For many of us, our first sight of a roadrunner was of that cartoon bird, the one that always outran Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes films. In those cartoons, the roadrunner was a fast-running but flightless bird that was mostly blue in color and uttered “Beep-beep” for no apparent reason.
So it is not surprising that when we encounter a real roadrunner, that we are a bit taken aback. Real Greater Roadrunners are gray, black and white with just a touch of blue on the sides of their heads. They do run along paths, dirt roads and country lanes for a while but will ultimately fly, yes fly, up into a shrub or low tree. Admittedly, they don’t fly high, far or for very long, and sometimes they just cut into the brush on foot. Roadrunners can be considered ground-dwelling birds, but they are certainly not flightless! And I have never heard one utter any sound that could be construed as “beep-beep.”
What do roadrunners say, if not “beep-beep”? David Allen Sibley in his Guide to Birds (2000) describes the roadrunner’s song as “a slow, descending series of about six low-pitched coos: cooo cooo cooo cooo coo coo; weaker at end. Also, a low, hollow wooden clatter or rattle trrrt produced by the bill.” Actually, a roadrunner sounds more like a cuckoo (it is a member of the Cuckoo Family) than a car horn.
Roadrunners are aptly named. They prefer roads, trails and open areas that look like trails. Perhaps with their long legs and big, flat feet, roads are just easier to negotiate. And, to capture their favorite prey such as lizards, snakes and large insects, open areas like roads would be the perfect locale. Still, for singing and making that rattle-like call, these birds are often high up in the brush or in a mesquite. They may make their way up a mesquite in a series of hops and short flights, but they are capable of flying and often go down from a perch in a long glide.
But let’s face it, roadrunners do run. Unlike other birds that startle and immediately take to the air, roadrunners almost always run for a bit before they take to the brush. Why do they take to the brush at all? Roadrunners have been clocked at 20 mph, so you would think they could probably outrun most predators if they just kept going. But, perhaps, they can’t “just keep going” for very long. Sustained running is hard for many creatures to maintain. They lack the stamina and supporting metabolism to run continuously without a breather.
Curiously, humans have evolved the ability to run for long distances without having to stop to catch their breath. Long distance running, which is defined as continuous running for more than three kilometers (1.8 miles) at a time, is “largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina and also mental strength.” In other words, you have to train for it and build up that stamina. People do, though. You probably know someone who runs long distances regularly, maybe even someone who has run a marathon. Running is a popular form of recreation, and it turns out it may be in our genes to engage in it.
Long distance running is also known as endurance running. A hypothesis has been put forward that “endurance running in the genus Homo arose because… it allowed for persistence hunting.” Persistence hunting is “a hunting technique in which hunters, who may be slower than their prey over short distances, use a combination of running, walking and tracking to pursue prey until it is exhausted.” Humans became good at persistence hunting because of the ability to perform endurance running and because of sparse body hair, which makes sweating an effective means of cooling the body.
What does this have to do with roadrunners, you ask? Well, roadrunners are incapable of endurance running. They can do a short run, at a fast pace, but then they must stop to breathe and to cool down. That is when a roadrunner cuts off into the brush and up into a low tree. But what if an endurance runner, say a human, wanted to outrun a roadrunner?
I recently found a letter written to us by our late dear friend, Jim Yantis. Jim was an exceptional naturalist in the Central Texas area, and much of his expertise was based on solid experience. He wrote to us of some of his childhood encounters with the natural world. This one had to do with roadrunners:
“As a boy, I spent summers at my grandmother’s in Austin near UT. The streets were gravel in those days, and ice was delivered in blocks. There were many vacant lots because the terrain in places was fractured limestone. Lizards were all over the place... and roadrunners were common. At the age of 14 or so I read that roadrunners could not sustain flight and that Indians would run them down for food. … (I knew of one biologist who lived on eating roadrunners while on a turkey project in the field for six weeks. He said they were delicious!) …Anyway, back to running down a roadrunner. I rounded up three other kids about the age of 14, and we took out to run down a roadrunner. For the next days, we chased roadrunners in the hot summer sun. It was true. We could run them down until they could not fly. But a bird in the bush is not a bird in the hand! However, after several days and many chases we finally caught one by hand. After a few minutes of showing it off, we let it go. Apparently, it got its wind back, because it flew away.”
Young Jim and his buddies were persistence hunters, even if they didn’t know the term. Don’t you wish you could have been there with them?