Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Chaparral cock

Kingdom
Phylum
Class
Order
Family
Genus
SPECIES
Geococcyx californianus
Population size
1.1 mln
Life Span
7-8 yrs
TOP SPEED
42 km/h
WEIGHT
221-538 g
HEIGHT
25-30 cm
LENGTH
52-62 cm

The Greater roadrunner is a long-legged bird in the cuckoo family from the Southwestern United States and Mexico. This bird is also known as the chaparral cock, ground cuckoo, and snake killer. Although capable of limited flight, it spends most of its time on the ground and can run at speeds up to 32 km/h (20 mph). There were even cases when roadrunners have run as fast as 42 km/h (26 mph). This is the fastest running speed clocked for a flying bird that also helps it to be a very effective predator. It is able to capture not only snakes but also chase fast-running lizards and rodents.

Distribution

Greater roadrunners are found in the Aridoamerica ecoregion, within the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They are not migratory and occupy desert, scrubland with scattered vegetation, riparian woodlands, and canyons.

Greater Roadrunner habitat map

Geography

Continents

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Greater roadrunners live in pairs all year within their territory which they defend from intruders. Because of their greater diurnal nature and arid habitat, these birds have developed various biological and behavioral adaptations; one of them is thermoregulation, which helps to reduce dehydration and overheating. During the hot season, roadrunners are active mostly from sunrise to mid-morning, and late afternoon to evening. They rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Every morning they usually sunbathe to warm up after a cold night in the desert. In winter, when the temperatures are around 20 °C, roadrunners may warm themselves in the sun several times during the day and take refuge in dense vegetation or among rocks to shelter from cold winds. When hunting, these birds walk around rapidly, running down prey. They kill prey by holding the victim in their bill and slamming it repeatedly against the ground. Greater roadrunners don't fly well. They hover from a perch, such as a tree or human construction. More rarely, they fly short distances of 4 or 5 meters (13 or 16 ft), between potential roosts. These birds prefer to run especially in open areas, such as roads, packed trails, and dry riverbeds rather than dense vegetation. Greater roadrunners communicate using various vocalizations. Their most frequent call is a slow and descending sequence of about six low, “cooing” noises, emitted by the male and which is heard at 250 m. This call is usually made early in the morning, from a high perch such as a fence post, dead tree or cactus.

Group name
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Greater roadrunners are carnivores. They feed mainly on small animals including insects, spiders, tarantulas, scorpions, mice, small birds, and especially lizards and small snakes. Venomous snakes, including small rattlesnakes, are readily consumed. In winter they may supplement their diet with some fruits and seeds.

Mating Habits

MATING BEHAVIOR
REPRODUCTION SEASON
starts in March in Texas
INCUBATION PERIOD
20 days
INDEPENDENT AGE
48-58 days
BABY NAME
chick
BABY CARRYING
3-6 eggs

Greater roadrunners are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. During the breeding season, males are more territorial, calling out to warn competitors, and do not hesitate to physically push the intruders out of their territory. Nest building starts in March in Texas, and probably later further north. Both birds build the nest, with the male collecting the material and the female constructing the nest. The nests are compact platforms of thorny branches lined with grasses, feathers, snakeskin, roots, and other fine material. They are built low in a cactus or a bush. The female lays 3 to 6 eggs, which hatch in 20 days. The chicks are born helpless and with closed eyes. They fledge in another 18 days but usually rely on their parents for food 30 to 40 days more. Pairs may occasionally rear a second brood when there is an abundance of food in rainy summers.

Population

Population threats

The main threats to Greater roadrunners include habitat loss and urbanization. They also suffer from illegal shooting, collisions with auto vehicles, and from the use of pesticides.

Population number

According to the All About Birds resource the total breeding population size of the Greater roadrunner is 1.1 million breeding birds. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are stable.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The scientific name of the Great roadrunner means "Californian earth-cuckoo".
  • The Greater roadrunner is the largest cuckoo of the Americas.
  • To maintain high speed over long distances while running these birds place their head and their tail parallel to the ground and use their tail as a rudder to help change their direction.
  • Roadrunners have four toes on each foot. Two facing forward and two facing backward; they leave behind very distinct "X" track marks appearing as if they are traveling in both directions.
  • Greater roadrunners are famous snake killers and according to some Cowboy tales, these birds were building a fence with cactus pieces around the snake to trap and kill it.
  • Greater roadrunners may sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, such as the common raven and northern mockingbird.
  • Female Great roadrunners give off a number of up to twenty-two short, low-frequency shrills that resemble coyote squeals and can be heard 300 meters away.
  • During the incubation period and the rearing of chicks, both male and female roadrunners often emit a series of five or six chatters accompanied by groaning; this quite loud sound can be heard 200 meters away.
  • Some Pueblo Native American tribes, including the Hopi, believed that roadrunners provided protection against evil spirits. In Mexico, for example, some said that these birds brought babies, as the white stork was said to in Europe.
  • Some Anglo frontier people believed roadrunners led lost people to trails.
  • The Greater roadrunner appeared in a 1982 sheet of 20-cent United States stamps showing 50 state birds and flowers, being the state bird of New Mexico.
  • Indigenous peoples of Central America have developed numerous beliefs about the roadrunner. The Ch’orti’, who call it T’unk’u’x or Mu’, have taboos against harming the bird. The Ch'ol Maya believe roadrunners to have special powers. It is known to them as Ajkumtz’u’, derived from the bird's call that is said to make the listener feel tired.

References

1. Greater Roadrunner on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_roadrunner
2. Greater Roadrunner on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22684458/93031234

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