There are many flightless birds around the world including two kinds of the oh-so-cute dabbling ducks. But we are not going for cute points here. This list will highlight some of the record breakers of the flightless world of birds including the largest, smallest, rarest or just plain cool or intersting. New Zealand is well known for their diversity of flightless birds. Exotic predators that have been introduced (such as rats, cats, and stoats) have threatened the existence of flightless birds in New Zealand and other islands lacking natural mammalian predators. Many, like New Zealand’s giant Moa, have already become extinct. Larger flightless bird giants that remain strong today like ostriches and emus have other defenses besides flight to combat their mammals predators such as massive claws and the ability to sprint at great speeds.
10. South American Grebes
While most grebes are reluctant to fly, there are two species that are completely flightless: the Junin grebe and the Titicaca grebe. Both species are endangered and native to South America. Instead of flying away to escape predators, grebes will dive. Diving is about all the do well actually. They are quite awkward walking on land since their feet are positioned so far back on their body, but some, including the Titicaca grebe, can run across long distances using their small wings as a balance. Another weird thing about grebes is that when they groom themselves they have a tendency to eat their own feathers for reasons unknown. Their feathers are waterproof and the birds are able to adjust their buoyancy in the water by either flattening the feathers to their body or puffing them up. Their main threats as adults are getting caught up in fishing nets. Eggs and chicks are often eaten by predators, but adults are quite good evaders in the water.
9. Flightless Cormorant
In the Galapagos archipelago, you will find the only flightless cormorant in the world. With This bird sports piercing turquoise blue eyes, and is different from other cormorants due to its wing size. The wings are short and stubby and they couldn’t fly even if they tried. Even though they have the smallest wings, they are actually the largest of all the cormorant species. Like other cormorants, their feet are webbed and the birds are superior divers feeding on the ocean floor just off the coast. This bird evolved (or devolved) to flightless due to the lack of natural predators in its range. However, like many “predator free” islands, with the introduction of man, comes the introduction of predators which threatens the status of the bird on the Galapagos.
8. Greater Rhea
The largest bird on the continent, the greater rhea is South America’s answer to the emu and ostrich. The name “rhea” was derived from the greek word meaning “winged”. You can see this bird’s gigantic wings if you happen to scare it by mistake. It will run in an eccentric zig zag pattern while alternatingly lifting each wing. Or, if you are lucky, it will simply sprint at ludicrous speeds. It shares much of its range with its smaller sister species, Darwin’s (or lesser) rhea. Feathered flocks or individuals love to roam flat, open spaces such as agricultural land. They have been known to hide in tall growing crops. Even with their naivety when it comes to predation, the greater rhea are not threatened and have even exemplified an ability to adapt to different environments. They have recently, to the surprise of some, established a feral population in Germany. The rheas are perhaps best known for their breeding ritual. A male rhea will seduce many females and build a large nest in which his harem deposits their eggs. The male then does all the incubation of the egg himself.
Sure, there are some ostriches being farmed for burgers that have successfully established themselves in Australia’s wild. Nonetheless, the emu is the largest bird to call Australia its native home. Only the Ostrich itself stands taller than these nomadic wanderers who have an exceptional capability of starving for weeks on end in search of food. Like many birds of smaller stature, emus swallow rocks to help digest their grub. Like other larger ratites, the emu prefers open space for its endeavors. Since Australia provides an abundance of such sprawling land, the emu is not considered threatened at this point. Of their curious behaviors, none so much captures the imagination as their neurotic dance between sleep and security. At night they sit down for short naps only to rise and look around a short time later. When attacked by dingo or any other assailants on the ground, they can kick their assailants in the face or rip their cuts out like Zorro carving a “Z”. Younger emus are vulnerable to attack from the air and so run in erratic patterns to avoid creatures such as eagles.
6. Southern Cassowary
A long bluish black neck and head with a red, draping gobbler gives the southern cassowary a peculiar look. This bird is one of three species of cassowary that roam the tropics of Papua New Guinea. The cassowary’s choice of habitat is unique among other larger ratites such as the emu and ostrich because it prefers forests over plains. Sustained mostly by fruit, vegetation and the occasional insect, this shy creature keeps to itself. Though they will try to avoid human contact, cassowaries will attack humans, dogs, or anything they feel threatened by. Cassowaries can tear holes in your body like swiss cheese, and there are have been an upwards of around 200 attacks reported per year. Many of these humans aren’t getting the hint: don’t feed wildlife! Most violent incidents are a result of coaxing these animals with food. They should be left to their own devices if encountered in the wild. Meanwhile, they are gorgeous creatures and should be ogled at a safe distance (or at a zoo).
5. Inaccessible Island Rail
There are about 20 rail species today that are flightless, most of which have evolved this trait from living on islands lacking predators. The Inaccessible Island rail is the smallest flightless bird alive today and as its name suggests, can only be found on Inaccessible Island, if you can get there and hopefully you can’t. Luckily for this little critter this island has been so inaccessible, that people haven’t been able to drop off their nasty introduced predators to wreck havoc like so many other colonized islands. Let’s keep it that way.
The biggest and baddest of the feathered realm, the Ostrich gobbles an abundance of flora and insects to maintain its hefty frame. The thing runs the fastest of all the flightless birds, and even lays the largest shelled omelet in the feathered kingdom. These African nomads roam together in small groups (usually one male looking over 5-7 females). Apparently lions let out the secret that ostriches are delicious, because they have been increasingly farmed commercially. Ostrich parts are found in dust feathers, meat, and leather. Like birds of many times smaller than its size, ostriches will feign injury if their young is in danger. Otherwise they will use their humungous legs to kick the crap out of the aggressor. The ostrich is a valuable resource for traditional African natives; the bird’s eggs are even used to store water. Ostriches outrun humans by miles and will avoid us at any cost. However, if you think the cassowary can do significant bodily harm, you haven’t seen anything yet.
3. Emperor Penguins
Penguins are on this list, not because of their size or conservation status. They are here simply because they are just plain cool. These flightless critters have an amazing story to tell. They swim in the ocean and migrate hundreds of miles on land throughout the year between nesting and foraging areas. They are faithful to their one mate each year and after laying an egg, the mother transfers it to the father which balances on their feet. I mean, come on, check out the emperor penguin’s fancy tux. Who doesn’t love these guys?
New Zealand’s kakapo is the world’s only flightless parrot. These parrots are nocturnal, ground-dwelling herbivores and the largest of all parrots. They are also culturally significant to the indigenous Maori of New Zealand and are included in their folklore. There are less than 150 kakapos left and only found on three offshore, predator-free islands in New Zealand. Kakapo conservation efforts are on-going and researchers must monitor the remaining populations closely. They are exceptionally sensitive to not only introduced predators, but certain food sources need to be provided to encourage their breeding.
Kiwis are the national symbol of New Zealand. Kiwis are so much entwined with New Zealand identity that the name is synonymous to New Zealanders themselves. There are five species in total all endemic to New Zealand and most are threatened since the introduction of mammalian predators. Adult kiwis have powerful legs that can combat anything that threatens them. Hence, the problem lies with young kiwis which are unfortunately defenseless to predators. Current conservation efforts involve breeding kiwis in captivity, raising the young chicks until they are old enough to defend themselves, and then finally releasing them into the wild. Although kiwis are the smallest ratites, they rival the ostrich’s egg in the fact that the kiwi lays the largest egg in relation to its body size then any other bird in the world.