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Encounters with the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx Californianus)

Recently a fascinating event happened as I watched an often-maligned predator who stood on the patio several feet from a large yellowbell bush. Suddenly he swiveled his head towards faint chirps. Lowering his body, he dashed into the bush,, returning with a struggling sparrow-sized baby quail held by the neck in his powerful beak. He ran down a path pursued by screeching parents. To quiet his prey, the roadrunner pounded it on the gravel, then rapidly ran away with his food dangling from his beak.

A few months before, I’d seen him or another roadrunner leap into the air, catch a sparrow, and do the same killing routine.

Roadrunner with Lizard

Roadrunner with captured lizard. (Wikipedia public domain image.)

The roadrunner,a member of the cuckoo family, is also known by these names: Ground cuckoo, chaparral cock, snake killer, lizard bird, churca, paisano, correcamio, and cock of the desert.There are two species in this family, scientifically classified as “Cuculidae”, found in our southwest habitats. The Lesser Roadrunner, Geococcyx velox, lives in Mexico and Central America. The Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, is the familiar bird seen around Wickenburg and in arid lowlands and dry open country with scattered brush and chaparrel. The Greater Roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico, adopted in March 1949 under the name “Chaparral Bird.” This somewhat large bird ranges in length from 18 inches to 24 inches tail to beak, weighs 8 to 24 ounces, and stands 10 to 12 inches high on sturdy legs.

Roadrunners seem to adapt to living among people and are also common near campgrounds and other areas, where they learn to beg for food.

We have several semi-tame roadrunners in our neighborhood in Lake Havasu City who will approach people and make sounds to get attention. Roadrunners have several distinct calls: a clattering sound made by rolling their mandibles together, and a series of 6 to 8 dovelike coos droppping in pitch. One morning I was using the computer in our library near the dining room and had the back patio door open.I heard the distinct rattling sound and found a roadrunner standing by the table looking for me! When it saw me, it turned around and marched back out the opening, wanting me to follow it!

The primary food of roadrunners is: insects, scorpions, lizards, snakes, rodents, and other birds. Ten percent of its winter diet may be plant material, such as prickly pear cactus, due to the scarcity of desert animals then. They can leap up into the air to catch insects or hummingbirds. The roadrunner is one of the few animals that preys upon rattlesnakes. Using its wings like a matador’s cape, it snaps up a coiled rattlesnake by the tail, cracks it like a whip and repeatedly slams its head agains the ground until it’s dead.This may take as long as an hour and a half! Then, it swallows its prey whole, and will continue to walk around with the snake dangling from its beak as it slowly digests the body. It obtains protein from the poison of the snake without harm.

Roadrunner

Roadrunner photographed in Death Valley National Park. (Wikipedia public domain image.)

An old book, “Birds of America”, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, 1936, Garden City Publishing Co. NY, features color plates of original paintings by Louis Adassiz Fuertes, and little personal vignettes. William Finley finally observed one,after days of searching, near Tucson. He wrote: “I have occasionally seen an old Road-runner that takes delight in out-distancing a team of horses, but sometimes a Road-runner is not accustomed to our modern method of traveling.” He went on to describe a race with an automobile down Oracle Road, where the roadrunner ran ahead and then when the driver “turned on a little more gasoline”, the bird “looked over his tail at the horseless carriage. It was gaining on him! As the machine bore down on the astonished bird, the feathered racer was scared.” Eventually the bird turned off the road and ran away at top speed! The cartoon character Wile E. Coyote races the roadrunner in many scenarios!In fact, the roadrunner (scientific name means “speedy”), can run 15 to 20 miles an hour.It has unusual “zygodactyl” feet, with two toes in front facing forward and two toes in back facing backward, making tracks that look like Xs. It can fly short distances and heights,to escape predators, but prefers sprinting to flying, as its wings are short and rounded.They can only remain airborne for a few seconds.The long tail is used for steering, braking, and balancing.

