HOMER, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – One of the more peculiar and interesting bird species we have in Northwest Louisiana, often observable in the heat of June, is Geococcyx californianus, also known as the roadrunner.
Roadrunners are in the cuckoo family, although the Latin name reminds me, as with many bird species, of how the roadrunner’s taxonomic classification has changed many times over the decades.
That means that biologists learn over time different species didn’t evolve from the lineages scientists once thought, and so new evidence (these days usually mitochondrial DNA tests) helps us sort out how different species are related and how they came to be. As a result, a species’ Latin name may sometimes change to denote science’s new understanding of the species’ own natural history.
Previous Latin names of the Greater Roadrunner, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, include Accelleratti incredibilus, Hot-Roddicus supersonicus, and Speedipus Rex. This was obviously when Acme, Inc. was funding the observations of this notorious Roadrunner for Looney Tunes.
Thanks to the popular cartoon, most folks associate roadrunners as icons of the desert, and while that is not untrue, the bird’s range actually includes many other types of habitats from the coast of Southern California all the way to Northwest Louisiana, the western half of Arkansas and almost all of the northern half of Mexico. With such a large range, you can find roadrunners in suburban yards, pine plantations, scrub habitats, graveyards, and other habitats.
Roadrunners are pretty much the Dollar Generals of the bird world. To impress that idea, one photo by Lake Charles area birder Charlotte Chehotsky shows our bird of the month in the classic pose as it’s jogging down a road near Ft. Polk. The other, by former KTAL anchor Sherri Talley, shows a roadrunner in an oak tree in her suburban yard outside Blanchard.
Where you won’t typically find roadrunners is in hardwood forests, bottomlands, or generally in areas that are consistently wet. These birds prefer drier habitats. In Northwest Louisiana, think of places with red dirt or clay. This makes sense because most of the roadrunner’s preferred live prey, like lizards, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and insects, can readily be found in drier, well-drained habitats.
Roadrunners do take live prey, though, and this might freak you out a little. Baby birds, sometimes adult birds, small mammals, and even bats are all on the menu. There are numerous amateur videos on YouTube showing them lying in wait below hummingbird feeders, then springing four or five feet into the air and snatching a feeding hummingbird right from its perch. One author even notes observations of a Greater Roadrunner flying down from the top of a tree to gain access to a Purple Martin house over 13 feet above the ground, where it would take nestlings.
Now if you’re trying to picture in your head what this monstrous predator looks like, the answer is no–roadrunners, sadly, do not resemble the Looney Tunes version with blue and purple plumage and large yellow bill and feet. Greater Roadrunners average about 22 to 23 inches from the tip of the bill to the tip of their very long tail. Their heads, breasts, and upper sides consist of lots of dark brown steaks set off by a pale “base coat.” Their long tails are actually lightly iridescent brown and green, but from a distance appear all dark and may be dragged along or near the ground when running or held vertically when still. Bill and legs are gray, and the crown is somewhat crested, although the bird can raise or lower the crest when it chooses. Just behind the eyes, adults have a small patch of bright blue facial skin that fades to a bright red or orange that can often be concealed by facial feathers.
As for vocalizations, roadrunners mainly give a very soft, somewhat low series of descending coos. They do this while facing the ground with their bills almost touching the dirt, and the effect is to make the call quite muffled even when very close to the calling birds.
Completely opposite this very soft and mournful vocalization is one they give when threatened, as Greater Roadrunners rapidly click the mandibles of their bill together. Their movements are so fast, your first thought is that you’re hearing a rattlesnake, which is indeed exactly what the bird is imitating. The technique is very realistic and, consequently, very effective. If you were walking through an area and heard a loud rattlesnake rattle coming from somewhere, you’d probably leave, right?
The only time you’ll hear the unique “meep! meep!” of a Roadrunner is when you’re in direct response of being chased by a delivery truck loaded with dynamite and driven by a coyote.
In our area, you’re most likely to see roadrunners along the edges of roads traversing pine plantations that are about 10-30 feet tall. The usual comment by a local who has seen them is something like, “I used to see them all the time when I was younger, but I haven’t seen any around here in years.” But according to data from 2007-2021 from Cornell’s eBird.org, the relative abundance of Greater Roadrunners has been increasing in their range within Louisiana.
So why would locals say they see fewer birds now if science says the birds are increasing here? More than likely, the culprit is agriculture. You see, although Greater Roadrunners do inhabit many areas within their large range, their preferred habitat here is, as was said earlier, pine plantations where trees are about 10-30 feet tall and, specifically, those that are in drier areas. This very specific habitat is fleeting because those pines grow very quickly. As the trees grow and crowd out the thick understory preferred by the roadrunners, the birds find a new spot more like their old neighborhood. So, it may be true that you used to see them when you were younger, but those roadrunners in that specific area probably just moved to a similar area later, giving the appearance that they mysteriously vanished.
If you’re feeling ecologically nostalgic and want to see this species again, you can try pouring some bird seed along the road within the appropriate habitat, but it only attracts them if you make a sign saying “FREE BIRD SEED.” Then just listen for the beeping.
John Dillon is the former President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org, a member of the Louisiana Bird Records Committee, on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, he’s an English Literature teacher at Minden High School, and he’s and the founder of the Minden High School Nature Club. As one of KTALNews.com‘s most popular guest contributors, Dillon shares his extensive knowledge of Louisiana’s birds.