Lee Richardson Zoo

Greater Roadrunner

Order:  Cuculiformes - cuckoos and turacos

Family:  Cuculidae - cuckoos

Scientific Name: Geococcyx californianus


Description Greater road runners are medium sized birds, weighing ½ to ¾ pound and measuring 19 to 24 inches in length.  The head, neck, back and wings are dark brown-black and heavily speckled or streaked with white.  The breast is mostly white.  The eyes are bright yellow.  There is a streak of blue and red skin behind the eye that can be exposed or hidden.  They are very streamlined birds with a long tail that can be carried downwards or at an upward angle.  Their beak and legs are blue.  Their feet are zygodactylous, two toes forward and two backward.

Home Range:   Primarily found in southwestern United States.


Habitat Type:   Arid deserts and other areas of scattered brush for cover and open grassy areas for foraging.  For breeding, they require coastal sage scrub or chaparral habitat.  They may also be seen in grasslands and at the edges of woodlands.  Their movement further north into the United States is hampered by area with deeper, longer lasting snowfall and shorter days.  They are expanding their range into Kansas.


Reproduction:   Reaching sexual maturity at 2 – 3 years of age, this solitary animal becomes part of a permanent pair.  The male will offer a tasty morsel of mouse, snake or lizard to his female of interest.  His wooing methods also include wagging of his tail, bowing, stomping his feet, and making a whirring or cooing sound.  If she takes the treat from him, he will jump on her back to mate.  Both parents will help in nest construction.  The male collects the materials (sticks, grass, feathers, snake skins and sometimes even cow manure) and the female will arrange them.  The nest is usually 3 to 16 feet above the ground in a low tree, bush or cactus.  Three to six eggs are usually laid, but up to 13 have been reported.  The eggs are incubated by both sexes during the day and only the male at night.  After 19-20 days the eggs will hatch.  The young fledge in 11 days and begin self feeding at 16 days.  Although usually raising their own young, it has been noted that the roadrunner is not above brood parasitism.  Their eggs have been observed in the nests of the common raven and the northern mockingbird.


Diet in the Wild:   Ninety percent of their diet is animal matter.  They eat a variety of arthropods, lizards, snakes, rodents, bats, birds, eggs, carrion, grasshoppers and other insects.  When these prey items are caught they will smash the creature against a rock and then swallow it whole.  With seasonal availability they will also consume seeds and fruit.  They are very opportunistic feeders and can be quite creative in their foraging strategies.  They have been observed snatching insects from leaves, ambushing prey at feeders, in nest boxes, and even knocking low flying birds from the air.


Diet in the Zoo:   moistened dry dog food, meat, mealworms and mice


General Information:   Greater roadrunners are non-migratory and pairs defend their 69.75 to 124 acre territories year-round.  They can run up to 20 miles per hour and are the fastest land bird.  They actually prefer to run or walk, but can fly.  However, their airborne time only lasts a few seconds.  They use their tail for steering, braking and balancing.  They have been seen ‘sunbathing.’  They will position their wings during the cool times of the days to expose the black skin on their backs.  This will allow them to absorb heat and recover from the cold nights.  On the other hand, the roadrunners range can produce scorching heat.  Their adaptations to cope with desert life include reducing activity by 50% during the heat of the day, entering hypothermia at night to conserve energy, conserving water when supplies are scarce, and utilizing a salt-secreting nasal gland.  They have a wide range of vocalizations.  Their main calls consist of six slow, low coos.  During the mating season they will also produce a whirring call and when needed they have a clackety noise (made by clicking the mandibles together) for alarm.  The greater roadrunner was adopted as the New Mexico state bird in 1949.


Conservation Status:   Common to fairly common.  Not globally threatened.


Predators:   Hawks, house cats, skunks, coyotes, and raccoons are often known to consume roadrunners. 


Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (July 8, 2005). 

California Partners in Flight Coastal Scrub and Chaparral Bird Conservation Plan (July 8, 2005). 

Mark Sexson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.  Personal conversation.

Handbook of the Birds of the World.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona 1997. v4