The Fastest Bird in the West

December 30, 2013

The Fastest Bird in the West

“Beep beep,” is what we know cartoon coyotes think they sound like, but the Greater Roadrunner actually makes more of quiet descending coo and occasional clack. These incredible birds are common throughout the Sonoran Desert, as well as the American Southwest and Mexico. The name “roadrunner” comes from the bird’s habit of racing down roads in front of moving vehicles and then darting to safety in the brush.

The roadrunner can grow about 24 inches long (half of which is their tail), around 12 inches tall and can weigh up to 19 ounces. It is the largest North American cuckoo and has a bushy crest and long, dark bill. It also has a lengthy, dark tail, a dark head and back, and is blue on the front of the neck, as well as on the belly. Roadrunners have 4 toes on each zygodactyl foot – two toes face forward, and the other two face backward.

Mainly they feed on insects, fruit and seeds, but also enjoy small reptiles, small rodents, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, small birds, their eggs, and carrion, including roadkills. The roadrunner hunts by walking fast and running toward prey but they can also jump straight up in the air when small birds or flying insects are overhead. The adult uses its long tail as a rudder for maneuvering while running. It kills larger prey with a blow from the beak—hitting the base of the neck of small mammals—or by holding it in the beak and beating it against a rock. It is not uncommon to have two roadrunners attack a relatively big snake cooperatively.

Although capable of weak flight, it spends most of its time on the ground, and can run at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. This is the fastest running speed ever clocked for a flying bird, although it is not as fast as the flightless Ostrich.

Some Pueblo Indian tribes, such as the Hopi, believed that the roadrunner provided protection against evil spirits. In Mexico, some said it delivered babies, as the stork was said to in Europe. Some Anglo frontier people believed roadrunners led lost people to trails. Either way, we love the roadrunners at Tanque Verde Ranch. Next time you visit, see if you’re fast enough to capture a photo of these timeless outlaws of the west.

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