In our collective consciousness there are birds that serve as representatives of their respective habitats. They are so ingrained in our minds as regionally unique that it’d be reasonable to assume they’re omnipresent in a given habitat. Here the greater roadrunner adorns countless postcards and gift-shop mugs, but it can be found as far east as Missouri and ranges well into California and southern Mexico, where it shares habitat with close cousin the lesser roadrunner. Still, when we think of the roadrunner our mental picture often has the Sonoran Desert as backdrop.
While we welcome that association, it comes with a caveat: they’re very hard to find! Whenever someone comes into our shop asking where they can find roadrunners, our answer is a verbal shrug. It’s hard to plan a birding trip around finding one; they often just appear, with no warning. Roadrunners can be found in a variety of generally arid habitats, and their range is even expanding. They do well in urban settings with enough natural habitat to support them.
The craziest sighting I’ve personally had was near Mormon Lake during the dead of winter, with a foot or more of snow on the ground. The lake can be an exceptionally cold place, as it was that day. How the bird was finding food in that setting was beyond us, yet there it was, looking as healthy as ever! This is extreme, but it perfectly depicts that absolute randomness of the species.
The most common roadrunner sighting is, appropriately, from the comfort of your car along the side of a dusty road. They love sitting atop berms, where they survey their surroundings for items of interest. While they’re not entirely flightless, they largely stay close to the ground, where they use agility, speed and cunning to outwit prey and threat alike.
This bird can run in excess of 20mph, and as it sprints through our highland scrub, it lowers its sleek frame to run nearly parallel with the ground. This provides enough aerodynamic effect to help squeeze out every lick of speed it can muster. Using those same aerodynamic principles it adjusts its long tail side-to-side during high-speed maneuvering, like a rudder. With this speed and ability to disappear into dense and often thorny undergrowth, it can evade predators that may include the stealthy bobcat, a particularly wily coyote and even larger birds of prey.
The roadrunner’s ability to keep from becoming someone’s lunch makes it a formidable hunter in its own right. It dines on a very diverse buffet, ranging from small insects to rattlesnakes. We’ve had reports from homeowners who’ve witnessed this clever species sitting in ambush near a hummingbird feeder, where it will jump straight up to snatch the diminutive pollinator from its perch.
Back to the rattlers, though. Roadrunners hunt a wide variety of reptiles, including several kinds of venomous lizards and snakes. Over time they have developed a tolerance for any number of otherwise deadly venoms.
While they tend to be solitary creatures outside mating season, they occasionally work in pairs when hunting some more dangerous targets. With lighting speed, heat-sensing capability and inch-long fangs, the rattlesnake is dangerous no matter how you slice it. The team of birds will slowly circle and size up the wary ophidian. Singularly or in tandem they will extend and flare their wings and crests while they deceptively dance just within reach of the dangerous viper. This is an effort to confuse the snake into striking at their brightly patterned wings, where a bite will likely fall harmlessly on feathers. At the right moment one of the avian tag-team members will dart at the diverted snake, aiming for the base of the neck. By grabbing the unfortunate rattler here, it cannot wheel its head around, which neutralizes its most potent defense. Wasting no time, the roadrunner will then strike the head of the snake on the nearest rock until the struggle ceases. From there the noxious reptile can be consumed, venom and all, with no ill effect.
If you have native shrubby habitat in your yard, cross your fingers for roadrunners nesting in the thickest, thorniest plants. If you’re so lucky, you cannot ask for better pest control. During mating season listen for its song, a sorrowful series of descending notes.
Unfortunately you won’t likely have them nesting in your yard. What will happen, given enough time and awareness, is that you’ll see one sitting atop a bit of roadside topography, thoughtfully contemplating its next move. Happy birding!
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.