I always loved Looney Tunes as a kid, but I liked some of the segments more than others. One of my favourites was the roadrunner cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote spent hours and gave millions of dollars to Acme trying to catch the super-fast (and fairly annoying) roadrunner. So in honour of that special duo, let’s talk about roadrunners.

I’m going to focus on greater roadrunners in this post, because let’s be honest, if the Looney Tunes roadrunner was a lesser roadrunner, the coyote would have caught him long ago. Greater roadrunners are found in the southwestern US, as well as in parts of Mexico. They like desert areas that have a combination of shrubs and open areas.

Roadrunners really don’t look anything like the Looney Toons bird. They are dark brown or black, with many white streaks in their feathers. They have a crest of black feathers on their heads, which can raised or lowered at will. Roadrunners have blue beaks and legs, with each foot having four toes, two that face forwards and two that face backwards. They grow to be 50-62 cm long, and reach heights of 30 cm.

This is what a real roadrunner looks like. Image source: Wikipedia
This is what a real roadrunner looks like.
Image by drumguy8800 (xvisionx.com), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of courtship rituals a male roadrunner can use to try and woo females with. In some cases, a male will run after a female, and the two will chase each other around, resting frequently so as to not tire themselves out for the important business. Males also often bring the female food, waving a lovely dead snake or lizard in front of her. If she accepts the offered token of love, the pair will mate. Other displays involve the male wagging his tail in front of the female while cooing, followed by some jumping around and eventual copulation.

After successful mating, the female will lay two to eight eggs in a nest built in a cactus or bush. The eggs hatch after 20 days, and develop quite quickly. The chicks are able to run and catch prey after three weeks, though they only reach sexual maturity at two to three years of age.

A roadrunner on the move with its crest erect.
Image by John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Greater roadrunners can reach speeds of 42 kilometres an hour, and prefer to walk or run rather than fly. When they do fly, roadrunners can only stay aloft for a few seconds. They use their speed to catch prey, wandering around until they spot a tasty morsel, and then sprinting to catch it. They are very curious birds, and will often approach humans without fear.

Though roadrunners can run faster than any other flying bird, Looney Tunes may have exaggerated things a bit. In reality, coyotes are faster than roadrunners, and are a common predator of the birds. Though we’ll get to how fast coyotes can go in my next Looney Tunes inspired post.

Cover image by Greg Schechter from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit