Roadrunners are part of the cuckoo family Cuculidae, and there are just two species with ‘roadrunner’ in their common name; the Greater roadrunner and the Lesser roadrunner.
These desert-dwelling birds are capable of flight but prefer to run, hence their name. So, how fast is a roadrunner?
The Greater Roadrunner is the fastest of the duo and can obtain speeds of up to 32 km/h (20 mph). The fastest roadrunner has been clocked at 42 km/h (26 mph), making it the fastest bird on land capable of flight.
Lesser roadrunners are no slackers, though, and can reach top speeds of 32 km/h (20 mph).
These birds have evolved to catch fast-moving terrestrial prey like lizards, eventually all but losing their ability to fly.
Roadrunners are definitely better equipped for running than flying, as they can only fly at heights of around 10 feet for mere seconds. They can glide to the ground from greater heights, though, e.g., to reach the ground from the top of a canyon.
There is much more to learn about this curious desert-dwelling bird - read on to find out!
Roadrunners have been recorded reaching impressive speeds of 26mph (42 km/h)
Roadrunners live in the desert, where trees and perching places are limited. They don’t migrate either, and most of their prey lives on the ground, such as lizards and snakes. As such, roadrunners probably lost the ability to fly by evolving for other specialisms.
Roadrunners lack a keel, a component of the breastbone that aids birds in flight. Instead, they have undeveloped pectoral flight muscles, which means they cannot sustain flight for very long. Additionally, their wings are short and poorly evolved for flight.
Roadrunners evolved long, slender legs that propel them along the ground at high speeds to make up for their poor flying abilities. Their bodies are aerodynamic, and when they sprint, they lean into the run and propel themselves forward.
Roadrunners long legs, coupled with their aerodynamic bodies, make then highly capable sprinters
Roadrunners have evolved to be fast on land, as that’s more useful for their habitat and niche. They have strong, slender legs, an aerodynamic form with a long tail, and short, lightweight wings. These anatomical features all help them run at high speeds.
Roadrunners are highly specialized to the Aridoamerica region in the Southwestern United States and Mexico, and parts of Central America, too, in the case of the Lesser roadrunner. They live in primarily open arid habitats, which aren’t especially contoured nor densely populated with trees.
Close up of a Lesser Roadrunner
So, roadrunners have little need to fly up and down from trees or other landscape features regularly as other birds do. But then, vultures and other birds also live in the desert and are still capable of strong flight, so that doesn’t fully explain it.
In addition, roadrunners’ prey lives on the ground in the form of lizards, snakes, frogs, and other reptiles, as well as small mammals. Rather than swooping from above the ground, they’ve learned to run after their prey and catch it on the ground.
It’s pretty hard to tell precisely why roadrunners evolved to be so fast, but it’s probably a combination of their habitat and hunting specialisms.
In the dry desert, sprinting and catching fast-moving ground prey without the need to fly makes sense for this specialized bird. The more adapted to running it became, the less it depended on flight.
Close up of a Greater Roadrunner running
Roadrunners preside over huge territories of around 700 to 800m in size. They can run at high speeds for several hundred meters, which enables them to outrun many predators.
There are no robust data on what distances roadrunners can cover, but they likely have good stamina to cover vast areas of the desert in search of prey.
However, while roadrunners have excellent stamina, they can’t really compare to the ostrich, which can run a marathon in about 40-minutes! But considering how much smaller roadrunners are, it’s hardly a fair competition or comparison.
For their size, roadrunners are extremely impressive runners that aren’t much slower than Usain Bolt and other Olympic sprinters.
Greater Roadrunner in its natural desert habitat
There are no convincing data to show how far a roadrunner can run in a day.
Considering the size of their territories, which can span some 700 to 800m across, roadrunners likely have good stamina and can cover long distances each day relative to their size.
The Greater roadrunner is the fastest-flighted bird on land. So, among all birds capable of flying, the roadrunner is the fastest bird on the ground but remains considerably slower than ostriches and Emus, which can’t fly.
For example, ostriches can reach 70 km/h (45 mph) speeds much higher than the roadrunner’s 42 km/h (26 mph) top speed. However, take nothing away from the roadrunner - this bird is exceptionally fast for its size.
Front view of a Roadrunner in the desert
The Looney Tunes cartoon Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner first appeared in 1949 and depicts two desert animals: a roadrunner and a coyote. These two animals do indeed occupy some of the same habitats across their range.
So which is faster?
Out of the two, Coyotes are the fastest. Coyotes can run at speeds over 40 miles per hour, whereas roadrunners can obtain speeds of 26 miles per hour at the very most. Some have pointed out that 40 mph might flatter the coyote and that most only run at 30 mph or so.
Either way, the roadrunner needs a good headstart to outrun the coyote.
The Road Runner in the cartoon has a trademark “Meep Meep” sound that is a play on how the bird is as fast as a car, honking his horn as he races along.
In real-life, roadrunners have coo-coo vocalization, which can be repeated in sequence like coo coo coo coo, which does bear some similarities to the character’s repetitive meep meep.
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