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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Roadrunners are fascinating and unique birds

Roadrunners range primarily in the Desert Southwest, but can also be found east of this region almost to the Mississippi River in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Though not a raptor or classified as a bird-of-prey, roadrunners are fearless predatory birds known to prey on venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes.
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Two of my favorite cartoon characters are the Looney Tune characters Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

Created by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese who worked for Warner Brothers, the adversarial cartoon coyote and roadrunner debuted in 1949 and have been making people laugh ever since.

What with Wile E. Coyote’s unlimited access to the myriad of ACME gadgets he used to try and capture the Roadrunner with, and coupled with the Roadrunner’s speed and elusiveness, “meep-meep” vocalizations, and cork-popping tongue noise, poor Wile E. Coyote could never catch the Roadrunner. The pair’s interactions were a series of comical failures and escapes.

In the real world, it’s doubtful that coyotes spend much time chasing and capturing roadrunners, although it is likely to have occurred from time to time.

And while coyotes are very abundant here in Minnesota, roadrunners, an interesting bird of the American West, will never be found here in the North Star State. Even so, this special feathered friend is the subject of today’s column.


I will hand it to Jones and Maltese for the striking likeness of their cartoon creation Roadrunner to the real McCoy.

Though the colors of the Roadrunner are way off and the overall size of the bird (almost ostrich-sized compared to Wile E. Coyote), other notable features depicted are similar — the long tail and neck, the head-crest, long legs, and a conspicuously long and heavy bill — are characteristics that real roadrunners possess.

The full common name of this interesting bird is the greater roadrunner. About the size of the American crow, roadrunners are close to two feet in total length, weigh around a pound or a little more, and have a wingspan of roughly 19 inches.

A tan and brownish bird with blackish streaks on various body parts with white highlights here and there, roadrunners also have patches of blue skin behind their eyes.

Roadrunners range primarily in the Desert Southwest, including Baja California and Mexico, but can also be found east of this region almost to the Mississippi River in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Their preferred habitat consists of a wide range of vegetation types such as brushy open country, cacti, grasslands, chaparral and even high elevations and wooded areas.

Within all habitat types, roadrunners spend most of their time on the ground hunting for prey such as lizards, snakes, amphibians, small mammals and birds, and insects, too, including scorpions. Roadrunners will also eat carrion, bird eggs, and are otherwise opportunistic, eating fruit, seeds, nuts, and other plant items as well.

Though not a raptor or classified as a bird-of-prey, roadrunners are fearless predatory birds known to prey on venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes. They accomplish this by attacking the heads of snakes through quick and repeated strikes with their sharp and stout beaks.


Fleet-of-foot, roadrunners, like the cartoon character, are very fast runners. Rarely flying, roadrunners are mostly seen darting from patches of cover chasing prey or defending territories from would-be intruders.

Without talons to kill prey, roadrunners subdue larger prey by gripping bodies in their beaks and slamming victims against rocks or the ground. This strategy not only kills their prey but it also makes their meals more malleable and easier to swallow.

Greater roadrunners’ closest relatives are New World cuckoos and anis. Here in Minnesota, one such roadrunner-relative is a summer resident of ours — the black-billed cuckoo. Belonging to the cuckoo family, roadrunners share several traits with the other family members in both physical characteristics and sound.

Roadrunners “coo” like cuckoos do. But unlike cuckoos, as already mentioned, roadrunners are mostly ground-dwelling birds and are weak flyers rarely seen airborne. Other vocalizations and sounds include bill rattles, putts and even bark-like calls that sound like yipping coyotes.

I hope to someday observe a real roadrunner, but I will need to visit the Desert Southwest. Roadrunners are fascinating and unique birds that are well adapted to spending most of their lives on the ground hunting for prey, defending territories, searching for mates, and perhaps outrunning coyotes, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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