Our neighbor, fixing an air conditioner on his tile roof, was greatly startled to see and hear a roadrunner that had flown up at least 15 feet to his rooftop and was then walking up to him to beg for food or just to see what he was doing!

We have observed the distinct mating behavior of roadrunners (sexes are similar in appearance) in the spring. Both parents have brought fledglings to our bird water bowl. Accounts of mating behavior include five distinct phases. The male courts a female with food, often a lizard, mouse, or small bird. He kills his offering by pounding it against the ground first. He then brings it to the female, approaching from the rear. The female sometimes begs like a chick, fluttering her wings and uttering a buzzy, squeaking call. He raises his crest feathers and exposes colored areas of skin near his eyes. He wags his cocked tail side-to-side, making a rapid kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk sound. Then, he makes a deep bow and the tip of his tail touches the ground, with feathers partly spread. He mates, hopping, with flapping wings, up on to the prone female. Afterwords, he gives the food to the female! This is a very interesting ritual to view. Greater roadrunners may mate for life, a span of up to 7 or 8 years. They are able to breed when they are two to three years old.They are generally non-migratory and live in and defend their breeding area all year.

Roadrunner

Roadrunner on patio table. Photo courtesy Barbara Thompson.

Eggs are laid in a saucer-shaped nest constructed mainly by the female under a bush, cactus, or small tree. Both parents bring small sticks, leaves, snakeskins,and even dung to line the nest. Usually 2 to 12 white eggs are laid over a period of days, resulting in “asynchronous hatching”. The eggs are incubated about 18 days. As a result there’s a range of sizes among siblings and differences in ability to compete for food that the parents bring to them. If there isn’t enough food, younger babies may starve and be fed to larger siblings, or be eaten by the parents. Usually 3 or 4 surviving fledglings remain near the adults for up to two more weeks before dispersing to the surrounding desert.In all, the parents feed them 30 to 40 days. Young fledglings develop quite rapidly and can run and catch their own prey at 3 weeks old. Elliott Coues, an early researcher observed: “Perfectly fresh eggs and newly hatched young may be found together, and by the time the last are breaking the shell, the others may be graded up to half the size of the adult.” In the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts of California, roadrunners typically nest only in the spring during a rainy season. In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona they may breed again in August or September after monsoom rains increase their food sources. Greater Roadrunners are known to show “brood parasitism”, laying eggs in nests of common ravens and the northern mockingbirds to be incubated and nurtured by these birds in lieu of their own chicks.

Roadrunners have some unusual physical characteristics that allow survival under the harsh desert conditions of the Southwest. During a cold desert night, they can lower body temperatures slightly, going into a slight torpor to conserve energy. To warm up during the day, they expose dark patches of skin on their back to the sun. To cope with excessive heat, they reduce their activity by about 50 percent. To conserve body fluids, there’s a salt-secreting nasal gland instead of an urinary tract like most birds. And they reabsorb water from feces before excretion!

Fossil bones discovered in caves in southern Arizona and New Mexico revealed ancestors of our modern roadrunners. Named Geococcyx californianus conklingi, after their discoverer in 1931, Howard Conkling, these early Holocene thru post-Pleeistocenee specimens were larger than our present roadrunners.

As you enjoy the antics of today’s roadrunners, keep in mind that the only predators of these fascinating birds are man (mainly shooting, hitting with vehicles, destroying habitat), and cats (domestic and wild), hawks, skunks, coyotes, and raccoons. Since they are non-migratory, they may succumb to icy weather in a particularly cold spell.

The Real RoadrunnerA great source of information on roadrunners is a book published by Wickenburg author, Martha Ann Maxon. In The Real Roadrunner, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2005, she discusses the basic features and behavioral patterns of this bird, using her own observations and other research. She’s also written articles for wickenburg-az. So, watch, maybe photograph, and appreciate this unique symbol of the Southwest!

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