Uzzi and I were amazed when a roadrunner appeared on our farm this year. Yes, a roadrunner—just like the one in cartoons. We thought he’d say, “Beep! Beep!” and when he didn’t, we asked him why. He gave us a disdainful look that said “foolish goats” and replied, “We are not at all like that silly cartoon!” Then he paused a beat and added, “Well, we are fast. But that’s all. And I’m a girl roadrunner, not a boy!”
Uzzi and I felt pretty dumb after that, so we didn’t ask any more questions. Instead, we crept in the house when the lights went out and booted up the computer.
We were surprised to learn that roadrunners aren’t just Western desert birds. Their home range extends as far north as Kansas and east into Missouri, Arkansas and western Louisiana. There are, however, larger populations in the southwestern states and in parts of Mexico. The roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird!
Roadrunners are long-legged, long-beaked, long-tailed birds that look like scrawny chickens and are about the same size, too. A cool feature is a bushy crest of feathers on their heads that they can raise and lower whenever they like. Roadrunners have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward, so their footprints look just like an X. They can run at speeds of up to 20 mph, but unlike the cartoon Roadrunner, they only do it when escaping danger or catching prey. They hardly ever fly.
Roadrunners mate for life, but our roadrunner doesn’t seem to have a husband. We don’t know why, but she’s kind of snippy so we didn’t ask. A male roadrunner courts potential girlfriends by putting on an elaborate courtship dance. He’ll dangle a tasty morsel like a dead lizard or snake in front of his honey’s face while bowing, raising and lowering his wings, and wagging and fanning his tail. If she thinks he’s cute she accepts the food and they’re hitched. From then on they defend their territory and raise their families as a pair.
When spring comes, they make a shallow nest of sticks lined with soft stuff like feathers, grass, bark and snakeskins. They build it from 3 to 10 feet up in a tree or cactus or directly on the ground in a spot protected by cactus or brush. Both parents begin incubating their eggs as soon as the first egg is laid, so their chicks don’t all hatch out at once. Both parents sit on the eggs by day but only the male stays on the nest at night. Three to six naked, black-skinned chicks hatch 20 days after their parents begin incubating them, and they feather and grow so fast that they’re running down their own game by the time they’re 3 weeks old!
Roadrunners eat insects, fruit, seeds, reptiles, rodents, spiders, scorpions, small birds, eggs and carrion. If they can see something, it looks tasty and they can get it in their mouths, roadrunners eat it. A roadrunner kills its prey by stabbing it with its sharp beak and gobbling it down whole or by bashing it against a rock. (This tenderizes the food item, too.) Sometimes two roadrunners work together to kill and eat a large snake.
Roadrunners are such odd and interesting birds that a great deal of folklore grew up around them. For example, traditionalists among the Native American Hopi people of Arizona believe that roadrunner feathers protected their wearer from evil entities. Early white settlers thought roadrunners led lost people to safe trails, and parents in parts of Mexico tell their children babies are brought by the roadrunner instead of a stork. Roadrunners are pretty cool birds!