This well-loved icon of the American Southwest may be one of the most entertaining and easily spotted creatures in Death Valley, often seen around the developed areas of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. But don’t let those comical looks fool you. The lanky, foot-tall bird with the rumpled hairdo, a member of the cuckoo family, is actually a ferocious hunter and carnivore. “They eat lizards, insects, small birds, snakes, and whatever they can get. They’re always on the hunt,” says ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.
Though this ground-dwelling bird can reach top speeds of 20 miles per hour, it often just pokes around looking for food.
In the 1960s cartoon, the roadrunner perpetually outsmarts Wile E. Coyote, and Van Valkenburg says that characterization seems fair. “Roadrunners are intelligent. They’re like a tiny version of the velociraptor from the Jurassic Park movie. They’re very smart and very quick.”
Although this ground-dwelling bird can zip by at 20 miles per hour, it spends time standing still or poking around for prey. And don’t try to listen for the “beep-beep” call of cartoon lore. Instead, try to catch its rhythmic clucking.
Unlike many birds that migrate out of Death Valley for summer, the roadrunner stays year-round, and seems to prefer warmer days to cooler ones. “In winter, they come out early in the morning, find a sheltered spot, and turn their backs to the sun,” says Van Valkenburg. “It’s a solar warm-up for them and helps get them going in the cold.” The birds spread their feathers to expose the black skin underneath, absorbing even more heat.