Friday, September 23, 2011

Did you know a Roadrunner

…can achieve speeds of up to 25 miles per hour when running down lizards? That question was posed by AudubonGuides on Facebook, recently, and I did NOT know this bit of information, of course I had to do some research on these unusual birds.

The name ‘roadrunner’ comes from the bird's habit of racing down roads and then darting to safety off road, if approached. The omnivorous roadrunner forages around the roadside for large insects, roadkill and reptiles. It is also known as the chaparral cock, ground cuckoo, and snake killer. Its call is a downward slurring "co-coo-coo-coo-cooooo." Also a clattering "whirrrr" call, like other cuckoos. You can hear these calls in the video; it does not go “beep-beep”.

The Greater Roadrunner is the epitome of the desert Southwest…and it lives on my street; or one has. The Neldner photo to the right was taken on the Christmas Bird Count in La Veta just a couple years ago.

The chicken-like bird is a ground-dwelling cuckoo and the larger of the two roadrunners; there is a Lesser Roadrunner in Southwestern Mexico and Northern Central America. The Greater Roadrunner feeds on snakes, scorpions, and any other small animal it can catch and subdue; including other birds. Two roadrunners may cooperate to kill larger snakes, even rattlesnakes. They eat many venomous prey items including said snakes, scorpions and poisonous spiders, as well as fruit and some seeds.

The ‘racing stripe’ on the side of the roadrunners head is not feathers, it is naked skin. As a male matures the skin behind its eye becomes a beautiful, vivid stripe of red/orange, white and blue. The skin on its back, however, is black. After a cold desert night, a cold roadrunner will turn its back to the sun, fluff its back feathers to expose this dark skin along its back and absorb the warm solar energy. The Greater Roadrunner adult sports a bushy, black crest and a long, thick, dark bill. It has a dark head and is blue-ish on the throat and belly. Like all cuckoos, the roadrunner has zygodactyl feet; four toes on each--two face forward and two face back.

This is a good sized bird; 20 to nearly 22 inches in length with a wingspan of some 19+ inches, though it flies weakly. Even if startled, it usually runs. It weighs about ten ounces. The roadrunner is a ground forager who hunts in open arid and semiarid country with scattered brush. When chasing lizards, it holds its head and tail flat and parallel to the ground while running at top speed…as fast as 25 mph. It is the fastest running flying bird, beat only by the Ostrich (which doesn’t fly, of course), but it measures only about two feet in length, half of which is tail. That tail acts as a rudder when it runs.

While this is an opportunistic hunter frequently capturing small birds and eggs at bird feeders and nest boxes, they have also been observed skulking in tall, dry grass to leap up suddenly and pluck a small bird from the air. I have come across videos of them doing just this, but couldn't find one for this post. It held it's body vertically and jumped straight up to catch the bird. If you find it, please post in comments and acknowledge the author.

This accomplished hunter kills with a blow from its beak to the base of a small animals neck, or by holding it in its beak and bashing it on the ground or against a rock. I wish it also showed the actual 'catch' and swallow. I wonder if it tears up the prey to bite-sized pieces. Probably.

Polly said: "Roadrunner copulation, where else but in the middle of the road! This went on for over 2 minutes. Our Guide, Forrest Davis, said in all his years in he had never witnessed this. In the end their "act of love" was interrupted by an oncoming vehicle ...but not before he passed the "bauble" he is holding to her!" Seems roadrunners are gracious lovers! Food is an important component of the mating ritual, but I hope she didn't consume the 'bauble'. The male tempts the female with a twig or bit of grass or food, such as a lizard or snake which it dangling from its bill while chasing her. His "prance display," "tail-wag display," and vocalizations in front of the female while bowing and making the whirring or cooing sound will get her interested; then he jumps into the air and onto his mate. If the female accepts the offered food, the pair will probably mate. While nesting, they are quite territorial and it's possible Greater Roadrunners mate for life.

Dr. Dean Ransom roadrunner study brings us an interesting and informative video:

This vide was taken in the Texas chaparral. I understand that in a dryer, more desert-like environment the bird nests on cactus. While both care for the young, oddly, it is the male who incubates eggs; his body-temp stays constant, while the female's drops at night.

As to the desert environ, roadrunner is equipped with salt glands in front of its eyes to excrete excess salt from its blood. This is also common in ocean-going birds that can drink seawater. The roadrunner is able to do without water if it eats juicy enough food, but it will drink when water
is available.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

P.Nelder where acknowledged
Wickipedia for still-shots
YouTube for video clips


eileeninmd said...

Cool post on the roadrunners. I would love to see one in person.

Beverly said...

While a couple is seen on and off at the other end of my street (where the town ends and the wild begins), they are seen regularly at Lathrop State Park, a couple miles from here. The goof-balls run across the highway; and I swear I regularly smile and look for the coyote, coming up behind! LOL

Terry said...

I live in San Juan, Texas and my brother was in the back room getting food for our dog, when a roadrunner flew into the room using our drive way as a landing strip. Before he could call for us to get a camera, the roadrunner had taken off. Love those roadrunners!

Rohn Zeleznok said...

Thank you for your hard work! I had my sons asking about Roadrunners and they loved watching the birds thank you again, god bless.
The Zeleznoks Sturbridge MA.