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Creation 45(3):28–31, July 2023

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Roadrunner

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© Dennis Donohue | Dreamstime.comThe-road-runner

Who isn’t familiar with the Road Runner from the Warner Bros cartoons? That silly, unflappable bird which the nefarious coyote was never quite able to catch. The real roadrunner (one word) is a bird which doesn’t have much in common with the cartoon version.

Roadrunners are in the cuckoo family Cuculidae. This family contains medium-sized slender birds such as the common or European cuckoos, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals, and anis. The birds in this large family range all over the world.1

The two roadrunner species are the only members of the genus Geococcyx, meaning ‘earth cuckoo’. The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) averages around 55 cm (22 in) in length and lives in the southwestern US, and Mexico. The lesser roadrunner (G. velox) is about 45 cm (18 in) long and lives in northern Central America and Mexico, where the ranges of both overlap in parts.2 Both species are found in arid climates, preferring a scrub landscape, short grasses, and low shrubs. They favour open spaces, where their surprising running speed—up to 42 km/h (26 mph) in the case of the greater roadrunner—can give them an advantage in hunting their prey. However, despite the cartoons, a real roadrunner’s top speed is only about half that of a real coyote—69 km/h (43 mph).3

An opportunist, the roadrunner isn’t very picky about its prey. It basically consumes any animal or insect smaller than itself. It targets desert creatures such as lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, and insects—even small mammals like mice. Roadrunners often wait patiently in ambush around natural or man-made water sources. When their prey comes to drink, the roadrunner will rocket out of hiding to grab it, then use its pointy bill to either stab it, or to just catch the smaller prey, before running off to devour it at leisure.4

The roadrunner will even kill and eat small rattlesnakes. It has such fast reflexes that it can evade the snake’s strike and stab it through the head or unceremoniously bash its head against the rocks. The roadrunner will also kill snakes that are too large for it to swallow, in which case it resorts to swallowing what it can. It lets the remainder of the snake hang out of its beak while the first part of it is digesting in its stomach, waiting for the rest to follow.5,6

Born to run

© Kwiktor | Dreamstime.coflying-roadrunner
The roadrunner … is not a particularly graceful flyer, and flying for more than a minute will tire it out.

A typical first impression when seeing a roadrunner is that this bird is built to run. It doesn’t have the plump, round figure of many other similar-sized birds. Rather, it has a sleek shape, and long, well-built legs (for a bird, at least) that give it a long stride. This is a definite advantage when chasing down prey. Its shaggy head crest can go up and down (like a cockatoo’s crest) from curiosity or alarm, or for communication.

The roadrunner’s wide fan-shaped tail is almost as long as its body. This aids in balance when it is running at speed, much the way a cheetah’s long tail helps it maintain balance ‘on the run’.

Although the roadrunner can fly, it spends most of its life on the ground. It is not a particularly graceful flyer, and flying for more than a minute will tire it out. Fortunately, it is well-designed for life on terra firma.

Roadrunner sounds

Unlike many other birds which sing only one tune, the roadrunner has a respectable repertoire of vocalizations—though not the ‘beep beep’ of cartoon fame. It can emit a ‘bark! bark! bark!’ sound, as well as a cooing sound, like a mourning dove.7 Roadrunners can also make a very distinctive rapid-fire clacking sound with their beak, snapping it together repeatedly like a machine-gun.

Roadrunners pair for life. The male often helps incubate the eggs. They lay an average of four eggs per nest, but it can be as many as ten. Seldom do all the chicks in the larger clutches survive, and chicks have been seen eating younger, weaker siblings.

© Rinus Baak | Dreamstime.comstill-roadrunner

Considering that the roadrunner does most of its hunting through running and not flying, one would think that its hunting radius would be small (at least, much smaller than if it flew). However, according to observations made of 50 roadrunners by Dean Ransom, a wildlife ecologist with Texas AgriLife Research, their territorial range is huge. They can patrol an area of up to 100 hectares (250 acres), equivalent to roughly 190 football fields.8

Numerous Indian tribes in the United States and Mexico considered the roadrunner to have special—even mystical—properties. The Hopi, Pueblo, Pima, Anasazi, and Mogollan tribes all had folklore surrounding this bird.9 The Hopi and Pueblo considered the roadrunner a sort of talisman, its presence able to ward off evil spirits. Some Mexican tribal stories have them bringing babies into the world, much like the legend of the stork in European culture.10

The superstition that the roadrunner could protect against evil spirits likely came from the fact that it leaves an X-shaped track in the dirt, due to two forward-pointing toes and two backward-pointing toes—a condition known as zygodactyly. As a result, one cannot tell whether the track is of a bird coming or going. The claim is that this confuses evil spirits and throws them off-track, thus protecting those who live near the birds.11

Roadrunner origins

Since they are clearly related to others in the cuckoo kind, roadrunners may not have been created in their present form. Rather, they have diversified from an ancestral population, as have the other members of that original created kind, likely all those in the cuckoo family. Such adaptive radiation into a wide variety of types, aided by natural selection, can readily take place without significant new structures or functions arising. The changes occur within distinct boundaries put in place by their Creator, and thus give no support to the essentially unlimited variation evolutionists claim has happened. Cuculids can become many different species of cuculids, but remain distinctly different from e.g. eagles or finches, which belong to separate kinds.

