If you're a hummingbird, a roadrunner might not seem like something to worry about. After all, your famous aerial manoeuvrability is no match for a mostly flightless speedster way down there on the ground. Right?

Wrong. It turns out the roadrunner does not always stay on the road.

This quick bit of predator-on-prey action unfolded in the California backyard of Roy Dunn, a long-time birdwatcher and wildlife photographer.

Dunn has a fondness for photographing hummingbirds, and his high-speed cameras are perfect for capturing the swift-moving fliers. But occasionally, another hungry bird turns up near his feeders: the greater roadrunner. 

After watching the ground cuckoos jumping up at the hummingbirds (and even catching them occasionally), Dunn decided to set out a camera to see if he could record a catch. After a few hours of waiting, he got his wish.

"He missed quite a few before he nailed one," Dunn said. According to Audubon, who recently featured the short clip on their website, such hummingbird-hunting behaviour has been observed before, but successful catches like this one are rarely recorded. 

Roadrunners spend much of their time zipping across the harsh, dry environments of southern North America like tiny, toothless velociraptors, snatching up all manner of creepy-crawly prey, from spiders and scorpions to centipedes and snakes. But they're not strictly carnivorous: they'll also happily eat cactus fruit (you can't be too picky in the desert!).

Without talons or a tearing beak to dispatch their struggling food, the birds opt for bashing their meal against the ground until it stops resisting. If they catch something big, like a rattlesnake, roadrunners take their time: they'll swallow the prey bit by bit, with parts of it protruding from the beak and the rest slowly digesting in their stomach.

True to their name, roadrunners stick mainly to the ground, where they can run up to 27 kmph (17mph). But even though they don't do much flying, they still have the flight-worthy tools of their airborne ancestors: powerful back legs for getting off the ground, a long tail for aerial balance, and strong wings for gaining some height and slowing their descent. In Dunn's video, you can see the roadrunner make brief but beautiful use of all of these avian gifts.

ht: Audubon



Top header image: rbrucemontgomery/Flickr