Greater Roadrunner

Geococcyx californianus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published October 28, 2011
  • Janice M. Hughes

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the Greater Roadrunner.
Greater Roadrunner, Laguna Atascosa, TX, 18 Feb.

Greater Roadrunner is one of the most distinctive birds in North America. Unlike any other songbird in both appearance and behavior, it runs swiftly across the ground in search of prey, often cocking its tail upward (also see the vaguely similar Thrashers for comparison). It inhabits dry open country.

Paisano, Chaparral Cock, Snake Killer, and Medicine Bird are a few of the many colorful names bestowed on this conspicuous but enigmatic terrestrial cuckoo of the American Southwest. Yet anyone who has seen the Greater Roadrunner scuttling through desert scrub, trotting down the roadside, or calling mournfully from a high fence post needs no elaborate name to remember it. Armed with a battery of physiological and behavioral adaptations, this bird thrives in arid regions but is equally at home in the Colorado foothills or among the loblolly pines of western Louisiana. An opportunistic predator, it feeds on snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, insects, birds, rodents, and bats, which it beats repeatedly against a hard substrate before consuming. During severe food shortages, it may eat its own young.

Greater Roadrunners are monogamous, maintain a long-term pair bond, and mutually defend a large, multipurpose territory. Each spring and summer, they renew their pair bond through a series of elaborate courtship displays in which the male bows and prances, wags his tail, and offers nesting material and food items to his attending mate. Both male and female incubate the eggs and feed and protect the young through a breeding season that lasts several months. Historically, the Greater Roadrunner has been persecuted by ranchers and hunters who believe that it consumes the young and eggs of popular game bird species. Despite the persistence of illegal hunting, the Greater Roadrunner faces no serious declines in population numbers and continues to expand its range northward and eastward into new habitats.

Detailed studies have been made of Greater Roadrunner vocalizations and courtship behavior (Whitson 1971, Whitson 1975), weather-dependent behavior (Beal 1978b), physiology and thermoregulation (Calder and Schmidt-Nielsen 1967, Ohmart et al. 1970, Lasiewski et al. 1971, Ohmart and Lasiewski 1971, Ohmart 1972, Dunson et al. 1976, Vehrencamp 1982a), and population ecology and habitat use in south Texas (Folse 1974, Folse 1974) and west Texas (JMH unpubl. data). In addition, a well-illustrated book by Meinzer (Meinzer 1993) provides an excellent overview of Greater Roadrunner natural history. Maxon (Maxon 2005) offered a comprehensive summary of current knowledge of the species, and includes a substantial assemblage of previously unpublished data.

Recommended Citation

Hughes, J. M. (2011). Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.