Greater Roadrunner
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Greater Roadrunner

Greater roadrunner
Geococcyx californianus.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Cuculiformes
Family: Cuculidae
Genus: Geococcyx
G. californianus
Binomial name
Geococcyx californianus
(Lesson, 1829)[2]
Geococcyx californianus map.svg
Range of G. californianus

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is a long-legged bird in the cuckoo family, Cuculidae, from the Aridoamerica region in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. The Latin name means "Californian earth-cuckoo". Along with the lesser roadrunner, it is one of two species in the roadrunner genus Geococcyx. This roadrunner is also known as the chaparral cock, ground cuckoo, and snake killer.[3]

Description and morphology

The roadrunner is about 52-62 cm (20-24 in) long, has a 43-61 cm (17-24 in) wingspan and weighs 221-538 g (7.8-19.0 oz). It stands around 25-30 cm (9.8-11.8 in) tall and is the largest cuckoo of the Americas.[4][5][6] Roadrunners have four toes on each zygodactyl foot; two face forward, and two face backward. The toes are brown in color and have pale gold spots. The upper body is mostly brown with black streaks and sometimes pink spots. The neck and upper breast are white or pale brown with dark brown streaks, and the belly is white. A crest of brown feathers sticks up on the head, and a bare patch of orange and blue skin lies behind each eye;[7] the blue is replaced by white in adult males (except the blue adjacent to the eye), and the orange (to the rear) is often hidden by feathers.[3]

Greater roadrunner walking in the Mojave desert, California

Although capable of limited flight, it spends most of its time on the ground, and can run at speeds up to 32 km/h (20 mph).[7] Cases where roadrunners have run as fast as 42 km/h (26 mph) have been reported.[8] This is the fastest running speed clocked for a flying bird, but not nearly as fast as the 70 km/h (40 mph) of the flightless and much larger ostrich.[9]

Distribution and habitat

The greater roadrunner is found in the Aridoamerica ecoregion, within the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It can be seen regularly in the US states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma, and less frequently in Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri,[3] as well as the Mexican states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, Jalisco, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Querétaro, México, Puebla, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí.[10] The species is not migratory.

The greater roadrunner can be found from 60 m (200 ft) below sea level to 2,300 m (7,500 ft) (rarely up to 3,000 m (9,800 ft)). It occupies arid and semiarid scrubland, with scattered vegetation (typically less than 50% cover) with a height of less than 2-3 m (6.6-9.8 ft).[3]



Greater roadrunner on the run

The Greater Roadunner can maintain a speed of 30 km per hour over long distances.[11][12] While running, it places its head and its tail parallel to the ground, and uses its tail as a rudder to help change its direction. It prefers to run in open areas, such as roads, packed trails and dry riverbeds rather than dense vegetation.

The roadrunner less often engages in flight. It hovers from a perch, such as a tree or a human construction. More rarely, it flies short distances of 4 or 5 meters, between potential roosts.[3]


This bird walks around rapidly, running down prey. It feeds mainly on small animals including insects, spiders (including black widows), tarantulas, scorpions, mice, small birds, and especially lizards and small snakes. Venomous serpents, including small rattlesnakes, are readily consumed.[13] It kills prey by holding the victim in its bill and slamming it repeatedly against the ground.


A greater roadrunner sunbathing

Because of the greater roadrunner's diurnal nature and arid habitat, it has various biological and behavioral adaptations, known as thermoregulation, to reduce dehydration and overheating. During the hot season, it is active mostly from sunrise to mid-morning, and late afternoon to evening. It rests in the shade during the hottest part of the day.[14]Body water may be retained via liquid reabsorption, by the mucous membranes in the cloaca, rectum and caecum. The roadrunner's nasal glands eliminate excess body salts.[15][16]

The greater roadrunner reduces excess heat by the formation of water vapor, released by breathing or through the skin.[17] It sometimes pants in heavy heat, to accelerate this action.[18] At night, it reduces its energy expenditure by more than 30 percent, lowering its body temperature from 40 to 34 degrees Celsius.[19] In the morning, it accelerates heat recovery by sunbathing.[20] In winter, it takes refuge in dense vegetation or among rocks to shelter from cold winds.[3]

The roadrunner frequently sunbathes for warmth. It turns perpendicular to the ground with its back turned towards the sun. Wings apart, the roadrunner ruffles the black feathers on its back and head, exposing its black skin, allowing both skin and feathers to absorb the heat of the sun's rays.[20] Early in the morning, it can stay in this posture for two or three hours.[12] In winter, when the temperatures are around 20 °C, roadrunners may warm themselves in the sun several times during the day, more than half an hour at a time.[3]


