Cuckoo away

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Cuckoo away
Way cuckoo (Geococcyx californianus)

Way cuckoo ( Geococcyx californianus )

Class : Birds (aves)
Order : Cuckoo birds (Cuculiformes)
Family : Cuckoos (Cuculidae)
Genre : Racing Cuckoo ( Geococcyx )
Type : Cuckoo away
Scientific name
Geococcyx californianus
( Lesson , 1829)

The road cuckoo ( Geococcyx californianus ), also known as the great racing cuckoo or ground cuckoo , is a large representative of the cuckoo birds (Cuculiformes) with very long legs, which occurs in North and Central America. He is also known in German-speaking countries under his English name Roadrunner .

Unlike many other members of the cuckoo bird order, the common cuckoo, which predominantly lives on the ground, is not an obligatory brood parasite , but usually raises its offspring itself. Exceptionally, however, it also has intraspecific brood parasitism and even more rarely does it lay eggs in the nests of other bird species.

It is a species that is common in the area, its population situation was classified in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2016 as " Least Concern (LC) " = "not endangered".


general characteristics

A cuckoo when running

The adult cuckoo cuckoos are 51 to 61 centimeters long including the tail, with an average of 28 centimeters on the tail. They have a long, black beak that curves down slightly. The head, the crest, the back and the long tail are dark brown with light flecks. The throat and belly are light. Its long legs and tail are adaptations to its running way of life. The weight varies a lot. Very light individuals weigh just under 200 grams, a weight of around 300 grams is more typical. With a very good food supply, however, they can also weigh more than 500 grams.

The Wegekuckuck is an extremely good runner. Top speeds of 24 to 32 km / h were measured. Basically, he prefers to walk on soil without vegetation. It can therefore often be seen in dry river beds or on roads. He owes his good walking ability not least to his zygodactyl set feet: As with all cuckoos, the two outer toes of his feet point backwards, the two inner ones forward. While running, he keeps his head and tail parallel to the ground, the tail is used like an oar to change direction.

The path cuckoo only flies up occasionally to fly short distances. It typically uses its wings to glide from a raised hide or from its nest to the ground. However, he also covers distances between treetops while flying, if they are not more than four or five meters apart.

Adaptations to the dry habitat

A cuckoo when sunbathing

The Wegekuckuck has developed an extraordinary energy-saving method to adapt to the cold desert nights. During the night his body temperature drops and he falls into a kind of freezing cold. He has bare dark patches of skin on his back. In the morning it spreads its plumage and exposes these spots to the sun. Due to the warmth, its temperature quickly rises to normal. The skin of the nestlings is black except for the white chin, so that the sun's rays can be better absorbed and the body temperature can rise more quickly in the morning. If the temperature is too high, the young will withdraw to the shade.

To avoid the midday heat, the way cuckoo is mainly active in the morning hours and in the afternoon. During the midday heat, the bird stays in the shade. He also cools himself by panting and flapping his throat pouch, which means that more air gets to the blood vessels and the body temperature is lowered through the improved heat exchange. Water loss is compensated for by salt excretion via special glands in front of the eyes. In addition, the Greater Roadrunner water can through the cloaca reabsorb. Chicks are taken care of by their parents through choked fluids. Since the excrement of the chicks contains a high proportion of water, the adult birds eat the excrement during the breeding season. Adult trail cuckoos can meet all of their fluid requirements through their food, but drink when they have the opportunity.

distribution and habitat

Distribution map of the path cuckoo

The Wayward Cuckoo lives in the steppes , deserts and semi-deserts of the southwestern USA , from the California long valley to the Gulf coast in Texas , as well as in northern Mexico (including Sonora , Baja California , Chihuahua , Mojave ). In the course of the 20th century, the road cuckoo was able to expand its range to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. In contrast, it has disappeared in parts of its former California distribution area. In Mexico there are areas of overlap with the distribution area of ​​the racing cuckoo , which is the sister taxon of the road cuckoo within the genus of the racing cuckoo .

The habitat of the road cuckoo are semi-arid and arid areas that are loosely made up of two to three meter high shrubs and bushes. It is also found locally on open agricultural areas and sparsely populated suburbs. In the foothills and table mountains of Colorado it is particularly common in areas that are loosely covered with juniper and pinyon pines . In Nevada and Utah, it can also be found on plains that are covered with tamarisk thickened and creosote bushes . It is also often found here along river banks. In Texas and the southwest of Oklahoma his habitat is steppes with a vegetation of prosopis and juniper or loose oak-juniper forests. In Louisiana it is found in higher elevations with a population of incense pines and hardwoods. In the southwest of Missouri, in the west of Arkansas and in the east of Oklahoma, the typical habitat of the road cuckoo is stony areas, which are covered with Virginian juniper and prairie plants and which, because of the thin layer of soil, correspond in character to semi-deserts (so-called “Cedar Glade” vegetation type). In California, it is mostly found in regions where grasslands merge into chaparral .

