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What is a Roadrunner?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A roadrunner is a form of ground dwelling cuckoo found in the American Southwest. There are actually two species of roadrunner, known as the greater and lesser roadrunner, although the greater roadrunner is probably the more well known of the two. These birds have become iconic thanks to their role in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, and, contrary to popular belief, real roadrunners don't actually say “beep beep,” but rather they communicate through a series of cooing calls and beak clattering.

The greater and lesser roadrunner are physically very similar. Both birds have brown plumage streaked with white, and long, upright tails along with distinctive feathery crests on their heads. The birds also have a number of unique adaptations which allow them to survive in the harsh desert environment they call home. These adaptations are focused on the conservation of heat and energy, and on retaining as much moisture as possible so that the birds do not become dehydrated.

At night, roadrunners actually allow their body temperatures to drop, conserving the energy they would use to warm themselves otherwise. To warm up in the morning, the birds ruffle their feathers to expose their black skin, which absorbs solar energy, heating the body very efficiently. They also remain inactive during the heat of the day, conserving energy even further. To conserve liquid, roadrunners excrete salt through their nasal glands, rather than expressing it in their urine, and the birds pass very dry feces, thanks to their extremely efficiency intestinal tracts, which pull all available water from their waste.

As the name “roadrunner” implies, the roadrunner vastly prefers running to flying. These birds can reach top speeds of around 18 miles an hour (30 kilometers and hour), allowing them to run to escape a variety of predators, and to overtake many prey animals. When pressured by an extremely fast predator such as a coyote, a roadrunner will eventually take wing.

Roadrunners eat a variety of small animals, reptiles, and insects, using their sturdy beaks to crack their victims against the ground to kill them before consuming them. The birds nest on the ground, working together to incubate a clutch of up to 12 eggs, and typically raising three to four chicks. Roadrunners stagger their egg-laying pattern, so that chicks hatch at different times, ensuring that if earlier chicks do not survive, later chicks might stand a chance.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By CarrotIsland — On Nov 12, 2010

I find the mating process of roadrunners to be fascinating. To find a mate, the male roadrunners dance around the females with food and then feed the female. I guess the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach!

Both of the parents take the responsibility of building the nest. The male and female both collect the sticks and then the female builds the nest in a cactus, bush, or small tree.

By anon23247 — On Dec 19, 2008

What are the adaptions of a road runner?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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