Geococcyx californianus, Geococcyx velox
Roadrunners are one of the few animals that prey on rattlesnakes and tarantula hawk wasps.
Roadrunner Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Geococcyx californianus, Geococcyx velox
Roadrunner Conservation Status
- Insects, small reptiles, rodents, small birds, fruits, and seeds
- Name Of Young
- Group Behavior
- Mainly solitary
- Fun Fact
- Roadrunners are one of the few animals that prey on rattlesnakes and tarantula hawk wasps.
- Estimated Population Size
- Biggest Threat
- Illegal shooting and habitat loss
- Most Distinctive Feature
- Head crest
- Distinctive Feature
- Long legs and broad tails
- 17 to 24 inches
- Incubation Period
- 19 to 20 days
- Age Of Fledgling
- 2 to 3 weeks
- lowland and mountainous shrublands and woodlands
- Coyotes, raccoons, skunks, domestic cats, and hawks
- Common Name
- Special Features
- Zygodactyl feet
- Number Of Species
- North America, Central America
- Average Clutch Size
- Nesting Location
- Tree, shrub, or cactus
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The roadrunner (Geococcyx) is a large ground bird in the cuckoo family, inhabiting desert regions in North America. They spend much of their time swiftly running on the ground and waiting for prey like rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantula hawk wasps. And unlike their cartoon portrayals, these speedy birds can’t quite keep up with the coyote. Learn everything about the famous roadrunner, including where it lives, what it eats, and how it behaves.
5 Amazing Roadrunner Facts
- Roadrunners have zygodactyl feet, which create an X-shaped marking on the ground.
- They hunt by running after prey or leaping mid-air to catch insects, smashing them against the ground.
- A flock of roadrunners is called a “marathon.”
- Their calls don’t sound like “meep meep,” more like “coo-coo.”
- They can run up to 26 mph!
Where to Find the Roadrunner
Roadrunners live in North and Central America in six countries, including Mexico, the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The greater roadrunner resides in Mexico and the Southwestern and South-Central United States, and the lesser roadrunner lives in Mexico and Central America. They inhabit arid lowland and mountainous shrublands and woodlands, staying in their environments year-round. Look for these birds on the ground, walking or running as they search for food, and listen for their dove-like coos.
Roadrunners build their nests with sticks, leaves, feathers, snakeskins, and dung. They place it in a tree, shrub, or cactus around three to ten feet above the ground.
The roadrunner (Geococcyx) belongs to the Cuculiformes order in the Cuculidae family, which includes the cuckoos. Roadrunners are also known as chaparral birds.
The Geococcyx genus comprises two roadrunner species:
- The Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) – Can be found in Mexico and the southwestern and southcentral United States.
- The Lesser Roadrunner (G. velox) – Native to Mexico and Central America – the Lesser Roadrunner is slightly smaller than the Greater – and has a smaller bill and fewer streaks.
The Archaeopteryx is the earliest known bird with fossils dating 150 million years ago. A range of birds with more “bird-like” features appeared after Archaeopteryx and gave rise to modern birds in the Late Cretaceous. It is believed that bird-like dinosaurs, primitive birds, and early modern birds all co-existed for a time.
The oldest known fossil of a roadrunner was found in a cave in New Mexico and is estimated to be 33,500 years old. Fragments from 25 greater roadrunner fossils have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits in California.
Size, Appearance, & Behavior
Roadrunners are large ground cuckoos, measuring 22 to 24 inches and weighing eight to 15 ounces, with a 17- to 24-inch wingspan. These birds feature slender bodies, long legs, broad tails, and large bills. They are black and brown with white streaks and feature a distinctive head crest. They also have bare skin patches behind each in shades of blue and red. These birds and other cuckoos have zygodactyl feet that aid their fast speeds. Their feet also make X-shaped markings on the ground, which appear to move in both directions.
Roadrunners are relatively solitary and prefer to be alone or in pairs. However, if you see a rare flock of roadrunners, you can call them a “marathon.” These species make a slow, downward-slurring dove-like coo (not “meep meep”). And it can also cause rapid clattering sounds with its beak. They are relatively strong fliers but prefer to spend much of their time running on the ground. The roadrunner can reach speeds up to 26 mph!
Migration Pattern and Timing
Roadrunners are nonmigratory and stay in their environments year-round.
The roadrunner is an opportunistic omnivore who primarily eats insects and small reptiles.
What Does the Roadrunner Eat?
Their diet consists of crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, lizards, snakes, rodents, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, snails, small birds, eggs, fruits, and seeds. It is one of the few animals that prey on rattlesnakes and tarantula hawk wasps. The roadrunner hunts on the ground, hiding under cover and running after prey. It can leap into the air to catch insects and then smashes them against the ground.
Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status
The IUCN lists both species of roadrunner as LC or “least concern.” Due to their extensive range and large, stable population, these species do not meet the “threatened” status thresholds. Their biggest threats include illegal shooting, habitat loss, and fragmentation from urbanization (development and traffic).
What Eats the Roadrunner?
Roadrunner predators include coyotes (of course), raccoons, skunks, domestic cats, hawks, and other birds of prey. Pairs will defend their territories from their kind and other threats. However, they often fly or run away from predators, as they generally get away quickly. But, unlike the cartoon, roadrunners are no match for the Wiley coyote, who can run over 40 Mph.
Reproduction, Young, and Molting
Roadrunner pairs are monogamous and mate for life, defending their territories together all year. During courtship, males perform displays and dangle food from their bills to entice the females. Once pairs form, their reproductive season lasts from spring to mid-summer. Females lay two to six white eggs, and both parents take turns incubating for 19 to 20 days. Their young fledge the nest two to three weeks after hatching but forage with their parents for a few more days after leaving. They become sexually mature around two to three years and have an average lifespan of 3.5 years. However, they can live up to seven or eight years.
The global roadrunner population is unknown, but the lesser roadrunner alone has an estimated 500,000 to 5 million mature individuals. Data trends show both species have stable populations with no extreme fluctuations or fragmentations.
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Roadrunner FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Where do roadrunners live?
Roadrunners live in North America in six countries, including Mexico, the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They inhabit arid lowland and mountain shrublands and woodlands.
How big is a roadrunner?
Roadrunners are large ground cuckoos, measuring 22 to 24 inches and weighing eight to 15 ounces, with a 17- to 24-inch wingspan.
How fast is a roadrunner?
The roadrunner can reach speeds up to 26 mph!
What do you call a flock of roadrunners?
A flock of roadrunners is called a “marathon”.
What sound does a roadrunner make?
These species make a slow, downward-slurring dove-like coo (not “meep meep”).
Is a roadrunner faster than a coyote?
The coyote wins the race against the roadrunner, reaching speeds over 40 mph.
Do roadrunners migrate?
Roadrunners are nonmigratory and stay in their environments year-round.
What does a roadrunner eat?
They eat insects, small reptiles, bird eggs, fruits, and seeds. They are one of the few animals that eat rattlesnakes and tarantula hawk wasps.
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- International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22684458/93031234
- International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22684461/163883135
- Maxon, Martha Anne (2005) The Real Roadrunner. Vol. 9. University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
- National Wildlife Federation, Available here: https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Birds/Greater-Roadrunner