I’ll never forget the first time I saw a greater roadrunner. I was driving to Texas to start graduate school when a long-tailed bird standing near the side of the highway caught my attention—there was no mistaking it. Since then I’ve seen quite a few more, but their unique appearance and behavior never fails to fascinate me.
Many people are surprised to hear that we have greater roadrunners in Missouri. Indeed, the heart of their range lies in the southwestern United States, but this adaptable species has found a way to expand its range and use a wide variety of habitats, from desert scrub to pine woodlands, even suburban habitats. Roadrunners are a fairly recent arrival to Missouri (the first documented sighting was in 1956) and are predominantly found in the rugged, rocky glades and open woodlands of the Ozarks. They are most common in our southwestern counties, although they have been seen as far north as Jefferson City. In Missouri and other states in the northern part of their range, roadrunners are vulnerable to severe winter weather, especially during years where prolonged heavy snow cover prevents them from getting enough food. As a result, populations fluctuate from year to year, and birds can become scarce in years following harsh winters.
Greater roadrunners are a member of the cuckoo family that evolved to lead a predominantly terrestrial, or ground-based, lifestyle (their scientific genus, Geococcyx, translates to “Land Cuckoo”). They are a streaked, grayish-brown color overall, stand about as tall as a chicken, and they have a sleek, long-tailed appearance. If you get a really good look at one, you may notice a bare strip of blue and orange skin behind their eyes. They prefer to run rather than take flight, and can run up to 18 miles per hour, using their long tails like a rudder to help quickly change directions. Most of the flying they do involves a quick jump into brush when threatened, or brief glides between perches and the ground.
A Bird of Legend
The personality of the greater roadrunner has earned it a variety of colorful nicknames, including snake killer, war bird, cock of the desert and medicine bird. Some pioneers believed that following a roadrunner would lead them back to the trail should they lose their way. In Mexico, the bird is sometimes known as “paisano” which means “friend,” and the roadrunner replaces the stork in some folklore as the deliverer of newborn babies. The roadrunner also played a prominent role in Native American cultures. Roadrunners are depicted in ancient drawings on cliff/canyon walls in Texas and New Mexico. The symbol “X,” which refers to the roadrunners’ unique footprint, was used in a variety of ways by members of the Hopi and Pueblo tribes to ward off evil spirits.
A Fleet-Footed Hunter
Roadrunners are opportunistic hunters of small animals and have adapted to take advantage of human-altered habitats. Insects make up the bulk of the roadrunner’s diet, especially grasshoppers, beetles and other large insects. Small lizards and snakes are also a favorite food. However, roadrunners will eat just about anything small enough for them to catch and over power. They have been known to eat birds as large as cardinals, mice, rats, gophers, bats, ground squirrels and young rabbits. They also occasionally feed on fruit and berries, as well as carrion when available.
Roadrunners hunt in a deliberate, tactical manner. They covertly survey their surroundings and adapt their tactics based upon the opportunities that present themselves. Grasshoppers and other insects are grabbed from tall grass and other vegetation. Larger prey are captured by stealthily (and sometimes nonchalantly) stalking up close, then pouncing with a quick burst of speed, grabbing it with their bills.
The tales of their antics while capturing food are legendary. Early ornithologists collecting small birds in the southwestern U.S. would often have to race local roadrunners to pick up specimens that they had just shot, a race that the roadrunners often won. They also have learned, as have many hawks, that bird feeders are an easy source of food and will occasionally stalk and capture unwary birds at feeders, even hummingbirds.
The intimidating rattlesnake is also on the menu for roadrunners, which has contributed to their legend. One myth about roadrunners is that they will sneak up on a sleeping rattlesnake and build a wall around it using cactus spines. Upon awakening, the snake goes crazy and either bites itself to death or is impaled by the spines. While this tale has never been verified, equally impressive feats of strategy and skill have been observed when roadrunners cooperatively attack rattlesnakes, with one bird distracting the serpent, while the other creeps up and pins the snake’s head. The snake is dispatched by thrashing its head against a rock or other hard surface.
Roadrunners are usually fast and clever enough to avoid predators, although they are occasionally taken by raptors and mammals (including the “wily” coyote). They have been observed standing up to an attacking hawk, flashing their wings and spreading their tail feathers out in an attempt to intimidate the raptor. Observers have even remarked that the birds seem to enjoy tormenting potential predators. One anecdote from New Mexico in 1892 described a pair of roadrunners that would appear at the same time every day to drink from a pool at a mine shaft. A dog owned by a worker there would eagerly await them. The hound would chase the birds as soon as they appeared, but the swift and agile roadrunners had no trouble staying out of reach, even stopping occasionally to drink from the pool during the heat of the chase.
Roadrunners do not migrate and can be seen any time of the year. They can turn up just about any place in the southwestern Ozarks, but are nowhere common, and many longtime Missouri birders still have yet to add them to their checklists. Driving gravel roads in our southwestern counties that are surrounded by dry, rocky woodlands, glades or pastures can be a good way to find them. The Glade Top Trail in Taney and Ozark counties is a good place to see them (as well as some beautiful views), and they can also be found in and around Caney Mountain Conservation Area in Ozark County and Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area in Taney and Stone counties. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, take the time to watch if you can—I guarantee you’ll find them every bit as fascinating as our pioneers did!
Roadrunners maintain a long-term pair bond, and both parents play major roles in defending territories, incubating eggs and caring for young. They will hunt together and renew their bond every year with an elaborate courtship display, which involves cooing, bowing, dancing and the exchange of food and nest material. Construction of their messy, twiggy nests is a shared, and divided, effort—the male gathers the twigs and the female puts the nest together. The female signals the male with a special call when she needs more material. Nests are typically built in a small tree or shrub. Clutches of three to six eggs are incubated as soon as the first egg is laid, resulting in nestlings of varying sizes. Young roadrunners grow fast and can leave the nest when they are only 14 days old, about twice as fast as some other similarly sized species. In years of abundant food, they may raise two broods in a year.
Roadrunners, like many other birds, will sunbathe, sometimes for hours at a time especially in the early morning. They turn their backs to the sun, droop their wings and raise their back feathers, exposing the dark skin underneath. During winter they sunbathe more frequently, but they will occasionally sunbathe during summer as well. The obvious reason for this is that it feels good, and it helps them stay warm. Ornithologists also speculate that it may help birds rid themselves of parasites, make their feathers easier to preen and help metabolize vitamin D.