So what is the real roadrunner like? At a glance, they’re long and lean, tall in the legs and long in the neck, with rather lengthy tail feathers that further add to their lanky appearance. They’re somewhat similar in size to raptors and corvids, except that they’re not nearly as bulky, weighing closer to 450 grams as opposed to the 1,000 or more that larger hawks hit. Flight for them is a situational tool, a way to escape danger or get over obstacles. They’re uniquely adapted to life on the ground, and though they look like a gangly, comical bird worthy of the cartoon hall of fame, roadrunners are actually skilled predators. They will eat mice, lizards, and anything else that they can get their beaks on, including other birds if the situation arises. Interestingly, roadrunners demonstrate an absolute craving for animals that are considered venomous desert dangers, and will eagerly gobble up scorpions and other poisonous prey without the slightest ill effect. This goes beyond bugs as well; rattlesnakes are an old menu favorite. Roadrunners don’t need strong flying skills when they possess such a perfect blend of speed and agility, and even the lightning-quick strike of a coiled snake usually isn’t fast enough to save the day when a hungry roadrunner is involved. Roadrunners have also been documented to hunt in pairs, particularly against rattlesnakes. Two birds will readily double-team a lone serpent, one bird provoking the snake into vainly striking at it while the other sneaks up from behind. The stealthy assassin will then pin the snake’s neck, rendering the danger moot, before dispatching it in the most blunt, unsubtle way possible: bashing the snake against the ground until it dies. It would be a cold and brutal tactic, if only they didn’t look so silly doing it. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see this killer jester zipping around with a length of snake dangling from its beak. A bird’s stomach can only hold so much at once, so the ever resourceful roadrunner has no problem whatsoever grabbing the rest to go, eating it like an extra long and scaly piece of spaghetti and taking another gulp as each section gets digested.
Defeating a rattlesnake is an impressive achievement for any bird, and roadrunners make it even more sporting by not coming at it from above. They’re tackling snakes on even ground, literally. That’s no mean feat. Ironically, the one thing they can’t do is something that most people would assume is a given. They are capable of a lot of things, but outrunning coyotes isn’t one of them. A motivated coyote can hit a little over 40 miles per hour when it has to, while our feathered marathon runners are only able to do half of that. Those situations, though, are where its limited flying ability comes into play.
If speed, flight, and a predilection for venomous food wasn’t enough to make the real bird every bit as deserving of fame as its fictional counterpart, the Greater Roadrunner is also on the move. Though we live in an era where conservation stories are often sad tales of beautiful creatures pushed to the brink of extinction through man’s misuse of the world around him, the roadrunner is boldly running in the opposite direction. Its Manifest Destiny tells it, “go east, young bird,” and so over the past several decades it has expanded its range further and further toward the other side of the United States, growing more plentiful, not less. They reached Missouri at least as early as 1956, and as the spread continues, it remains a species that makes the absolute most of a toolset that is one of a kind.
It takes a peculiar bird to go against the grain, whether it’s hunting on foot and forsaking the wing or going out of its way to eat animals venomous enough to kill a grown man.
And it takes a spectacular bird to go against the grain and become a huge success while doing it.