Dear Bird Folks,
Which bird can run the fastest? My husband claims that Africa’s ostrich is the fastest, but I’ve always thought that the roadrunner ran even faster. I hope the cartoons didn’t give me the wrong impression. Who’s right?
– Sheri, Brockton, MA
You are right, Sheri,
If cartoons say the fastest running bird is the roadrunner, then that’s what it is. Cartoons are based on facts. For instance, I eat a steady diet of spinach and that’s why I’m as strong as Popeye. Wait! I’m not nearly that strong. Maybe I’d better rethink this whole thing and say that you and your husband are both right. I know it makes me look like a flip-flopping politician, but I don’t want to upset your husband. After all, he could eat spinach too and it might actually work for him, and then I’d be in trouble.
My wimpiness aside, it is true that both Africa’s ostrich and America’s roadrunner can lay claim to being the world’s fastest running bird. How is that possible? Hmm, I’m not sure. Oh, wait. Now I remember. The ostrich is hands down the fastest running bird, but the roadrunner is the fastest running bird…that can also fly. So, the roadrunner’s claim comes with an asterisk, like some sports records (and my claim to being as strong as Popeye).
Most of the world’s flightless birds have one thing in common: they live in areas that contain few land predators and thus flight isn’t necessary. But the ostrich lives in Africa, a continent where everything eats everything else. Africa has some of the world’s top predators, including leopards, cheetahs, lions and tigers. (Fine, maybe tigers don’t live in Africa, but it seems like they should.) So, how does a flightless bird, living in an environment filled with predators survive? The ostrich buries its head in the sand, of course. Jeeze, I thought everybody knew that. Actually, it just looks like the birds bury their heads. What they actually do is lie down with their heads and necks stretched out on the ground and remain still until the danger passes. The bodies of the birds are black, but their necks and heads are sand-colored, and thus they blend into the dirt and seemingly disappear. At least, according to some people.
When hiding from danger doesn’t work, the birds have to quickly switch to plan B, which is to get moving, and fast. Ostriches can easily run at 30 MPH, without even working up a sweat. If pressed, the birds can crank it up to 40 or 50 MPH, and even faster. With such great speed ostriches typically can outrun most of Africa’s predators, including all of the big cats, except for the blazingly fast cheetah and the recently extinct Mercury Cougar. And while running away from danger seems to be the ostrich’s preferred option, the birds are no wimps and will turn and fight if need be. Standing nearly nine feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, adult male ostriches are powerful creatures. In addition, at the end of the ostrich’s largest toe is a nasty sharp claw and the bird knows how to use it. Ostrich kicks have been known to kill many large mammals, including lions and even humans. (FYI: If you are ever in a bar fight, this is the bird you want on your side.)
Meanwhile, back in America, the much smaller roadrunner weighs a mere thirteen ounces and doesn’t kick anybody. It also can’t run at 50 MPH, but it doesn’t need to. The roadrunner combines speed (about 18 MPH) and it’s superior agility to dodge and elude predators. The bird’s quickness also comes into play when hunting. Roadrunners regularly feed on fast-moving lizards or mice. And yes, roadrunners also eat snakes, including rattlesnakes, which is okay with me. But there is something else these birds eat that I’m less enthusiastic about. Using their immense leaping ability, roadrunners have been known to jump up and grab passing hummingbirds right out of the air. In suburban areas roadrunners will also pluck songbirds off of feeders and steal baby chicks out of birdhouses. Even Purple Martins, living in colonies fifteen feet above the ground, aren’t safe from roadrunners. How can the roadrunner gain access to birdhouses fifteen feet high? They fly, that’s how. Remember that from earlier?
Like ostriches, roadrunners are well suited for the terrestrial life. But if they need to, they can flap their wings and fly (for short distances). Ostriches have wings also, but there is no way their wings can do enough flapping to get their 250-pound bodies off the ground. Instead, ostriches use their rather fluffy wings for balance while running, to shade their young from the intense African heat and to cover up certain body parts when they are performing at the annual Savanna Burlesque Show.
When it comes to naming the fastest running bird, Sheri, your husband is technically right. The ostrich is not only the fastest running bird, but it is also the fastest running two-legged creature on earth. It’s even faster than Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and faster than the people who are jumping off the Bill Cosby bandwagon (and that’s wicked fast). But neither the ostriches nor Usain can fly, which leaves roadrunners in a class by themselves. It’s just too bad I can’t persuade roadrunners to stop catching hummingbirds and eat spinach instead. After all, look at what spinach has done for both Popeye and me…well, for Popeye anyhow.