The altitude distribution ranges from −75 meters in Death Valley to altitudes of 2500 meters. Occasionally it occurs at 3000 meters above sea level. In its northernmost area of ​​distribution, snow conditions that persist for a long time are not uncommon during the winter half-year.

Food and subsistence

Way cuckoo with a captured lizard
Way cuckoo with the captured chick of a helmet quail

The path cuckoo is an opportunistic omnivore . It spends most of its time on the ground, hunting snakes , lizards , insects , spiders, rodents and small birds , but also eats seeds and fruits of Opuntia (mainly Opuntia engelmannii , Opuntia polyacantha , Opuntia phaeacantha and Cylindropuntia leptocaulis ) and seeds of sumac plants . Insects, which often make up 80 percent of the diet, play the greatest role in nutrition: key prey animals are short-antennae terrors , crickets , beetles, cicadas, caterpillars, ants, bees and wasps. It usually preyes on vertebrates, especially during the breeding season, when these cuckoos are particularly active. During the first days of life, nestlings are mainly fed with insects by the parent birds, but then increasingly with vertebrates. Vegetable food usually only covers a small part of its nutritional needs and is one of the food sources, especially in winter.

He usually looks for food in places with little or no vegetation at all. When searching for prey, he pauses again and again to look for prey. For him, still invisible because well camouflaged, resting reptiles he tries to scare away by jumping around structures with flapping wings.

He catches flying insects by jumping up to three meters high. He has also been seen to ambush low-flying sailors in dry river beds , which he catches by suddenly jumping up. He also fetches birds from nesting boxes, picks them from nets that were set up to ring birds, or lies in wait for them at bird feeders. He partially plucks captured birds. He removes the spines from figs of the opuntia by dropping them on the ground and moving them back and forth there. He usually grabs scorpions by the sting. He also eats carrion. It usually hits large prey such as rodents, snakes, lizards and large grasshoppers against a hard surface several times before swallowing them. He devours his prey whole.

It's fast enough to catch rattlesnakes , which it kills by hitting their head on the ground like a whip. Snakes are sometimes attacked and caught by both partners together.



Way cuckoos mostly look for their food in low vegetation

Way cuckoos live in pairs all year round in their respective territories and are monogamous . The area size is on average about 0.5 km² (southern Texas) to 1 km² (Arizona). The territorial boundaries often remain unchanged over several years. A shift of territory is usually preceded by a failed attempt at nesting. The male defends the territorial boundaries against another male invading the territory with threatening gestures in which the control feathers are spread upwards and slowly swung from side to side.

Outside of the breeding season, the cuckoo can usually be observed individually, as the birds in a pair reside in different parts of their territory starting from the time when their offspring are fledged. During the breeding season, however, they can usually be observed in pairs. At the beginning of the breeding season, the male and the female often rest either together in the same shrub or in two adjacent shrubs.

Breeding season

The breeding period of the Way Cuckoo varies with the distribution and local climatic conditions. So far it has not been adequately investigated in Mexico, as well as in the eastern and northern parts of its range. In California it usually breeds in March to May, but occasionally nests with clutches are found in February or even in June. There are two breeding seasons in southern Arizona. The first falls from April to June and the second from late July to mid-September. This pattern is due to the extreme heat and drought from mid-June to mid-July, followed by a rainy season towards the end of July.


Way cuckoo erected in the bushes

The courtship ritual of the path cuckoo includes hours of chases on the ground. It is irrelevant whether a new pair is formed or an existing pair bond is renewed. Occasionally, the pursuit cuckoo attacks the other partner bird during these chases. Both the wings and the tail are raised, the control springs are spread. The long chases are interrupted by occasional gliding flights and periods of rest. Sometimes the male also stands tall and calls from the top of a tree or the top of a bush coo , to which the female responds with short, barking sounds.

Shortly before mating, the male impresses the female by running away from her with a cocked hood, raised wings and control feathers. He then flaps the wings against the sides of the body and produces a clearly audible “pop” as an instrumental sound . He repeats this four to five times. Another impressive gesture is rocking the control springs. It faces the female and often carries a prey or plant material in its beak.


The cuckoo builds its compact, bowl-shaped nest with four to six whitish eggs at a height of 0.4 to 6 meters in thorn bushes such as the mesquite , on small trees or cacti such as the candelabra cactus Carnegiea gigantea . Nests can also be found on old oil pumps, on agricultural machines or on rocky cliffs. The nest is usually built in a fork of a branch or on a horizontally growing branch. Typically, there are places with very low vegetation near the nesting site.

The outer diameter of the nest is 30 to 45 centimeters and the height 15 to 20 centimeters. The nesting trough has a diameter of 15 centimeters and a depth of five to 10 centimeters. Common cuckoos usually build a new nest for each clutch. Old nests are rarely used again.

Eggs and young birds

Way cuckoo rearing up in a thorn bush

The eggs are whitish and occasionally spotted brown or gray. The clutch size depends on the food available and is between two and seven eggs. The females usually lay an egg every two days. The incubation begins when the first egg is deposited and it takes 17 to 18 days for the nestlings to hatch. They only weigh about 14 grams when they hatch. Both parent birds breed: the males always sit on the eggs during the night, while both parent birds take turns during the day.

