Roadrunner, Greater

Greater Roadrunner at the LA Zoo Photo Credit Tad Motoyama

Scientific Name: Geococcyx californianus

The roadrunner is known by many as the speedy bird from Warner Brothers cartoons who could always outrun the coyote. In fact, this bird does prefer running to flying. It was given its name due to its habit of running along desert roads and is able to run short distances at speeds of 15 miles per hour!

There are two types of roadrunners, greater and lesser, both of which are a part of the greater cuckoo family. They are slender, long tailed birds, built to dart through the desert scrub. They also perform a variety of “dances” with specific meanings. When a male is courting a female, he will bow before her while raising and lowering his wings to attract her. In order to protect their nests, roadrunners will also perform displays to distract the encroaching threat.


Desert climates are typically very hot during the day, but temperatures can drop drastically at night. Roadrunners have a natural way of regulating their own body temperatures so they can live comfortably in such a fluctuating climate. They are able to conserve their energy by dropping their core temperature at night. During the day, they will then expose small black patches of skin on their back to absorb heat from the sun and warm themselves up. The only time a roadrunner does not lower its body temperature at night is during incubation of eggs. The nocturnal incubation is typically done by the male.

The roadrunner is listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Roadrunners are found throughout the west and southwestern United States and parts of Mexico, due to the dry desert climate in these regions. They prefer to live amongst desert plants and arid brush.

The roadrunner’s diet consists of a wide variety of insects and small animals all typically found in desert regions. This includes such delicacies as crickets, grasshoppers, lizards, snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. A roadrunner will use its beak to batter its prey or smash it against a rock, then consume it whole. It can also leap into the air to catch insects. Quite the desert predator, roadrunners are even able to nab scorpions by grabbing them by their venomous tails. Unlike some other predatory birds such as owls, this bird is able to digest all parts of its prey and so does not leave behind or bring back up any part of the animal. Roadrunners will also eat fruit, such as the prickly pear, and seeds when live prey is not an option.

Roadrunners typically grow to be about 20-24 inches in length and weigh about 12 ounces. Their bodies are mainly streaked with brown and white, and each has a dark crest on its head and a strong, hooked bill. They have long brown tails which expose white tips when spread open. Their short, rounded wings display a white crescent when extended. Their legs, a pale blue color, are very strong, enabling them to move quickly. They also have strong, zygodactyl feet, meaning two of their toes point forward while the other two point backward. Roadrunners also have a patch of bare skin behind their eyes that is both blue and red in color. Males and females are very similar physically, although the males are slightly larger.

Back to Top