8 Revealing Facts About Roadrunners

a greater roadrunner standing in a desert

Manuel ROMARIS / Getty Images

Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo bird family, and while they look nothing like their cuckoo relatives, the call of a roadrunner sounds like “coo.” Primarily terrestrial, roadrunners are able to fly for short bursts but do so infrequently due to their impressive running ability. There are two species of roadrunner, the greater roadrunner and the lesser roadrunner. The larger of the two, the greater roadrunner, is about two feet long with black, brown, and white speckled feathers, and a shaggy crest. The lesser roadrunner is slightly smaller and has lighter tan coloring. Both species have long tail feathers that provide balance.

Greater roadrunners are found throughout the southwestern U.S. and parts of Mexico. The lesser roadrunner’s habitat extends further south including western portions of Mexico and Central America; the two species’ habitats do not overlap. According to the IUCN, roadrunners are not at risk. These friendly birds are best known from their depiction in cartoons, but actual roadrunners are far more interesting than their fictional counterparts. From their morning sunbathing routine to their impressive running speed, discover some revealing facts about the curious roadrunner.

1. Roadrunners Are Fast on Their Feet

roadrunner with lowered body and legs moving in a run
Elizabeth W. Kearley / Getty Images

While roadrunners are fast on foot for birds, contrary to their portrayal in cartoons, they’re not nearly as fast as coyotes. The land speed of a roadrunner is typically around 15 miles per hour, though the bird can move even faster for short bursts. That’s an impressive speed for a two-foot long bird. Roadrunners are typically found ambling along looking for prey, but when they spot a fast-moving lizard or insect, they sprint into action. 

2. They Don't Like to Fly

Since they can run at speeds over 15 miles per hour and most of their prey is on the ground, roadrunners don’t have much of a reason to fly. On those occasions when they need to escape a predator, reach a branch, or catch a flying insect, roadrunners will fly for short distances, usually only lasting for a few seconds. Roadrunners are not impressive fliers, but their long tail feathers help maintain the bird’s balance when it’s standing still and running.

3. They Can Eat Snakes

Roadrunners are omnivores that eat just about anything they find on the ground — including rattlesnakes and venomous prey. Their primary diet includes scorpions, frogs, reptiles, small mammals, birds, and eggs, but if a pair of roadrunners wants to eat a rattlesnake, they team up and peck its head until they kill it. They have a similar technique for overtaking rodents and lizards, the birds snatch the prey and crush it against a rock before swallowing it. About 10% of their diet is composed of fruits, seeds, and plants.

4. They Get Fluids From Food

Roadrunner in a field
Maria Jeffs / Shutterstock

These desert birds are so well adapted to their environment that they are able to survive on the fluids they obtain from their diet. Roadrunners absorb the water found in their prey through their efficient digestive systems. To stay hydrated, they rid themselves of the excess salt found in their protein-rich diet through active salt glands located near their eyes, while conserving the essential water. 

5. They Are Cuckoo Birds

These fast and fiery birds are members of the cuckoo family, and greater roadrunner’s Latin name, Geococcyx californianus, means Californian earth-cuckoo. While the roadrunner doesn’t share many traits with the common cuckoo, they are both zygodactyl birds. They have four toes: two pointing forward and two pointing back, which leave tracks that look like X’s. Like other cuckoos, roadrunners are slender birds with rounded wings and graduated tail feathers.

6. They Aren't Shy

Roadrunners are charismatic birds, and being fleet of feet might just make them feel confident about exploring whatever they're curious about — including people. Humans are just as interested in roadrunners as they are in us, and when one approaches on foot and cocks its head, it's a sight to see.

Humans also appreciate roadrunners’ free pest control service, their appetite for insects and rodents is a benefit to humans.

7. They Are Monogamous

Roadrunners have elaborate mating rituals, and may mate for life. Their courtship begins with the male chasing the female on foot. Like other bird species, the male tries to woo the female with food, often bringing her a lizard in his beak. Both males and females try to attract each other with offerings of sticks or grass. The male wags its tail and leaps into the air to get attention. Males also make cooing sounds, which can be heard here, provided by the Macaulay Library.

Once a pair mates, they stay together to defend their territory all year. The birds build a nest in a low bush or tree and line it with grass, leaves, and sometimes cow dung. Each pair has two to eight eggs each breeding season. Most pairs raise the young together, taking turns protecting the hatchlings and procuring food.

8. They Sunbathe in the Morning

On cool desert nights, roadrunners enter a state of torpor, allowing their body temperature to drop to conserve their energy. To recover from their cold night of slumber, roadrunners spend the morning laying out in the sunlight, with their feathers raised to allow the sun to reach their skin. 

When daytime temperatures drop in winter, they use the sun to warm up several times a day.