By Jon Friedman
Geococcyx californianus (jee-oh-COCK-sicks cal-ih-for-nih-AY-nus) is the scientific name for North America’s only ground cuckoo. While related to others in the cuckoo family (Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani and Smooth-billed Ani), the Greater Roadrunner prefers to spend most of its daytime hours on the ground and is more often seen at ground level than perched or flying. For this reason, it has developed long legs and strong muscles which enable it to pursue prey or avoid predators by running at the rate of 15 miles per hour. They have been clocked at running over 20 mph when they are the ones being pursued. They can sustain this speed for up to several hundred yards, enough to escape predators and certainly faster than any average human could run. It is believed that they received their name back in the days of horse drawn carriages and early motor vehicles. They were frequently seen running ahead of the vehicle, or behind the vehicle. The vehicles stirred up insects in their path and the roadrunners could catch them on the fly – so to speak.
Roadrunners were historically found throughout the American Southwest, parts of the American West and south into Southern Mexico. Today, their range is more limited and they are less frequently seen in the more extreme fringes of their historical range. For example, they used to be commonly observed in states like Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, northern Louisiana and as far north as San Francisco and Utah. The roadrunner’s greatest enemy is man. Illegal hunting and legal hunting (some states used to offer bounties on roadrunners as they were thought to be the major predators of quail – which they are not) culled their numbers. But, today, it’s man’s urban sprawl that has led to extensive habitat fragmentation or outright habitat destruction. More development means fewer habitats.
The ideal habitat is hot, arid desert and semi-desert areas. Dry sage brush and chaparral also provide roadrunners with enough habitat and food to survive. But, the lower, hot desert areas hold the largest numbers of these birds.
These birds mate for life and both parents share quite equally in the responsibilities of raising their young. The males exhibit distinctive mating rituals and offer their mates an important “gift” in exchange for mating. The gift is usually a food item. Both adults gather slender branches, sticks and twigs for the construction of the nest foundation and plant down, grasses, and other suitable items (horse hair, snakeskin, leaves, feathers, pods, roots, horse or cattle manure, etc.) to line the inside of the nest. Adult females do most of the daytime incubation (while the male hunts and brings back the food for the female and the young) and the males often incubate the eggs during the evening hours.
Nests are usually built in native trees such as mesquite, palo verde, acacia, or in clumps of cacti (particularly cholla). They are found anywhere from three feet to fifteen feet above ground level. Rarely do they nest on the ground itself. Nests are usually about one foot in diameter.
In the Tucson region, nests are constructed and first broods of eggs laid as early as March and as late as July. Most roadrunners have their first broods in April and May. In years of good weather and abundant rainfall, a pair may rebrood and raise another set of babies after the rainy season. As with many birds and animals, nesting seasons are strongly correlated with natural food supplies.
As few as two eggs and as many as six eggs are laid at the rate of one every other day. Commonly, most nests have between three and five eggs. Eggs are generally white but often have a slight yellowish color. Incubation usually lasts about seventeen to twenty days and the young are able to hunt for themselves by around three weeks of age. Average lifespan is unknown but it’s believed they usually live four to six years, possibly longer under good conditions.
Roadrunners are omnivores and therefore eat a wide variety of foods. They eat a small amount of vegetation which includes small amounts of seeds and grains. More often they eat plant matter like the fruits and seeds of cacti, especially prickly pear. The bulk of their diet is live insect or animal foods. Particularly favored are the larger insects such as crickets and large grasshoppers, cutworms and many other caterpillars, many species of beetles, snails and several species of smaller insects such as common bugs and ants. Bird and reptile eggs and young are eagerly devoured. In desert habitat, they consume large amounts of scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, tarantulas and other large spiders. Many small mammals and a wide variety of reptiles are also taken as favorite foods. Gophers, mice, pack rats, cotton rats, ground squirrels, frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes are also staples in their diet.
We have advised many customers who have asked about hand-feeding roadrunners. Like quail, roadrunners that inhabit your common territory make a daily circuit seeking out food. They appear at about the same times of day, usually once in the morning hours and once in the afternoon hours. Most folks offer them either little bits of hamburger meat or Nuts ‘n’ Bugs (our proprietary insect meal). If you, too, would like to learn how to hand-feed your roadrunners, ask about it next time you visit the store. If you are patient and willing, you can have roadrunners eating out of your hand in a matter of days. Parents who learn to do this will often bring their juveniles with them and before you know it, you’ll be feeding the entire family!
