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Greater Roadrunner - The Official State Bird of New Mexico

Akshay Chavan
Deserts in Southwest United States are hard to imagine without the greater roadrunner. But how did the roadrunner become New Mexico's State Bird? This BirdEden post answers such questions, along with giving you many interesting facts about the greater roadrunner, including its appearance, diet, habitat, and much more.

Did You Know?

The greater roadrunner is one of the few predators of rattlesnakes, and the only predator of the tarantula hawk wasp.
The roadrunner is a ground-dwelling cuckoo, popular for darting across roads at high speeds. It is characterized by the highly-streaked appearance of its back, crest, and tail, and the bright colors behind its eyes. There are two varieties of the roadrunner: greater and lesser.
The greater roadrunner is more streaked, larger, and dominant in Southwest USA, while the lesser roadrunner is more abundant in Mexico, is smaller, and prefers insects more than other animals.
The greater roadrunner, being able to run faster than humans and kill many venomous creatures, is mentioned in several Native American legends. In cowboy stories, it is said that the roadrunner places cactus spines around a sleeping rattlesnake, which makes it easier to kill.
Though this tale is entirely fictional, it shows how the bird was admired for its shrewdness. It is known by several names, like Chaparral Cock, el paisano, and el correcaminos in New Mexico, where it the official state bird. A lot of other amazing facts about the greater roadrunner follow.


● The greater roadrunner is a chicken-sized bird. It has a brown-streaked tail, back, and wings. Its underbelly and front neck is lighter in color, and it has brown eyes ringed with yellow. its 3-inch beak is blue-colored, while the tail has a crescent of white feathers.
● Both males and females have a bare patch of skin behind their eyes, called the postocular stripe. In females, it is blue and orange, while males have a white and orange patch.
● Adult birds are about 25 - 30 cm in height, and have a total body length of around 50 to 62 cm, a large portion of which is tail-size. Despite their large size, they weigh less than 2 lb.
● Their most unique aspects include a black crest of feathers on the head which can be raised or lowered at will. Another is their zygodactyl feet, which means each foot has two toes pointing forward two pointing backward.

Habitat and Geographical Distribution

● These are ground-dwelling birds, found in open country and deserts, where there is a mix of low-lying bushes for cover, and scattered grass for foraging.
● This bird is common in Southwestern US and other areas which possess its required habitat. It is found in Arizona, Utah, California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

● Its range also extends to Southern Mexico, where the other variety of roadrunner, the lesser roadrunner, is more abundant.


● Owing to its high population in New Mexico, the greater roadrunner was adopted as its state bird, in a resolution passed on March 16, 1949. The bird's mythological status in the region also played a role in this.

● Early Native American tribes, like the Hopi and Pueblo, made good-luck charms called Kachina dolls, which had the bird's footprint engraved on it, believing that it would confuse evil spirits, since the X-shaped footprint doesn't reveal which direction the bird travels in.
● It was also believed that if a traveler was lost in the desert, a roadrunner would lead him to a trail.


● The greater roadrunner is an omnivore, which feeds on both animals and plants. 90% of its diet is composed of meat, while the rest 10% comprises seasonal seeds and fruits.
● It hunts a wide variety of prey, including snakes, lizards, arthropods like tarantulas and scorpions, frogs, insects, mice, gophers, and small birds.
● It is an opportunistic predator, known to wait at nectar feeders to spring up at hummingbirds. The roadrunner has even been observed preying on bats which fall from their roost or get knocked down by cave walls, and also feeds on carrion. Among plant matter, cactus fruits are its favorite.


● While hunting, the roadrunner darts towards its prey and encircles it. The animal, or its head, is held in the beak and smashed on rocks to cause injury and elongate its body. This makes it easier for the roadrunner to swallow it.
● The greater roadrunner prefers to run, rather than walk, and can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. It is also capable of flying for short distances, which is required to avoid obstacles and for perching. Its long tail acts like a rudder to steer it to the left or right.
● Roadrunners communicate with each other using a series of calls. They utter 6 - 7 dove-like coos continuously, which decrease in volume with each one. Their mandibles can also be used to generate clicking sounds.