The nestlings hatch asynchronously, the age difference between the youngest and the oldest of the nestlings can be up to seven days. In the case of large clutches it can happen that the last egg laid is no longer hatched. The boys are raised by both parents. Usually a parent bird always stays close to the nestlings and either grazes or shadows them by spreading their wings over them.

The young birds are able to walk from the age of 11 and have reached a weight of about 130 grams by that time. On the 16th day of life they are able to run, they are already pecking for prey, but they are still begging for food from their parent birds. They usually leave the nest between the 17th and 19th day of life. However, if there is a malfunction in the nest beforehand, then they are able to leave the nest permanently on their 12th to 14th day of life. The parents feed the young birds for 30 to 40 days after they have left the nest, even if they are already looking for food together with the parent birds at that time. If there is a plentiful supply of food, the parent birds start building a new nest at this time.

Brood Parasitism

Unlike many other representatives of the cuckoo , brood parasitism is extremely rare in the cuckoo. Eggs of this type have been found a few times in the nests of common ravens and mockingbirds . Intraspecific brood parasitism is probably more common. So far, there are only indications of this in the form of unusually large clutches and / or unusual spacing between layers.

Predators and life expectancy

The bobcat is one of the pathetic cuckoo's predators

The path cuckoo is usually too fast to be caught by the coyote . On the other hand, it is occasionally beaten by the bobcat as well as the North American catfish . Red-tailed buzzards , round-tailed curbs and desert buzzards are able to catch a trail cuckoo occasionally. Brooding cuckoos are very rarely preyed on by other birds of prey, stray domestic cats and raccoons . Snakes are believed to be the main nest predators that eat nestlings and eggs.

Disturbances by dogs as well as by heavy traffic and the low breeding success due to the chasing by stray cats is the reason why the population of cuckoos in sparsely populated areas is falling, even if they still have sufficient native vegetation.

The breeding success varies greatly. In southern Texas, only twelve percent of the eggs laid grow up to be young. In New Mexico, Oklahoma and western Texas, however, the breeding success is 72 percent. A ringed cuckoo found again shows that they can reach an age of more than seven years in the wild. In captivity, a single male has lived to be more than nine years old.

Way cuckoo and humans

Wegekuckuck, head study

The agile path cuckoo plays a comparatively large role among the indigenous peoples in its area of ​​distribution. With the Hopi it is associated with rituals that celebrate strength, perseverance and courage. According to Cocker and Tipling, this could be due to the fact that the cuckoo rarely flies open and the line of its characteristic footprints in the desert sand never seem to end. Pre-Columbian peoples of the Anasazi culture also left behind petroglyphs depicting either the bird or its distinctive footprints. In the El Malpais National Monument in the US state of New Mexico, for example, there is a depiction of a path cuckoo eating a lizard. Carved rock carvings of the footprints of this bird species are even more common.

The cuckoo also plays a role in modern culture. The way cuckoo (English: Greater Roadrunner) was the model for the " Road Runner " in the cartoons of the Warner Brothers . The escapes of the Road Runners are accompanied by Miep-Miep calls (which are uncharacteristic for the species) . Among other things, the American automobile manufacturer Plymouth gave its fastest coupes and convertibles the model name Plymouth Road Runner from 1967 to 1979 .

Documentary film


  • Mark Cocker, David Tipling: Birds and People. Jonathan Cape, London 2013, ISBN 978-0-2240-8174-0 .
  • Johannes Erhitzøe, Clive F. Mann, Frederik P. Brammer, Richard A. Fuller: Cuckoos of the World. Christopher Helm, London 2012, ISBN 978-0-7136-6034-0 .
  • Robert B. Payne: The Cuckoos. (Bird Families of the World No. 15). Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, ISBN 0-19-850213-3 .

Individual evidence

  1. Geococcyx californianus in the endangered Red List species the IUCN 2016 Posted by: BirdLife International, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017th
  2. ^ Payne p. 194.
  3. a b c d e f g h Erhitzøe, Mann, Brammer, Fuller: Cuckoos of the World. P. 127.
  4. ^ Martha Anne Maxon: The real roadrunner. University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8061-3676-6 , p. 10 ( Google book; English , review ).
  5. Payne pp. 195-196.
  6. Payne p. 196.
  7. Payne p. 195.
  8. a b c d Erhitzøe, Mann, Brammer, Fuller: Cuckoos of the World. P. 129.
  9. a b c Payne pp. 196-197.
  10. a b c d e f g h i Erhitzøe, Mann, Brammer, Fuller: Cuckoos of the World. P. 128.
  11. Erhitzøe, Mann, Brammer, Fuller: Cuckoos of the World. P. 126.
  12. Mark Cocker, David Tipling: Birds and People. P. 269.
  13. Mark Cocker, David Tipling: Birds and People. P. 270.

Web links

Commons : Wegekuckuck ( Geococcyx californianus )  - Collection of images, videos and audio files