Though there is no reason to believe that any bird evolved from humbler (non-bird) beginnings, any number of sources will claim that such a thing happened. All birds supposedly descended from a reptile ancestor. Not surprisingly, though, no-one can present any convincing scientific evidence of exactly how that is supposed to have happened.

Tracks of a bird with the characteristic X-shaped roadrunner pattern were found in China in the same layer as dinosaur fossils, ‘dated’ at 120 million years ago.12 Roadrunners are not supposed to have existed alongside dinosaurs (roadrunner fossils have been found in layers supposedly just tens of thousands of years old). So, it’s not surprising that the trackmaker, though called ‘roadrunner-like’, was given a completely different genus and species name—without any evidence that something other than a roadrunner made the tracks.

roadrunner-lizard
… the roadrunner … consumes any animal or insect smaller than itself.

Feathers, like those of the roadrunner and all other true birds, are supposed to have evolved from the scales of reptiles. But a bird feather is a very specialized and extremely intricate structure, uniquely designed for flight. A reptile’s scales are little more than a fold in the skin, totally unlike a bird feather. And despite many well-preserved feather imprints in the fossil record, to date no fossil evidence has been found of a part-scale, part-feather, which would show a necessary transition between the two. One can be sure that if such evidence had been found, it would not be kept secret. Photos of it would be plastered in vivid living colour in classrooms around the world, proclaiming it as confirmation of reptile-to-bird evolution.

Feathers and scales, along with our own skin, hair, and even fingernails, are all made of a type of protein called keratin. However, feather proteins (φ-keratins) are biochemically different from scale proteins, which are α-keratins. φ-keratins are a distinct type of β-keratins with “the special ability to self-assemble into filaments.”13 By late last century, evolutionary feather expert Alan Brush had concluded that even though feathers were traditionally considered ‘homologous’ with reptile scales (i.e. evolved from the same ancestral structures):

… in development, morphogenesis, gene structure, protein shape and sequence, and filament formation and structure, feathers are different.14

The clear distinction between feathers and scales in the real world is in complete harmony with Genesis Chapter 1. Birds, including the ancestors of all cuculids including roadrunners, were created on Day 5 of Creation Week (along with flying reptiles and flying mammals). They did not evolve from land reptiles, which were created on Day 6. When one sincerely follows the evidence, the Bible can be relied on as trustworthy.

Posted on homepage: 22 January 2024

References and notes

  1. Cuckoos, anis, and roadrunners: Cuculiformes, encyclopedia.com, acc. 13 Jan 2022. Return to text.
  2. Roadrunner bird facts that goes beep beep, youtube.com, 3 Sep 2021. Return to text.
  3. Catchpoole, D., The wily coyote—dogged by reputation, this coy ‘wolf’ continues to surprise, Creation 40(2):27 31, 2018; creation.com/coyote. Return to text.
  4. What do roadrunners eat? birdfact.com, acc. 28 Mar 2023. Return to text.
  5. The Jornada rangeland research programs, New Mexico State University, Bird of the week: Roadrunner, jornada.nmsu.edu, 14 Oct 2014. Return to text.
  6. Located beyond the stomach, which has acid and digestive enzymes, but considered to be part of it, a bird’s gizzard grinds food with swallowed pebbles (gastroliths). Return to text.
  7. Greater roadrunner sounds, youtube.com, acc. 28 Mar 2023. Return to text.
  8. Choi, C., Secret lives of roadrunners revealed, livescience.com, 11 Aug 2009. Return to text.
  9. Maintz, M., Fun facts about roadrunners, thespruce.com, updated 16 Dec 2020. Return to text.
  10. The Zoo Review, Species fact profile: Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), thezooreviewer.blogspot.com, 6 Aug 2013. Return to text.
  11. Lesser Roadrunner, animalia.bio, acc. 28 Mar 2023. Return to text.
  12. ‘GrrlScientist’ (Hedwig Pöllöläinen), Ancient roadrunner-like bird from the age of dinosaurs, scienceblogs.com, 30 Mar 2007. Return to text.
  13. Nogare, M., A feather’s tale from tube to plane and back again, AFA Watchbird 31(4):2004; Brush, A.H., Self-assembly of avian φ-keratins, J. Protein Chemistry 2:63–75, 1983. Return to text.
  14. Brush, A.H., On the origin of feathers, J. Evolutionary Biology 9:131–142, 1996. Return to text.

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