The Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), one of two roadrunner species, is found in Mexico and the southwestern and southcentral United States. It is a large, ground-dwelling member of the cuckoo family. The Greater Roadrunner walks and runs on the ground, flying only when necessary. It can run 15 mph (24 kph) and probably sprints briefly at much higher speeds in pursuit of prey. Greater Roadrunners are common in scrub desert and mesquite groves, less common in chaparral and open woodland.
The diet of the Greater Roadrunner consists of insects and other arthropods, lizards, snakes, rodents, small birds, and sometimes snails. Some fruits (especially cactus fruit) and seeds are also eaten. In addition to making rapid dashes to grab a prey item with its bill, the Greater Roadrunner may leap straight up from the ground to catch insects or small birds flying over (roadrunners have been observed capturing hummingbirds this way).
Greater Roadrunners may mate for life, with a pair defending its territory all year. Courtship includes chases on foot, with frequent pauses to rest. One member of the pair approaches the other with a stick or blade of grass and drops it on the ground or gives to the other bird. In other displays, the male runs away from the female with his tail and wings raised over his back and gradually lowers his wings; the male wags his tail from side to side while slowly bowing.
The nest is constructed in a dense bush, low tree, or cactus, usually around 1 to 4 m above the ground (rarely on the ground itself). The nest is a platform of sticks lined with grass, leaves, and feathers and sometimes with pieces of snakeskin or cow manure. The 3 to 5 eggs (sometimes 2 or 6) are white to pale yellowish and are incubated by both parents (but especially the male) for around 20 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest after around 18 to 21 days after hatching. Although young birds may begin capturing their own food shortly after leaving the nest, they are still fed by the parents for another 30 to 40 days.
Greater Roadrunners are permanent (i.e., year-round) residents across their range, but some individuals may wander considerable distances. Although the range of the Greater Roadrunner periodically expands to the north and east, it is pushed back by severe winters. This species may be in long-term decline in California.
The Greater Roadrunner, with its long tail, expressive crest, and speedy gait, provided inspiration for a popular cartoon character who not only entertains, but also provides opportunities for meaningful discussions of the laws of physics and literary analysis.
(Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Dunn and Alderfer 2011)
- American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
- Dunn, J.L. and J. Alderfer. 2011. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
- Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
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