Greater Roadrunner, Ground Cuckoo
- Bill: Thick, dark, slightly hooked culmen
- Size: 21-23 inches long with 32-inch wingspan, long tail, shaggy crest, long legs, long neck
- Colors: Buff, black, white, gray, blue, red, cinnamon
- Markings: Genders are similar in plumage though the males are larger. The upperparts, throat and upper breast are heavily speckled or streaked with black, buff and white highlighted by cinnamon or rust shades. The head is more finely speckled with the crest as the darkest patch. The yellow eyes are surrounded by a small area of bare skin that may show as white, blue or red, with the skin coloration brightest in males during the breeding season. The abdomen and undertail coverts are plain buff-white or whitish-gray, and the long tail is dark with thin pale streaks and white tips that show when it is spread. The wings show a white crescent on the primary feathers in flight. The legs and feet are pale yellow-blue. Juvenile birds are similar to adults. Species is monotypic.
Habitat and Migration:
These birds prefer arid, open habitat such as rocky desert regions with sparse scrubby cover, though they can also be found in dry grasslands and suburban areas. Greater roadrunners are iconic in the southwestern United States, but their range extends as far east as western Arkansas and Louisiana and west to southern and central California. They can be found as far north at Oklahoma and southern Utah, and as far south as Baja and northern and central Mexico. Greater roadrunners do not migrate.
Despite cartoons to the contrary, greater roadrunners do not beep. Instead, their typical calls are a soft, dove-like “cooo-cooo” or “krooo-krooo” with 4-6 syllables. They can also make a harsh, sharp rattle.
These are shy, solitary birds that prefer running and sprinting instead of taking flight, and when they do fly, they tend to fly only short distances low above the ground. On the ground, they can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour (29 kilometers per hour), particularly when sprinting after prey. They are agile both when running and flying, and they will regularly perch in the open on a rock or post to sunbathe. When standing, they may keep their tails cocked up, but when running quickly will have their necks and tails stretched straight out to reduce wind resistance and increase speed. When hunting, they will beat larger prey on rocks or on the ground to kill it before eating.
Greater roadrunners are monogamous birds believed to mate for life. Males court potential mates with a strutting dance that involves bowing, tail spreading and wing drooping. After mating, both adults will build a nest of twigs lined with feathers, grasses, leaves, snakeskin and other materials, positioned 2-15 feet high in a shrub, tree or cactus.
Eggs are pale white or yellow and oval or cylindrically shaped, and there will be 2-6 eggs per brood. More eggs are common when birds breed after heavy rains, and 1-2 broods may be laid each year. Both parents share incubation duties for 19-20 days, and may perform distraction displays to lead predators away from the nest. Male parents are often recorded as doing most of the incubation.
After hatching, both parents continue to care for the altricial young for 17-18 days until the hatchlings are mature enough to leave the nest.
Attracting Greater Roadrunners:
Within their range, greater roadrunners will visit backyards that use xeriscaping or natural landscaping and include rocky, scrubby areas of low cover. Using a ground bird bath can also encourage these birds to visit when water is otherwise scarce, though they do not visit bird baths as much as other species, instead getting much of the liquid they need from the prey they consume.
Greater roadrunners are not under any severe conservation threats, though they are occasionally persecuted for a mistaken belief that they prey heavily on quail species that are preferred for hunting. Despite that occasional threat, the greater roadrunner's range has continued to expand in the past century.
- Lesser Roadrunner (Geococcyx velox)
- Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula)
- Curve-Billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
- Le Conte's Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei)
- Crissal Thrasher (Toxostoma crissale)
- Guira Cuckoo (Guira guira)