5 Surprising Facts About Roadrunners

Roadrunners are charismatic birds that can regularly take down rattlesnakes for dinner. . Tim Zurowski/Shutterstock

If everything you know about roadrunners comes courtesy of Looney Tunes, we think it's time to brush up on your knowledge. As with most things, the facts about roadrunners are more interesting than the fiction.

1. Roadrunners Lose to Coyotes in a Foot Race

The roadrunner has been clocked at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. That’s amazingly fast for a 2-foot long bird from beak to tip of tail. But the famed enemy of the roadrunner, the coyote, can run at a sprint that tops out at far faster speeds.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes, "For a generation of Americans, the familiar 'beep, beep' of Warner Brothers’ cartoon Roadrunner was the background sound of Saturday mornings. Despite the cartoon character’s perennial victories over Wile E. Coyote, real-life coyotes present a real danger. The mammals can reach a top speed of 43 miles an hour — more than twice as fast as roadrunners."

So technically speaking, the coyote shouldn’t have too much trouble overtaking a roadrunner. This canid, along with domestic cats, raccoons and skunks, is the primary predator of roadrunners.

The roadrunner always outruns the coyote in cartoons, but coyotes are a real threat to roadrunners in reality.
The roadrunner always outruns the coyote in the cartoons of your childhood, but coyotes are a real threat to roadrunners in reality. Maria Jeffs/Shutterstock

2. Roadrunners Eat Rattlesnakes for Dinner

The greater roadrunner is known by a few names, including the chaparral cock and the snake killer. It earns this second name for its preference for rattlesnake meat as a snack. Though the rattlesnake is a feared viper, the roadrunner bests the snake by working as a team with another roadrunner. While one distracts the snake, the other will pin its head and hit it on a rock, or stab it with its bill.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, if the snake is too big to eat in one go, “a roadrunner will walk around with a length of snake still protruding from its bill, swallowing it a little at a time as the snake digests.”

Here is what the battle looks like:

3. Roadrunners Never Need to Drink Water

These desert birds are so well adapted to their environment that they have no need to sip water. They get all the moisture they need from their diet, which consists of grasshoppers, beetles and other insects, spiders, small mammals and reptiles, scorpions, snails, fruits and seeds, and even other small birds and eggs.

They first absorb as much water from their food as possible through an efficient digestion system. Then, to get rid of the excess salt accumulated, which would work against staying hydrated, they excrete the extra salt through glands near their eyes. While many seabirds have similar glands, it isn't as common among land birds and shows just how highly adapted roadrunners are to the arid habitats in which they live.

4. Roadrunners Aren't Shy About Saying Hello

Roadrunners are charismatic birds, and being fleet of feet might just make them feel confident about exploring whatever they're curious about. That includes people.

Desert Museum notes, "Often it seems curiously unafraid of humans. Trotting up close to peer at us, raising and lowering its mop of a shaggy crest, flipping its long tail about expressively, it looks undeniably zany."

One such roadrunner recently showed off how friendly the species can be with human neighbors. Christopher Apodaca posted a video on Facebook of Rudy, a wild roadrunner who has become a friend:

Meet Rudy. Rudy has been hanging around for the last three months. He's gotten more and more close and comfortable around the shop. He always has a lizard, and he loves tapping on my window.
He's usually at the sliding glass entrance door, but has recently been hitting up my bedroom window. Though Roadrunners are New Mexico's state bird, they are fairly uncommon to see. And I get very excited to see Rudy!

5. Roadrunners Are a Cuckoo Bird

These fast and fiery birds are members of the cuckoo family, a group of birds best known thanks to the common cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The roadrunner, however, builds its own nests for rearing chicks.

The Latin name of the greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, means "Californian earth-cuckoo" and the species can be found across the southwest United States and Mexico. Meanwile, the lesser roadrunner, Geococcyx velox , is found from Mexico down into Central America.