Roadrunners are not indiscriminate killers. They only take what they can eat or feed their family. Occasionally, they are observed with a large snake or lizard tail extending from their mouths. If they eat a fairly large animal/reptile (always head first), their strong stomach juices are already digesting the head and front of the food and the rear and the tail will be devoured shortly thereafter. Small mammals and small snakes are preferred but larger ones are taken to provide an entire family with a meal. Even medium sized rattlesnakes are taken. Venom can be eaten with impunity and, in fact, has a high protein level. Roadrunners are unaffected by the poisons of venomous reptiles.
Roadrunners use a unique technique when hunting for poisonous reptiles. With rattlesnakes, they taunt the snake from a close distance to entice the snake to strike at it. The roadrunner fluffs up all its feathers and spread its wings and tails to make it appear larger, but this also provides a bigger target for the snake. And, while the strike of the snake is very fast, the roadrunner is quicker and almost always avoids the fangs of the snake. Usually, the snake just makes contact with the feathers and not the bird’s body. In essence, the snake is just striking air. The roadrunner entices the snake to strike three or four times until the snake begins to tire and is no longer as quick to react. Then the roadrunner’s aim is to peck out the eyes of its opponent. A blinded snake is no match for the cunning roadrunner.
I once had the opportunity to experience close-up, a fight between a roadrunner and a Gila monster on a dirt road. The two were tangled up, twisting on the ground, raising a lot of dust, with the roadrunner popping up above the fray on occasion – reminding me of the roadrunner cartoons I watched on television as a kid. When I first noticed this little cloud of dust I was at a fair distance and couldn’t tell exactly what was going on or with whom. As I got closer, and saw the roadrunner popping up higher on occasion, I thought it was a territorial dispute between two roadrunners. As I carefully and slowly moved closer for a better view, I realized the roadrunner was fighting with a Gila monster. I thought to myself that there must be more roadrunners than Gila monsters, so I wasted no time in breaking up the fight. Once I got to within a few feet of these two animals, the roadrunner took off and from about 25-30 feet away, turned to watch me. I checked out the overall condition of the large lizard and especially its eyes. After determining that no major damage was inflicted, I herded the lizard in the opposite direction of the roadrunner and it soon found a large hole in the ground and disappeared into the burrow. I felt glad to save the life of the Gila monster and I knew the roadrunner would soon be successful in finding another meal.
Roadrunners have been popular symbols of the American Southwest and of speed itself. In the cartoon series featuring Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner, the roadrunner always outdistances himself from Wiley Coyote with ease. In the 1960’s Plymouth automobiles (a division of GM) introduced a car to the American public called the Roadrunner. It was among the first of the muscle cars. The car horn actually made the “beep, beep” sound. And, while most Americans would associate the “beep, beep” sound to the roadrunner, this is not a sound they actually make. They do however make a variety of calls that are associated with different behaviors. These calls include a descending cooing, a growl, a whine, a whirt, and even a bark. Another sound they make which most folks associate with roadrunners is a distinctive bill-clacking sound, sort of like a short drumming sound.
The sweet sound of the descending cooing is perhaps the most frequently heard sound. It signals both territoriality and courtship. Cooing sounds are produced by both adults, along with whirring and whinning sounds. These sounds are often interspersed with soft “putting” sounds made by the male during courtship: putt putt putt putt whirr putt putt putt putt whirr. Long whines are produced by both sexes. Sometimes females, at the nest site, make a series of rapid barking sounds similar to the yips of coyotes.
Any time of the year, but particularly during the breeding season, both sexes make another distinctive sound called bill clacking. By snapping their mandibles together, they produce a rapid drumming sound, somewhat like the sound of castanets. This bill clacking is thought to serve as a warning signal if danger appears or helps locate a mate that is out of sight. Birders may hear this sound before seeing the bird and then know that a roadrunner is nearby.
In previous newsletter articles, we’ve written about the state of torpidity, or torpor. This was an important part of the article we wrote in the February newsletter about how hummingbirds survive our cold winter nights. In that article, we mentioned that a few other species have been known to enter a state of torpor, particularly swifts and poor wills. In fact, roadrunners can use it to their advantage when the situation calls for it. An ornithologist, Cornett, who specializes in studying roadrunners, reports that on occasion, they enter a state of torpor (a period of dormancy) in which their body temperature drops as much as 10 degrees over a period of days in very cold weather. This makes him wonder if roadrunners are one of the few birds that hibernate, which he defines as staying inactive for a week or more. He thinks this theory makes sense as roadrunners don’t migrate and much of their food in winter goes underground. He’s currently doing more research on this but speculates, “I suspect we’ll find that some roadrunners do hibernate if they’re well and healthy, but if they’re not getting enough food and can’t store enough energy, they may not be able to.” Roadrunners coming out of a state of torpor turn their back to the sun, fluffing and lifting their feathers and exposing their black skin to the sun to enable them warm up more quickly. “I’ve never seen an animal use solar energy as efficiently as the roadrunner does”, he said.