The greater roadrunner is monogamous, forming long-term pair bonds. Greater roadrunner couples defend a territory of about 700 to 800 m in size.[21][22] The male is more territorial, calling out to warn competitors, and does not hesitate to physically push the intruders out of his territory. Some couples defend the same territory all year long.[22]

Nest building starts in March in Texas, and probably later further north. Both birds build the nest, with the male collecting the material and the female constructing the nest. The nests are compact platforms of thorny branches lined with grasses, feathers, snakeskin, roots, and other fine material.[3] They are built low in a cactus or a bush. Greater roadrunners lay three to six eggs, which hatch in 20 days. The chicks fledge in another 18 days. Pairs may occasionally rear a second brood when there is an abundance of food in rainy summers.[3]

Similarly to some other cuckoos, greater roadrunners occasionally lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, such as the common raven[23] and northern mockingbird.[24]



The vocalizations of the greater roadrunner have seven distinct variants. The most frequent call is a slow and descending sequence of about six low, "cooing" noises, emitted by the male and which is heard at 250 m.[25] This call is usually made early in the morning, from a high perch such as a fence post, dead tree or cactus. Females give off a number of up to twenty-two short, low-frequency shrills, resembling coyote squeals, which can be heard 300 meters away. Both male and female roadrunners emit a series of five or six chatters accompanied by groaning, loud enough to be heard 200 meters away. This sound is the roadrunner's most common vocalization during the incubation period and the rearing of chicks.[26]


Greater roadrunner fossils dating from the Holocene and Pleistocene have been found in California,[27][28]New Mexico, Texas,[29]Arizona,[30] and the Mexican state of Nuevo León.[31] The oldest known fossil comes from a cave in New Mexico, estimated at an age of 33,500 years.[29] In the La Brea Tar Pits, fragments from 25 greater roadrunner fossils have been found.[28] Several other fossils are also known from Santa Barbara and Kern[27] counties, as well as Northern Mexico.[32]

Prehistoric remains indicate that up until 8,000 years ago, the greater roadrunner was found in sparse forests rather than scrubby deserts; only later did it adapt to arid environments. Due to this, along with human transformation of the landscape, it has recently started to move northeast of its normal distribution. Sparse forests can be found in these parts, in an environment similar to the prehistoric North American Southwest.[32][3][33]

Cultural references

Some Pueblo Native American tribes, including the Hopi, believed the roadrunner provided protection against evil spirits. In Mexico, some said it brought babies, as the white stork was said to in Europe. Some Anglo frontier people believed roadrunners led lost people to trails.[3]

Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner are the two protagonists of a long-running (since 1949) Warner Bros. animated series.

This specific roadrunner appeared in a 1982 sheet of 20-cent United States stamps showing 50 state birds and flowers, being the state bird of New Mexico.[34]

It is also the mascot of numerous high schools and colleges in the United States, including the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Three views of the same specimen


