If you have ever seen an episode of Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner, you might be surprised to learn that roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) aren't really huge purple birds with a striking yellow beak and bright orange legs.
In fact, they aren't very colorful at all, with their brown and white striped feathers and distinctive crest. While an adult roadrunner stands about two feet tall, they really don't tower over a coyote as they do in the cartoons.
Roadrunners more than make up for their smaller stature and lack of coloration with their lightning-fast speed, their unique feeding habits and their unusual adaptations for conserving water and staying warm in the winter. Learn more about how this quirky bird eats and survives in the desert. So, what do roadrunners eat?
Roadrunners eat a wide variety of foods. In fact, they are not picky eaters and will eat whatever they find. Roadrunners are Omnivores, which means they eat both meat and vegetation. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, small birds, reptiles, rodents and insects, but they eat fruit, seeds and bits of vegetation, too.
Roadrunners prefer to catch and kill live prey, but they also eat carrion when it is available, and aren't opposed to snatching eggs and baby birds out of the nests of other birds.
Greater Roadrunner perched on a rock
Roadrunners eat meat, but they aren't strictly carnivores. They eat vegetation, too. Roadrunners are omnivores with a diet that consists of both meat and vegetation.
During the summer months, the roadrunner's diet consists almost entirely of animals, but during the winter, when prey is scarce, the roadrunner supplements his diet with fruits, seeds and other plant matter making up about 10 percent of their diets.
Roadrunners eat a wide variety of small reptiles, including snakes. Because they are such fast runners (roadrunners can run up to 25 mph), it is not difficult for them to capture nearly anything that moves.
Roadrunners will eat a snake that is too large to swallow and digest immediately and run around with the tail dangling from their beak. As the snake digests in the stomach, the roadrunner swallows the remainder of the snake an inch or two at a time until it is completely consumed.
Roadrunner hunting a western diamondback rattlesnake
Roadrunners use the team approach to capturing and killing rattlesnakes. While one roadrunner distracts the rattlesnake by jumping up and down, the other roadrunner grabs or pecks the head of the rattlesnake to render it harmless. Roadrunners then pound the snake against rocks to finish it off. Roadrunners are able to eat rattlesnakes and other venomous reptiles without injury.
Roadrunners eat all sorts of small rodents, including mice. They use their quick bursts of running speed to capture scurrying mice and then bash them against of rock to kill them and break their bones. This helps elongate the body making it easier to swallow and digest, says All About Birds.
Roadrunner with a freshly caught mouse
Baby roadrunners are fed by both parents for 30 to 40 days after leaving the nest. Initially, the parents provide the baby roadrunners with soft insects or partially digested food. They gradually introduce the babies to solid food and begin to bring them freshly killed prey.
The babies stay with the parents while they learn to hunt on their own and are able to capture enough prey to survive. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), baby roadrunners are able to run and catch prey about three weeks after hatching.
Interestingly, some baby roadrunners are raised by other birds as the roadrunner is known as a brood parasite, which means the roadrunner will lay eggs in another bird's nest and allow that bird to care for the eggs and feed the young. They have been known to lay eggs in the nests of ravens and mockingbirds. (NWF)
Roadrunner foraging in the brushlands
Roadrunners are opportunists and eat whatever they can find that promises a tasty meal. Sometimes this includes rabbits, but they are most likely to eat baby or juvenile rabbits because they are smaller and easier to catch.
Surprisingly, roadrunners are able to eat scorpions without being affected by their venom. Roadrunners typically grab prey and smash it against a rock to kill it before eating it.
A Roadrunner with a lizard prey
Lizards often make a tasty meal for roadrunners. Like with other reptiles and small mammals, the roadrunner beats the lizard against a rock to kill it before eating it.
Roadrunners eat small birds and have an unusual way of catching them. Roadrunners are fantastic jumpers and can leap straight up to snatch small birds out of the air. They are likely to feed on hummingbirds, and other desert birds with the opportunity arises. Roadrunners have a limited ability to fly and do not chase birds in flight.
Roadrunners are fantastic at jumping
Roadrunners have adapted to the cold dark nights in the desert. When temperatures drop at night, they enter a state called torpor, similar to hibernation. This allows their body temperature to drop below normal to conserve energy.
When the sun rises in the morning and temperatures begin to rise, the roadrunner lies in the sun with the feathers raised to allow the warm rays of the sun to reach the skin to warm up the body. During the winter, the roadrunner sunbathes in this way several times a day to maintain the temperature of the body.
Roadrunner in the desert in Texas
The roadrunner's diet does not change a lot during the winter, but they do eat more seeds and fruits to compensate for a decrease in available prey. During the winter the roadrunner's diet consists of about 10 percent vegetation.
Roadrunners drink water when it is available, but they get most of the water they need from the food they eat. Both animals and plant material contain enough water to keep the roadrunner hydrated because the roadrunner's body has adapted to conserve water. Special salt glands located near the eyes allow the roadrunner to excrete excess salts from the body while preserving water.
Roadrunner drinking water
Everyone wants to know whether the roadrunner can outrun a coyote, and the answer is a resounding "no". The roadrunner's top speed is 25 mph, while a coyote's top speed is 40 to 45 mph. The roadrunner may be able to outmanoeuvre a coyote as he can slip into areas too large for the coyote to enter or take a short flight to a protected height. However, the coyote is considered a significant predator of the roadrunner. (NWF)
Roadrunners may not look and act as they do in the cartoons, but they are unique birds in their own right. These quick birds run around all day catching prey and looking like they are having the time of their life. Although they can fly for short distances, they typically only fly from the ground to their nest and back. But, they find plenty of food on the desert floor and aren't picky about what they eat.
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