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Do Road Runners Fly?

i Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Most everyone is familiar with the cartoon Roadrunner escaping the coyote by dashing away in a cloud of dust. Even the cartoon version of the bird has wings, though, so you may wonder why he doesn't simply fly out of reach of his nemesis. Just because a bird has wings, doesn't mean he flies. But just because he runs most of the time, doesn't mean he cannot fly.

They Can...

Roadrunners do have wings, but they're short and rounded, unlike those of most birds. That doesn't mean they can't fly. They do actually fly when they need to, like fluttering a short span to perch on a post, in a bush or on a branch.

...But They Don't (Often)

Although roadrunners do fly, they're not built for it and aren't adept at it. Once they get airborne, they can only maintain their altitude for less than a minute. That's why they're not called "roadflyers." The quirky birds got their name from their habit of racing horse-drawn carriages along dirt roads in the deserts of North and Central America. They have strong legs and feet that were built for running, with two toes facing forward and two facing backward. They're so adept at running -- up to 17 miles per hour or more -- that they seldom fly.

Low-Rise Nests

Not being accomplished flyers means that roadrunners have to build nests close to the ground. The fast little birds know that a nest even a foot or two up is safer than one right on the ground, so most roadrunner nests are found a few feet off the ground in a cactus, a bush or even a short tree.

Meals on the Run

Although they don't fly often or high, roadrunners are still experts at catching a meal. Their swiftness helps them hunt down large insects, lizards, snakes and mice. They typically walk quickly, keeping an eye out for anything that looks tasty. When a roadrunner spots his prey, he'll dash toward it and snatch it up or stun it by pecking at its head. Even without flying, the quick birds can snag an insect by jumping up and grabbing it from the air.