[ Geococcyx californianus ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 22 inches
WILD DIET: snakes, lizards, small rodents, small birds and their eggs, insects, and even carrion
ZOO DIET: adult mice, baby mice, mealworms, crickets
DISTRIBUTION: southwest and western United States and throughout arid Mexico
HABITAT: desert scrub and dry open lands


Running for Life

Although their name implies they spend most of their time running, roadrunners can also fly if the need arises. Their long, sleek body allows them to move quickly, by any means necessary, through their desert habitat. They walk briskly or run after prey such as lizards and scorpions or jump up in semi-flight to swiftly snatch a hummingbird out of the air.

Reaching speeds of up to 17 mph, they can run from animals such as hawks, raccoons, snakes, and of course, coyotes. If needed, they will fly short distances to escape their predators. People can tell where a roadrunner has walked by their distinctive footprints: two toes face forward and two face to the back.

Thermal Control

Roadrunners are equipped both physiologically and behaviorally to survive in a desert environment. At night, to conserve energy, their body temperature is lower. A routine morning activity involves sunning to warm up again. To do so, they expose a patch of skin on their back to capture some of the sun’s heat. This solar panel helps regulate their body temperature. By midday though, when the sun is at its strongest, they reduce their activity by half.

Vital to surviving desert heat, is their ability to stay hydrated. Because roadrunners are carnivorous, much of their food supply is rich in moisture. In addition, their body first absorbs any excess water from its feces before discarding it. Also, they have a special nasal gland that eliminates excess salt, unlike most other birds that use their urinary tract for this process.

Fun Family Traditions

Tantalizing his mate with choice morsels of food, roadrunners breed and then busily gather sticks, grass, feathers, and whatever is available, for the nest. The female then finds the best spot for her brood. She will select a small tree or even a cactus. After laying anywhere from 3 to 6 eggs over a period of 3 days, they will take turns sitting until they hatch in about twenty days. After about eighteen days, the chicks will fledge and leave the nest. They will depend on their parents for food for the next few weeks as they learn to hunt for themselves. At that point, they too will navigate the desert on their own, foraging and “running” for their lives.

Named the state bird of New Mexico and protected by state and federal laws, roadrunners make cooing, whirring, clacking and guttural sounds, unlike the “beep, beep” sound we associate them with because of their cartoon counterpart.

If you have keen eyesight, you can see roadrunners at the desert exhibit inside Feathers and Scales: Birds and Reptiles. Look closely, because they are skillful at blending in quite well!

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society