Species Spotlight: Roadrunner

February 10, 2010, 8:37 am

Best known as the nemesis of Wiley Coyote, the real roadrunner, a species of ground cuckoo, is most famous for its ability to survive in some of the driest, harshest environments in the world.

Standing just over a foot tall, the roadrunner is gray and white in color, hardly the blur of blue we know from the cartoons. Its dark and light color mixture helps it camouflage as it stalks prey and hides from predators.  The roadrunner also makes a deep coo-coo sound, not the famous “beep beep” associated with its TV counterpart.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this avian athlete is its ability to survive without consuming water. Like other species that have adapted to desert environments, the roadrunner can satisfy its water needs by consuming prey with high water content. In fact, it can live without ever directly drinking water; an excellent characters for creatures that can be found throughout the southwest and all the way into Central America.

Roadrunners were named from the way they move across the flat open desert. In these harsh environments, roadrunners were often seen running along stagecoach routes using their long powerful legs to propel them forward. They are also well served by their unique four-toed feet. With two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards, the roadrunner produces a distinct X-shaped footprint that often makes it difficult to determine its direction.

Roadrunners sport a long tail, which is essential for balance and braking, especially when they are moving at higher speeds. It appears to be unhinged and acts as a rudder allowing them to zigzag, sprint from a dead stop or make u-turns.

Contrary to popular belief, roadrunners can fly when they sense danger or are traveling downhill, although generally they cannot keep themselves aloft for much more than 10 seconds.

Like its animated counterpart, the roadrunners natural enemy is the coyote. So there is some truth in fiction- these animals would never happily co-exist.

Roadrunner Fun Facts:

  • Roadrunners can run up to 17mph.
  • The roadrunner is one of the few species that actually preys on rattlesnakes. Roadrunners often swallow the snake whole but need to eat them in sections since they are unable to digest the entire snake at once. Roadrunners are often seen with snakes dangling from their mouth consuming another inch or two as the snake slowly digests.
  • Roadrunners have been known to snatch hummingbirds out of the air. They also feed on insects, lizards, scorpions and small rodents.
  • Roadrunners have glands near their eyes that they use to secrete excess salt. This is a more common characteristic of reptiles than birds as birds generally excrete salt through their urinary tract.
  • The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico.