The Adaptable Roadrunner

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a greater roadrunner. I was driving to Texas to start graduate school when a long-tailed bird standing near the side of the highway caught my attention—there was no mistaking it. Since then I’ve seen quite a few more, but their unique appearance and behavior never fails to fascinate me.

Many people are surprised to hear that we have greater roadrunners in Missouri. Indeed, the heart of their range lies in the southwestern United States, but this adaptable species has found a way to expand its range and use a wide variety of habitats, from desert scrub to pine woodlands, even suburban habitats. Roadrunners are a fairly recent arrival to Missouri (the first documented sighting was in 1956) and are predominantly found in the rugged, rocky glades and open woodlands of the Ozarks. They are most common in our southwestern counties, although they have been seen as far north as Jefferson City. In Missouri and other states in the northern part of their range, roadrunners are vulnerable to severe winter weather, especially during years where prolonged heavy snow cover prevents them from getting enough food. As a result, populations fluctuate from year to year, and birds can become scarce in years following harsh winters.

Greater roadrunners are a member of the cuckoo family that evolved to lead a predominantly terrestrial, or ground-based, lifestyle (their scientific genus, Geococcyx, translates to “Land Cuckoo”). They are a streaked, grayish-brown color overall, stand about as tall as a chicken, and they have a sleek, long-tailed appearance. If you get a really good look at one, you may notice a bare strip of blue and orange skin behind their eyes. They prefer to run rather than take flight, and can run up to 18 miles per hour, using their long tails like a rudder to help quickly change directions. Most of the flying they do involves a quick jump into brush when threatened, or brief glides between perches and the ground.

A Bird of Legend

The personality of the greater roadrunner has earned it a variety of colorful nicknames, including snake killer, war bird, cock of the desert and medicine bird. Some pioneers believed that following a roadrunner would lead them back to the trail should they lose their way. In Mexico, the bird is sometimes known as “paisano” which means “friend,” and the roadrunner replaces the stork in