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Geococcyx californianus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2013.
  2. ^ "Geococcyx californianus (Lesson, 1829)". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 2006.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hughes, Janice M. (1996). Poole, A (ed.). "Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)". The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.244. Retrieved 2010. (Subscription required.)
  4. ^ "Greater Roadrunner". All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  5. ^ "Greater Roadrunner". 2011.
  6. ^ "New Mexico State Bird". 2015.
  7. ^ a b Lockwood, Mark W. (2007). Basic Texas Birds: A Field Guide. University of Texas Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-292-71349-9.
  8. ^ Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9.
  9. ^ "SPEED OF ANIMALS, ROADRUNNER, Geococcyx californianus". Retrieved .
  10. ^ Howell, Steve N. G.; Webb, Sophie (1995). A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press. p. 350. ISBN 0-19-854012-4.
  11. ^ pubmeddev; JL, Kavanau; J, Ramos (2019-09-02). "Roadrunners: activity of captive individuals. - PubMed". Science. 169 (3947): 780-2. doi:10.1126/science.169.3947.780. PMID 5432575.
  12. ^ a b Ohmart, R. D. (1989). "A timid desert creature that appears to be half bird, half reptile". Natural History, American Museum of Natural History. 89: 34-40. ISSN 0028-0712.
  13. ^ Cornett, James W. (2001). The Roadrunner. Palm Springs, California: Nature Trails Press. ISBN 0-937794-31-7.
  14. ^ Calder, WA (1967). Cooper Ornithological Society (ed.). "The Diurnal Activity of the Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus". 70: 84-85. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ RD Ohmart; TE Chapman; LZ McFarland (1970). University of California Press on behalf of the American Ornithologists Union (ed.). "Water Turnover in Roadrunners under Different Environmental Conditions". The Auk. 87: 787-793.
  16. ^ RD Ohmart; TE Chapman; LZ McFarland (1972). Pergamon Press (ed.). "Physiological and ecological observations concerning the salt-secreting nasal glands of the Roadrunner". Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. 43A: 311-316.
  17. ^ Robert C. Lasiewski; Marvin H. Bernstein; Robert D. Ohmart (1968). Cooper Ornithological Society (ed.). "Cutaneous Water Loss in the Roadrunner and Poor-Will". 73: 470-472. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ Ohmart, Robert D. (1973). Cooper Ornithological Society (ed.). "Comments on the Breeding Adaptations of the Roadrunner". Condor. 75: 140-149.
  19. ^ Vehrencamp, Sandra L. (1982). Cooper Ornithological Society (ed.). "Body Temperatures of Incubating versus Non-Incubating Roadrunners". 84: 203-207. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. ^ a b Ohmart, Robert D. and Robert C. Lasiewski (1971). American Association for the Advancement of Science (ed.). "Roadrunners: Energy Conservation by Hypothermia and Absorption of Sunlight". Science. 172 (3978): 67-69. doi:10.1126/science.172.3978.67.
  21. ^ Calder, W. A. (1968). "The Diurnal Activity of the Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus". The Condor. Oxford University Press (OUP). 70 (1): 84-85. doi:10.2307/1366511. JSTOR 1366511.
  22. ^ a b Montalvo, Andrea E.; Ransom, Dean; Lopez, Roel R. (2014). "Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) Home Range and Habitat Selection in West Texas". Western North American Naturalist. 74 (2): 201-207. doi:10.3398/064.074.0205. ISSN 1527-0904.
  23. ^ Pemberton, J. R. (1925-01-01). "Parasitism in the Road-runner". The Condor. 27 (1): 35-38. doi:10.2307/1362970. ISSN 0010-5422. JSTOR 1362970.
  24. ^ Aragón; Møller; Soler; Soler (1999). "Molecular phylogeny of cuckoos supports a polyphyletic origin of brood parasitism". Journal of Evolutionary Biology. Wiley. 12 (3): 495-506. doi:10.1046/j.1420-9101.1999.00052.x. ISSN 1010-061X.
  25. ^ "Recordings". Retrieved 2019.
  26. ^ Whitson, Martha Anne (1971). Field and laboratory investigations of the ethology of courtship and copulation in the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus-Aves, Cuculidae). p. 141. OCLC 26964120.
  27. ^ a b Larson, Leigh Marian (1930). University of California Press (ed.). Osteology of the California road-runner recent and pleistocene. 324. Berkeley, California. p. 22. OCLC 2951884. University of California publications in zoology
  28. ^ a b Howard, H (1962). Los Angeles County Museum (ed.). "A comparison of avian assemblages from individual pits at Rancho La Brea, California". Contributions in Science. 58: 1-24. ISSN 0459-8113.
  29. ^ a b Harris, Arthur H. et Celinda R. Crews (1983). Southwestern Association of Naturalists (ed.). "Conkling's Roadrunner: A Subspecies of the California Roadrunner?". The Southwestern Naturalist. 28: 407-412.
  30. ^ Mary C. Carpenter; Jim I. Mead; William H. Baltosser (2003). Southwestern Association of Naturalists (ed.). "Late Pleistocene Roadrunner (Geococcyx) from Kartchner Caverns State Park, Southeastern Arizona". The Southwestern Naturalist. 48: 402-410.
  31. ^ David W. Steadman; Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales; Eileen Johnson; A. Fabiola Guzman (1994). Cooper Ornithological Society (ed.). "New Information on the Late Pleistocene Birds from San Josecito Cave, Nuevo León, Mexico". Condor. 96: 577-589.
  32. ^ a b Maxon, Martha Anne (2005). The Real Roadrunner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 124. ISBN 0806136766. OCLC 57414720.
  33. ^ Howell, Steve N. G.; Webb, Sophie (1995). A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press. p. 350. ISBN 0-19-854012-4.
  34. ^ "1982 USA Stamps".

Further reading

Hoese, William; Anticona, Steve; Olmos, Erik; Parent, John; Rutti, Donald; Velasco, Beth (March 2013). "Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) Kills Juvenile Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)". Southwestern Naturalist. 58 (1): 124-126. doi:10.1894/0038-4909-58.1.124.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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