The roadrunner was designated the official state bird of New Mexico in 1949. Also called the chaparral bird, the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) meaning “Californian Earth-cuckoo,” is a long-legged bird in the cuckoo family, Cuculidae. and inhabits desert and shrubby country in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Although a roadrunner is capable of flight, it spends most of the time on the ground, running at speeds of 15 miles per hour (or more) to catch its prey (insects, small reptiles, rodents, tarantulas, scorpions and small birds). The Hopi and Pueblo Indian tribes believed that the roadrunner provided protection against evil spirits.
The name roadrunner comes from the bird’s habit of racing down roads in front of moving vehicles and then darting to safety in the brush.
The Greater Roadrunner nests on a platform of sticks low in a cactus or a bush and lays 3–6 eggs, which hatch in 20 days. The chicks fledge in another 18 days. Pairs may occasionally rear a second brood.
Greater Roadrunners measure 61 cm (2 feet) in length, about half of which is tail. They have long, wobbly legs and a slender, pointed bill. The upper body is mostly brown with black streaks and sometimes pink spots. The neck and upper breast are white or pale brown with dark brown streaks, and the belly is white. A crest of brown feathers sticks up on the head, and a bare patch of orange and blue skin lies behind each eye; the blue is replaced by white in adult males (except the blue adjacent to the eye), and the orange (to the rear) is often hidden by feathers.
This bird walks around rapidly, running down prey. It mainly feeds on insects, fruit and seeds with the addition of small reptiles, including snakes, small mammals, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, small birds, their eggs, and carrion, including roadkills. It kills larger prey with a blow from the beak—hitting the base of the neck of small mammals—or by holding it in the beak and beating it against a rock. Two roadrunners sometimes attack a relatively big snake cooperatively.
Although capable of weak flight, it spends most of its time on the ground, and can run at speeds of up to 26 miles per hour (42 km/h). This is the fastest running speed ever clocked for flying birds, although it is not nearly as fast as the flightless Ostrich.