Photo by Claudia Pinto

If you think that all dinosaurs became extinct with a massive asteroid strike approximately 65 million years ago, you might just be wrong. Birds are often considered living dinosaurs, feathers being evolutionary holdovers from these famous saurians. 

Today, no species seems to epitomize this ancient link more than the roadrunner. April is prime-time for roadrunner watching, as their habitat has barely begun to leaf out and winter-hungry birds are on the prowl for food. While many people have certainly glimpsed this iconic species in the wild, they still hold many surprises for both the casual and seasoned observer.

One of these is that there is a second species of roadrunner. Our species, the greater roadrunner, is slightly larger than (you guessed it) the lesser roadrunner in southern Sonora. Our species sports exotic-looking, iridescent-green plumage with a spice of sexy red and blue-colored flesh directly behind the eyes. Males are slightly larger than females, but the two are otherwise difficult to tell apart. The base of the feathers on the back, as well as the skin there, is dark and aid hunch-backed, sunning roadrunners in their efforts to warm themselves on cooler days.

Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family, as witnessed by their zygodactyl feet – two toes pointing forward and two backward.

Greater roadrunners range throughout much of the arid lands of Arizona and the American southwest, spilling over into California and as far east as western Missouri and Louisiana. Throughout their range they require some open habitat with shrubs, trees, or large cacti for their nests, as well as an abundance of prey. Unlike the fantastical cartoon version (that one ate seed), roadrunners are almost exclusively predatory; so much so that they put coyotes to shame in this regard. Their running speed – up to 15 MPH – and agility are legendary and portend doom to sluggish prey.

Watching hunting roadrunners over the years led to my pondering of “living dinosaurs.” Despite their diminutive size they can take down an impressive array of species, including rattlesnakes, though admittedly mostly small and medium-sized ones. Given the fact that a venomous strike to feathers is harmless, roadrunners tend to play matador with would-be rattlesnake prey. Wings are fanned, enticing the snake to strike at the most prominent, moving target. Upon reptilian recoil our protagonist places well-aimed blows with its chisel-like beak to the reptile’s head. Soon, the snake is bludgeoned to death, eventually beheaded, and swallowed whole.

I once encountered a headless Mojave rattlesnake – our most virulent species – surrounded by telltale zygodactyl prints of its feathered executioner. While greater roadrunners weigh a mere 12 ounces or so, extrapolating these predatory feats to a hypothetical roadrunner weighing 100 pounds could well place humans at great risk!

Roadrunners seem to think that they are larger than their actual size. I have witnessed desert cottontails flee in terror at the mere appearance of this avian bullyboy. One particularly ambitious roadrunner escorted a five-foot racer until the snake found safe refuge in a rock wall. It was unlikely that the racer was in any real danger, but it wasn’t taking any chances with this bold gladiator. Other, more pedestrian and regular fare includes most lizard species, small mammals, eggs, nestlings, and many invertebrates. Occasionally, some wild fruits are consumed as well.

On the flip side, roadrunners are certainly not immune to predation. As far as I can discern from various avian “crime scenes,” Cooper’s hawks are the main predators of these birds. No doubt lurking bobcats, coyotes, other hawks, and large snakes (turnabout is fair play) take their collective toll, too. Even two common ravens got in on the act at our nature preserve, feasting upon a hapless roadrunner who had likely gotten a bit complacent.

Courting males entice willing females with gifts – often a dead lizard in Arizona or a stick in Texas. They build sturdy stick nests where both parents raise up to five young. If food is scarce, they may kill a weaker nestling and feed it to its siblings. 

Vocal communication between individuals consists of a dove-like downward cooing. Other birds – potential prey items – often sound the alarm with a variety of warning calls when a roadrunner makes the scene.

Roadrunner watching is sublime, but they will sometimes find you first. On numerous occasions when I’ve been quietly sitting in the wild – minding my own business – various individuals have snuck up on me, blaring a Cooper’s-hawk-like kek-kek-kek or loudly vibrating their bill mere feet from my head. As I proverbially jumped out of my skin, it’s a good thing I wasn’t actually on the edge of a cliff! 

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: