When my family moved here in 1961, I think the population of roadrunners may have exceeded humans in my neighborhood. I recall countless times each day seeing the striking, speedy birds racing through our driveway to points beyond. It seemed they would be impossible to catch and quite possibly were the world’s greatest runners.
Today, roadrunners are still plentiful in the greater Fallbrook area. I typically see one or two (or more) every day, motoring up and down the winding roadways of our countryside. One morning recently, I saw a particularly large, regal specimen perched on a low wall alongside my driveway, hence, motivating me to reacquaint myself with their habits.
Roadrunners are carnivorous
While roadrunners incorporate plenty of small prey like insects, lizards, scorpions, rodents, frogs, and certain birds into their diet, they are warriors in capturing larger, more dangerous prey like rattlesnakes as well.
Roadrunners have success in killing rattlesnakes because the birds are lightening-quick. When moving in for the kill, a roadrunner either pecks it incessantly in the head or sinks its long, sharp beak into the snake, lifts it by the tail into the air and proceeds to smack it’s head on the ground until it is dead. The roadrunner’s procedure is to swallow the snake whole and is known to wander around with it dangling from its mouth while it slowly eats and digests the meat. In many cases, two roadrunners will team up on a rattlesnake.
Using their brains, roadrunners are careful to swallow horned lizards head first, making sure that the horns are pointed away from the bird’s vital organs.
At most, a roadrunner’s diet consists 10 percent of plant material (with a little fruit and seeds), and that would likely be in the winter months.
An athlete’s body
Born to run, the Greater California Roadrunner can out-sprint a human. A large black, brown and white feathered ground bird, this roadrunner has a notable and somewhat fanciful black head crest. Their tails are generally tipped in white and their beaks are oversized.
Typically measuring between 20 and 22 inches from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, the roadrunner species we have in Fallbrook is a member of the cuckoo family (cuculidae). Its wings are short and rounded, depicting a white crescent. Wing span can be about 19 inches. Typical weight can vary greatly – from 7.8 to 19 ounces.
It’s a good thing roadrunners have long, sturdy legs and are fast on their feet, because they can’t keep their large bodies airborne for more than a few seconds.
Roadrunners have a long tail that they typically have in an upward angled position. When running, the birds keep their bodies nearly parallel to the ground and appear to use their tails as rudders.
The California Roadrunner has a distinct footprint. With four toes on each foot, two face forward and two face backward, creating something akin to an “X”.
Male roadrunners have discovered the way to a female’s heart is through food. In the spring, males typically offer tasty morsels to the females to entice them into mating. It’s not unusual for the male to withhold the offered food until after achieving the mating goal.
Both the males and females work on collecting nest materials and subsequently construct shallow nests in bushes or low trees (under 10 feet in height).
The female generally lays between two and six eggs over three days, therefore hatching is a bit staggered.
Roadrunner eggs are white but covered with a dusty yellow film. Sometimes brown or gray stains are on them.
Typically the incubation period is between 18 and 20 days and the male plays a big role in this. Typically the first little ones to hatch are larger and healthier. Unfortunately those later to hatch have a tendency to be runts and in many cases are eaten by the parents. Babies typically leave the nest in just under three weeks but stay close to the adults for another week or so before making off on their own.
California Roadrunners can have a life span of up to seven or eight years.
Native American and Mexican legends feature a special significance for roadrunners. They are viewed as courageous, strong, fast, and as having superior endurance by these cultures.
The birds’ unique footprint is identified as a sacred symbol by Pueblo tribes and is said to ward off evil. The reasoning for that is because the shape of the footprint is thought to confuse others as to which direction the bird is traveling, thus effectively preventing evil spirits from trailing them.
Favorite Fallbrook habits
The Greater California Roadrunner is seen frequently racing along rural Fallbrook roadways, with a fondness for areas near streambeds. It is common to see them on open, flat and rolling terrain that has a sparse amount of dry brush.
They are known to run in somewhat of a comical fashion and jump while chasing small prey.
The Mediterranean climate of Fallbrook is close to their preferred desert environment, making it a favored area.
Roadrunners prefer quiet areas where they have room to roam and can race up and down paths without the interference of heavy traffic.
Here to stay
Currently there is no need to worry that Greater California Roadrunners are in danger of extinction. According to a North American Breeding Bird Survey, their population is stable.
Threats to roadrunners include increasing housing development (reduced open space) and illegal shooting because some mistakenly believe that they threaten the number of popular game birds.
While some residents of the United States may only be familiar with roadrunners based on the antics of the well-known Warner Brothers’ cartoon character that constantly outran Wile E. Coyote, they are plentiful in the Fallbrook area.
Facts about California Roadrunners:
• Roadrunners can reach 20 miles per hour in speed.
• They are monogamous birds (one couple mates for a lifetime)
• Greater California Roadrunners have a blue beak, yellow eyes and blue-orange patch of skin behind them.
• The crest of black feathers on top of a roadrunner’s head can be willingly positioned upright by the bird.
• Roadrunners are very territorial and generally cover a half-mile in diameter. Both male and female are fierce defenders against intruders.
• Predators of roadrunners are hawks, domestic cats, coyotes, raccoons and skunks.
• Consuming poisonous snakes and lizards is not a problem for a roadrunner.