What bird can outrun a human, kill a rattlesnake and loves the heat of the Southwest? This is the character of Saturday morning cartoons – the Greater Roadrunner.
These birds are tall standing two feet from bill to tail tip. They are about the size of a Common Raven, though much more slender. They have a blue-black crest on their head, a white bill, a very long tail, and mottled plumage that provides excellent camouflage in their desert environment. When they run, their body is nearly parallel to the ground and they use their long tail as a rudder. The feet of the roadrunner have two toes facing forward and two facing backwards so their footprints disguise the direction they are heading.
Though not common in Amador and Calaveras Counties, they are spotted occasionally. The best place to look for them is along quiet roads in open grasslands and low deserts. They will dart out of shrub cover or race across the road.
They are more commonly found in the desert where adaptations have allowed them to flourish. They secrete a salt solution through a gland in front of the eye. This excretion of salt uses less water than removing salt from the body through the kidneys. Their diet of reptiles and small mammals provides needed water which is scarce in their environment. The unfeathered area under their chin is fluttered to dissipate heat.
The roadrunner diet includes poisonous prey such as venomous lizards and scorpions which they can consume without ill effects. Two roadrunners will team up to capture a rattlesnake. One will jump and flap to distract the snake while the other pins the head and bashes the snake against a rock. If the snake is too long to swallow all at once, it will hang out of the bird’s mouth as the bird walks around swallowing a bit at a time. Other items in their diet include frogs, toads, insects, centipedes, carrion and birds and eggs. In winter, fruit, seeds and plants are added to their diet.
Roadrunners nest 3-10 feet above ground on a sturdy branch or crotch of a shrub or small tree. The nest cup is about four inches deep, and the entire nest measures 17 inches in diameter and 8 inches high. It is lined with leaves, grasses, feathers and other soft material. Parents will continue work on the nest during incubation and may build up the sides as the two to six chicks grow. Chicks leave the nest after 18-21 days and are able to catch food soon after. Parents will continue to feed for another 30-40 days.
Roadrunners are known for running (up to 15 mph) but they do not fly well. They may jump to catch prey such as insects, bats and hummingbirds. Flying is limited to moving quickly to a hiding place, or gliding from a perch to the ground.
To warm up in the morning, the roadrunner will stand with its back to the sun and raise its feathers across the back to expose the black skin to the sun for warmth.
So the cartoon character is pretty close to the real thing, but the greater roadrunner is more interesting as a wild critter than a cartoon character.