Episode 242 – Roadrunner: Running Hot

“…And today we’re talking about a bird who is a runner, she’s a track star. But more on that later.”

There are a few paths you can go down in the animal kingdom that are tried and true. Strength and power are great, but only if you can catch what you’re after. The roadrunner is famously hard to catch, just ask a coyote. But when you’re a high-performance athlete in a hot climate, it’s important to keep a cool head. Beating the heat is essential, when you’re trying to run the race of survival in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 


  • The roadrunner has an overall ostrich-like shape which makes sense given they both like to run
  • Long neck, compact body, and long legs
  • However, unlike the ostrich, the roadrunner has useful wings! And can fly!
  • It has a long, curved pterodactyl beak and a regal mohawk tuft on its head like the cartoon
  • It has dark brown and white spots on its head, back, neck, and tai but its belly is whitel
  • There are bright red spots behind its eyes near its ear holes
  • Its tail is really long and almost doubles the roadrunner’s length.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at Gmail dot com. We do have a measure up intro from Joy.


  • 52–62 cm (20–24 in)
  • How many roadrunners go into the height of an organ pipe cactus?
  • Hint: an organ pipe cactus is a cactus species native to the sonoran desert. It grows straight up in bunches of a dozen or more stalks, hence the name. Its fruit is harvested by the Seris, a indigenous tribe that lives in Northern Mexico.
  • 12 roadrunners. The cactus can reach up to 24 feet.


  • 221–538 g (7.8–19.0 oz)
  • How many roadrunners would a coyote have to eat to eat its weight in roadrunners?
  • Hint: Coyotes live all over North America, across several different biomes. They have even been spotted on the eastern side of the Panama Canal. 
  • 37 roadrunners. Coyotes can weigh up to 44 lbs (20 kg).

Fast Facts

  • Range: Southwest North America from California to Louisiana and all the way down to Central America
    • They like arid desert regions with low levels of vegetation
  • Diet:
    • They like to eat insects, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, mice, smaller birds, lizards, and snakes.
    • Some stories report roadrunners using pieces of cactuses to create a little spike gulag for snakes.
  • Behavior:
    • The thing that roadrunners are known for is the thing they’re best at – running. They can reach up to 26 mph, which is one of the fastest speeds for any flying bird. The ostrich has it beat at 70 mph.
      • It sticks its tail out to be more aerodynamic and can use its tail as a rudder to help it change direction.
    • The roadrunner is actually a cuckoo bird, which we’ve covered on the show
    • They have a tendency to lay their eggs in other nests and their chicks will take resources from the hosts.
    • They also have a pretty advanced vocalization structure. They have seven different calls, many of which can be heard up to 1000 ft away.
    • They are pretty territorial and males will attack other males entering their territory. Usually by dropping an anvil on them.

Major Fact: Running Hot

Roadrunners are high performance athletes that are operating in some of the hottest places in North America. Many desert animals are nocturnal, allowing them to avoid the heat of the day. 

But roadrunners are diurnal, which means they are most active during the frying pan hours. To adapt to the heat and maintain top performance so they can escape wiley coyotes, they’ve developed some interesting thermoregulation tactics. 

Thermoregulation is a word we’ve used to talk about cold blooded animals mostly. Birds are warm blooded, but the dessert is so hot, the roadrunner needs some special skills to avoid getting too hot. 

They are most active from morning to noon and then again in the evening, so they skip out on the hottest hours of the day. 

Since water is scarce and absolutely vital, roadrunners need to hold onto every drop they can. They have mucus membranes in their rectum, cloaca, and caecum that absorb every ounce of water before waste leaves the station for good. 

Their intestines are also covered in villi, which are these cylindrical protrusions that increase the surface area of their intestinal tissue where water can be absorbed.

Roadrunners also have something in common with sea birds, despite their vastly different environments. They have special glands above their eyes that eliminate salt. Most birds eliminate salt like we do, by peeing. However, glands that help remove excessive salt from your blood when water is scarce is essential. 

Of course, the dessert isn’t just hot, it can also be very cold at night, especially in the winter. A roadrunner’s body temperature can fluctuate by more than ten degrees between night and day. During the day, they can be as hot as 104 degrees, while low activity and colder air drops them down to 93 degrees at night. 

In the morning, they rapidly heat back up by sunning themselves. They will spread their wings with their backs to the sun. They also puff up their back feathers to expose their dark skin to the sun’s rays. They may stay like this for several hours in the morning. During the winter, they may do this multiple times per day.

Ending: So go the distance, eliminate your excess body salt, and get as much moisture out of your cloaca like the roadrunner here in LDT.