A “tall, thin tramp in a swallow-tailed coat.” A “long striped snake on two legs.” A lanky, blue and purple cartoon character with a flopping crest, constantly foiling Wile E. Coyote. What do these descriptions have in common? They all belong to the Greater Roadrunner. A large, loping, ground-loving member of the cuckoo family, this pheasant-sized roadrunner is streaky brown-gray with a shaggy dark crest that it raises and lowers; a heavy bill; and a long, animated tail that accounts for half of the bird’s two-foot length. (Roadrunners have sexually monomorphic plumage, meaning the males and the females look the same.) A small patch of bluish white bare skin behind each eye—a postorbital apterium—can be seen but the terminal orange spot toward the back of the head usually appears only when the bird is nervous or stressed. Put simply, this bird cannot be mistaken for any other bird. Roadrunners are usually silent, although the male produces a series of low, descending cooing sounds rather like a Mourning Dove’s song during breeding season. Both sexes make a rattling, rapid bill snapping that sounds like playing cards being shuffled.
As do all cuckoos, roadrunners have zygodactyl feet—2 toes pointing forward, 2 pointing backward. (Most woodpeckers also have zygodactyl feet, which help with tree-climbing. Most songbirds have anisodactyl feet—3 toes pointing forward and 1 pointing backward—to make grasping a perch easier.) This distinctive bird appears in the stories of southwestern U.S. and Mexican tribes as a medicine bird, a shield against evil spirits, and a purveyor of good luck. Its zygodactyl feet make tracks that look like an X; stylized roadrunner tracks move through the rock art of the ancestral Mogollon and Anasazi people.
Roadrunners live in arid and semi-arid open country throughout the American Southwest. They range across most of San Diego County in low density. On the coastal slope, they are most numerous in sage scrub with little development, among scattered rural homes, or on agricultural lands. They also inhabit open chaparral on the coastal slope but retreat from urban sprawl. As a large bird requiring a large territory—more than 120 acres—the roadrunner doesn’t cope well with habitat loss and fragmentation. As a result, it has been disappearing rapidly from canyons that have become surrounded by developed areas.
Agile runners but reluctant flyers, roadrunners are voracious predators capable of running 15−20 m.p.h. in straight-line, open-area pursuit. They chase snakes, lizards, frogs, tarantulas, scorpions, rodents, butterflies, moths, and other flying insects, as well as far less fleet-of-foot prey such as snails, over the landscape. Even more impressive, though, during a pursuit they can turn, leap, and change direction like a champion cutting horse. They’ve even been known to snatch low-flying bats and birds out of the air and to ambush hummingbirds at feeders for a meal.
Greater Roadrunners form permanent pair bonds and maintain their large territories year-round. During an average year, their breeding season runs from early April through early June. The female usually builds a nest in 3–6 days, using sticks brought by the male. She may initiate several nests before the pair settles on the final site. They construct a nest in low trees, cacti, or shrubs 1–3 yards above the ground, creating a loose, shallow platform of thorny sticks lined with leaves, grass, feathers, and occasionally a snakeskin. The pair shares incubation duties for the clutch of 3–6 eggs over 19–20 days. Since incubation starts once the first egg is laid, the young hatch at different times—often days apart (asynchronous hatching). The young typically fledge 14–25 days after hatching; newly fledged young remain perched under cover for several days. Parents and young generally forage together for 30–40 days post-fledging. Details about how and when the young disperse remain unknown.
The Greater Roadrunner’s scientific name, Geococcyx californianus, is rooted in the land, just as the bird is. Geococcyx literally means “earth cuckoo,” from geo (Greek, “ground”) and kokkux (“cuckoo”). The species name means “pertaining to California” (for the province of Alta California, Mexico, where the first specimen was described). “Greater” refers to its size—larger than the very similar Lesser Roadrunner, which shares its range in parts of Mexico. Finally, “roadrunner” refers to the bird’s habit of sprinting along roadsides, among the easiest places to spot one.
A Greater Roadrunner travels with speed, grace, and stealth along the open edges of dry streambeds, gullies, roadsides, or fields. It moves in a crouch, periodically stopping to raise its head, flash its crest, and bob its tail. Almost a caricature of itself and born to run, this iconic bird may make an appearance any time you’re walking along a trail in open country or driving along rural roads in San Diego County, so stay alert. Beep, beep!