Saturday, August 12, 2023

Is the Roadrunner a REAL bird?

It's been over 40 years since the Roadrunner cartoon was last shown on broadcast television. Though it seems to be available on Amazon Prime streaming services.

Nevertheless, many people still think of the roadrunner as a cartoon. You may wonder, Is the Roadrunner a REAL BIRD?

Indeed, it is. The Greater Roadrunner is one of two species of roadrunners in the world. It is the only roadrunner found in North America.

Photo portrait of Greater Roadrunner
What do you mean, "Am I real?"

Description of Roadrunners

The Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californiatus, is a larger bird. It is 20-24 inches long from bill tip to tail tip.

Roadrunners a have medium long neck, long bill, crested head, and long floppy tail.

They primarily dwell on the ground. They chase down prey and flee from danger by running on long legs.

Roadrunners are in the cuckoo family. Some cuckoos are famously known for their breeding strategy of laying their eggs in the nest of other birds, for the host bird to raise as their own. However, roadrunners build their own nests and raise their own young.

Roadrunners are sometimes referred to as ground-cuckoos.

Roadrunners do, though, have the foot structure of cuckoos. It is called zygodactyl, with two toes forward and two toes backward in the shape of an X.

Photo of Greater Roadrunner
Roadrunner in alert posture

Roadrunners live in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They are found from California to Texas and as far to the northeast as Missouri.

These birds are colored tan with black and brown streaks on the upper parts and wings. The belly is pale. The crest is dark. The tail is blackish with a green sheen. 

Photo of Greater Roadrunner
Letting her tail down.

Do roadrunners really run on roads?

Roadrunners do run along roads and trails. They chase lizards for food and run from danger. They can run at least 20 miles per hour. Despite the cartoon, coyotes can run twice as fast as roadrunners.

Roadrunners can fly. Though they usually don't fly very far or high. They prefer to run. But you may see them fly up into the lower branches of a tree, or glide down a ridge. 

Usually, though, they hop from branch to branch up into a tree, rather than fly.

When roadrunners run, they kind of crouch forward with straight neck. The tail is also held parallel to the ground. The whole posture is horizontal and stealthy.

Then they pull up to a halt with neck, tail, and crest raised. Then off they go again.

Photo of Greater Roadrunner
Very horizontal running posture of roadrunner.

Some Roadrunner behaviors and anecdotes

When sitting still, the tail is often raised and lowered slowly.

The crest indicates the bird's mood. It is often raised in alarm or curiosity.

My grandfather told me of a roadrunner in Death Valley, California, that had a strange morning ritual. At sunrise each morning this bird would go into the campground to fight for an hour with its reflection in the kickplate of the restroom door!

The song of roadrunner is rather ventriloqual--it's hard to locate the source. I once tracked down a roadrunner that was cooing--its mating call. I finally located it. It was on the peak of a roof on the residential edge of Kit Carson Park in Escondido, California.

I was able to observe the cooing song of a roadrunner delivered from a large boulder in the Ramona Grasslands Preserve. The bird started with head and tail raised as it looked about. But when it began "singing" he dropped his tail and bowed his head to the ground. Surprise! The cooing was delivered with the bill closed and almost touching the ground with each head bow and coo! 

While cooing, the bare skin behind the eye became more prominent, with the blue becoming more intense and a large red patch of skin showing behind. After a few seconds the color drained away.

Most field guides say that roadrunners are "unmistakable." But that's not necessarily true. In the 1940 book Birds of Oregon by Gabrielson & Jewett, they discredited the first Oregon sight report of Roadrunner. It seems that in the 1880s Judge Denny imported many Chinese Pheasants, now known as Ring-necked Pheasants, into Oregon--and North America--for the first time. One observer in the late 1800's evidently saw a female pheasant, didn't know what it was, and reported it as a roadrunner!

Most roadrunners are rather shy and cautious. You usually see them running away. But I've been to patio restaurants in the desert where roadrunners come up to the tables for hamburger or other meat scraps from the patrons.

Roadrunners sometimes look for food on lawns and golf courses. They eat almost anything: seeds, lizards, small birds, large insects and beetles. They even eat dog food set outside by campers! So campgrounds in desert grasslands are an excellent area to look for these fascinating birds.

Have you had any interesting encounters with roadrunners? Tell about it in the comments!

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