrunners have feet in which two toes are pointed forward and two toes are pointed backward — scientists call this a “zygodactyl foot arrangement.” It’s not terribly uncommon in perching birds like swifts, owls, woodpeckers, etc., but it’s pretty unique in a bird that spends most of its time hoofing around in the desert. It makes their tracks look X-shaped, which makes it impossible to tell which direction the bird was running. These tracks have captivated humans for millennia: The symbol of roadrunner tracks has been used to ward off evil by some Pueblo tribes, and stylized roadrunner prints have been identified in ancient Anasazi and Mogollon rock art.
In fact, roadrunners have figured prominently in human stories up until present day. Pueblo Indians of New Mexico have a tradition of drawing roadrunner tracks on the ground near the resting place of a newly dead loved one in order to lure evil spirits away from the soul as it makes its way to the afterlife. Eating roadrunner meat was thought to bring speed in some Native American tribes, and crossing paths with a roadrunner has been thought to bring good or bad luck, depending on the direction of approach. Early European travelers said that roadrunner tracks could lead a lost traveler to a path.
And of course, the Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame is a somewhat magical, certainly lucky figure. How many times can a hungry coyote try to murder you with Acme Rube Goldberg machines and fail miserably?
Many, many times, it turns out.