Nesting Facts

● Their breeding season lasts from March to October. Males attract females by tempting them with a morsel of food held in their beak, offering them a small piece of wood, or going away from the female with feathers raised and wagging of the tail while bowing.
They are monogamous, and pairs stay together and protect their territory for life. Being territorial, they also do not undertake migration.
● They create small saucer-like nests made of whatever material they can find, like wood. These are built in small trees or shrubs up to a maximum height of 3 meters, and, on rare occasions, directly on the ground. Nests are located near trails for easy conveyance.
● Between 2 - 8 eggs are laid in each batch, which take about 18 - 21 days to hatch. Chicks are born blind, and they start hunting independently in about 2 - 3 weeks time, though the parents feed them for about 40 days. In the initial hunts, the parents accompany the chicks.
● The number of egg batches laid depends on the amount of rainfall the region receives. In places where there are two rainy seasons, the female lays two batches, because more food is available. In places with one annual rainy season, only a single batch is laid.
● Both parents take good care of their young. The eggs require an incubation period of 20 days, during which, warmth is provided by both. The male plays a stronger role in incubation, because he is able to regulate his body-heat better. Chicks are always begging for food, which both parents provide by regurgitation.
● When the chicks become independent, they resemble their parents in appearance, except the postocular stripe which they lack. They spread out into the surrounding desert, and reach sexual maturity in 2 - 3 years. The greater roadrunner has a life span of around 7 - 9 years.

Status and Threats

● This bird is classified as an animal of 'Least Concern' by the IUCN's Red List, which means that it is neither in danger of going extinct nor endangered.
● The biggest threat to this species is from rapid urbanization. In the past, and even today, in some places it is a victim of over-hunting because of its misplaced reputation as a quail-killer. Research has shown that the bird prefers a habitat undisturbed by humans, though they have adapted to living around people in some places. Other threats are predation by pets and overuse of agricultural pesticides which accumulate in their bodies.
● Despite being blamed for the declining quail population, in reality, they prey on quails only in rare cases. In fact, greater roadrunners are beneficial to humans because they consume pests like mice and insects.

Ecological Role

● The greater roadrunner occupies an important ecological niche of a predator of insects, reptiles, arthropods, small mammals, and birds. In addition, it also serves as a prey for animals like racoons, rat snakes, hawks, coyotes, and skunks, and plays an important role in their life cycle.

Interesting Facts

● The greater roadrunner gets all the water it needs from its food, though, it will readily drink if any water is available.
● It has a special gland near its eyes, which secretes a highly concentrated urine. This is an important adaptation for desert survival.
● Adult birds provide water to their chicks by holding an insect or animal above them in their beaks, and when the chicks open their beaks, the adult regurgitates water and drops the morsel into the chick's mouth.

● The roadrunner is one of the few birds capable of killing a rattlesnake. It encircles the snake while pecking at its head, or slams the head on a stone to kill it. In fact, two roadrunners have been observed working together to kill one snake.
● Sometimes, when a prey like a snake is too large, the roadrunner keeps it dangling from its beak, swallowing it only when more space becomes available in its stomach.

● Both male and females participate in nest-building. The female instigates the male to build a nest, by offering it a small twig.

● The nest is built of whatever material is available. In fact, roadrunner nests have even been found made of snakeskin.
● This bird is a brood parasite to some extent, which means that, it sometimes lays its eggs in another bird's nest so that the chick is reared by another species. Its eggs have been discovered in raven and northern mockingbird nests.

● To warm up after a cold night, it spreads its feathers and exposes the skin on its back to the sun.
While the roadrunner is not a rare species, human activities may affect its survival in the near future. The slight decline in its population over the last couple of years should hopefully serve as a wake-up call for us humans.