Ranger Rick Roadrunner August 2015

Meep! Meep!

By Ellen Lambeth

Make way on the road, because this bird is built to run!

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The bird in question is the greater roadrunner. As its name suggests, this bird often does run along ready-made paths such as roads or dry creek beds. You may know about the cartoon roadrunner that’s always outrunning a wily cartoon coyote (below). What you may not know is that a roadrunner actually can run only half as fast as a coyote can.

But the roadrunner has other tricks to try. Besides being fast, it can use its tail as a rudder to quickly zig and zag as it runs. It can zip into the cover of shrubs and thick grasses. And if worse comes to worst, it can take wing and burst into the air. Roadrunners don’t fly very well. But a full-grown one can certainly get up out of reach when it needs to.

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Dressed for Success
A roadrunner is easy to recognize. It’s bigger than a crow and has a long tail, a long bill, and long legs. It also has colorful skin patches behind the eyes and a shaggy crest that it raises when excited. And, of course, you’ll find it on or near the ground. You can even tell where a roadrunner has been by the X-shaped tracks it leaves behind. That’s because each of its feet has two toes in front and two in back—perfect for flat-footed running. You just might not be so sure whether the bird was coming or going!

The males and females look alike: Both have feathers that blend in well with the dry landscape the birds usually live in. You might hear their call—which, by the way, is nothing like the cartoon roadrunner’s meep, meep. Instead, it’s more like a coo-coo. And that’s a clue that roadrunners are related to cuckoos, birds that get their name from the sounds they make.

It’s a Dry Life
The greater roadrunner lives in the American Southwest and also much of Mexico (see map on page 22). (In Mexico, it might cross paths with its smaller relative, the lesser roadrunner.)

Water is scarce here, but roadrunners can usually get what they need from the food they eat. They don’t even need water to bathe in—a dust bath works just as well. And what about the hot summer days and cold winter nights? A roadrunner can always take a midday siesta in the shade to cool off or a morning sunbath to warm up.

What’s to Eat?
Roadrunners eat just about anything they find. Imagine the kinds of animals that live in dry places, and chances are they’re on the menu. Insects, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes are top choices. Lizards and snakes are popular. Even mice and small birds are fair game, as well as already-dead stuff. But it’s not all meat, all the time. Roadrunners sometimes chow down on seeds and fruits, including prickly cactus fruits. It all depends on what’s available from season to season.

Some prey is tricky to conquer. It may be kind of big, for example, or venomous. To help make it safer to manage and easier to eat, the roadrunner may stun the prey with jabs from its bill. Or it may grab it in its bill and bash it against the hard ground or a rock. That might not make a pretty sight, but it gets the job done!

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Family Time
When the time comes to raise a family, the male roadrunner flaps up to a branch, rock, or other high point—the better to be seen. Then he begins to coo-coo from his perch—the better to be heard. The mother-to-be joins the male in a prancing dance. Meanwhile, he tries to win her over with a lizard or some other treat.

After mating, the male gathers twigs and delivers them to the female. She uses them to build a nest low to the ground in a small tree or shrub. Then she lays her eggs, and both parents take turns sitting on them. They also share chick-raising duties after the eggs hatch. And if everything goes according to plan, there will be a whole new generation of fleet-footed birds, ready to run down the road!

“That’s all Folks!”


“Meep! Meep!” originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)

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