Greater Roadrunners

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From time to time I like to feature pictures of Greater Roadrunners.  The bird is certainly a symbol of the Sonoran Desert and, although this species is not our state bird (that honor belongs to the Cactus Wren), I suspect that most non-residents associate the Greater Roadrunner with Arizona.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this species.  Largely due to Warner Brothers many people view the Greater Roadrunner as clownish or comedic.  It is nothing of the sort.  Roadrunners are fierce predators.  They pursue, kill, and dine on smaller birds, rodents, lizards, and snakes.  Roadrunners are among the few species willing to take on and dispatch rattlesnakes.

Roadrunners are members of the Cuckoo family.  Look closely at one of them and you’ll observe features that define its capabilities and its lifestyle.


Perhaps the bird’s most noticeable feature is its long, forceps-like beak.   Roadrunners, as their name implies, chase down their prey and they are very adept at seizing lizards and other small creatures with that beak.  Notice also the bird’s small wings and its almost impossibly long tail.  Roadrunners aren’t much for flight.  A typical roadrunner flight might last for a few seconds and cover a few yards at most.  But they are extraordinary runners, capable of attaining speeds of up to 20 mph.  When a roadrunner is running at full tilt it lowers its head and extends its neck, creating an elongated and streamlined shape.  But, that shifts its center of gravity forward and that’s where that long tail comes into play, serving as a counterbalance to the weight at the bird’s front end.


Here’s an image of a roadrunner with its neck extended.  That beak is quite a weapon.


This third image gives a good view of the bird’s legs and feet.  The legs are long, thick, and muscular, and the feet seem to be disproportionately large for the bird.  Those legs are muscled in order to give the bird sprinting power.  The feet, as big as they are, stabilize the bird while it is in motion or stationary.  In this image a roadrunner is having no difficulty balancing on a branch while it ponders its next move.

I’m not sure why roadrunners evolved those huge crests.  I suspect that the crests are purely ornamental, and they may serve as a way for the birds to attract mates.  A roadrunner can elevate or lower its crest according to its mood.

Check out the bird’s eyes.  I have no idea why roadrunners evolved eyes with concentric rings in contrasting colors.  Whatever the evolutionary purpose, a roadrunner’s eyes are striking.  I’ve never seen any other creature with eyes quite like that.  Those eyes are ringed with long, delicate eyelashes.  That’s an unusual feature for a bird, but those eyelashes no doubt perform a useful function of protection as the bird motors around on the dry and very dusty desert floor.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400 mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting.  All images shot at ISO 400.  The first image, f7.1 @ 1/2500.  The second image, f8 @ 1/500.  The third image, f8 @ 1/320.

One response to “Greater Roadrunners”

  1. Tom Munson says :

    Nice work, Steve. You got close to this guy.

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