I saw my first real Greater Roadrunner on a cold winter day in the Southwest. Walking along a dirt track next to a prairie, my friend and I were on the look-out for different sparrow species when a large bird suddenly darted into the clearing. It was large, almost two feet long with a tan look that matched the meadow grasses. After only a moment of sizing us up, it dashed back into cover, leaving only dust in its wake. Of course, only thirty minutes later I saw my second roadrunner, this time standing on a lawn adjacent to a busy street!
We are all familiar with the Roadrunner cartoon character: he’s blue, runs like the wind, and foils the plots of Wile E. Coyote. However, in real life Greater Roadrunners are quite different. In fact, they are central to many Mexican and Native American spiritual beliefs, and have been named the state bird of New Mexico.
Officially adopted as the state bird in 1949, the Greater Roadrunner was once known as the “Chaparral Bird.” They do live within chaparral habitats, but can also be found in most “semi-open, scrubby habitat from below sea level to nearly 10,000 feet.” Unlike the cartoon character, Greater Roadrunners are brownish and mottled, blending perfectly into the natural landscape. Lawns? Not so much, as the above photo demonstrates.
These ground birds have been clocked going 20 mph, though their coyote predators can go more than twice that. Their impressive speed is used for hunting, and roadrunners will eat almost anything that moves. Rattlesnakes are fair game, as are other reptiles, scorpions, frogs, birds, and insects. Feasting on poisonous critters doesn’t seem to bother them, and they are known to eat carrion as well as seeds and nuts.
At 1.1 million breeding birds, Greater Roadrunners have a stable population (according to Partners in Flight). The biggest threat to their numbers is habitat loss, as they need large ranges and healthy prey populations. Car collisions, feral cats, and run-ins with hunters also cause problems, even for this speed-racer.