10 Flightless Birds That Evolved To Live Life On Land

Flightless birds are native to all but one continent. There are 60 known species of flightless birds, ranging from the tiny Inaccessible Island Rail, who weighs a meager 34.7 oz to the ostrich who can reach 9 feet tall and 320 lbs. Flightless birds have developed many amazing abilities that more than compensate for their lack of flight. Keep reading for a closer look at a few species of flightless birds.

10 flightless birds

1. Ostrich

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Struthio camelis
Where it’s found: Africa, North, and South of the equatorial zone

Ostriches are not only the largest flightless bird, they are the largest bird still in existence. They have a long neck, covered in downy feathers, and their bodies are black, brown, or grey, with either white or buff feathers on the tail depending on sex and subspecies. Their skin ranges from red to pink, and in addition to the long neck, they also have long legs that end in 2 toes. Ostriches are omnivores, supplementing plants and seeds with lizards and other small animals.

Facts about Ostriches

  • Female ostriches share a nest. All the females will place their eggs in the dominant female’s nest. She will then incubate all the eggs. Each female can still recognize her own eggs.
  • Ostriches have 3 stomachs. A glandular stomach which helps break down some of their food chemically, a muscular stomach where they store stones and gravel that help further breakdown their food, and a true stomach that passes into the intestine.
  • They are one of the only birds that expel urine and feces separately.

2. Emu

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Dromaius novaehollandiae
Where it’s found: Australia, Philippines, New Guinea 

In height, emus are second only to the ostrich. They can reach heights of around 6 ft 3 inches. Their necks are pale blue,  with the occasional whispy patch of black feathers. Their bodies have shaggy looking brown feathers with black tips. They have 3 toes on each foot. Emus are omnivorous, but favor plants, enjoying a variety of grasses and flowers.

Facts about Emus

  • Emus have calf muscles, they are the only species of birds that have these muscles
  • Male emus incubate the eggs. For two months he will go without food and water until the eggs hatch.
  • The emu uses its rudimentary wings to cool itself down. When running they also use them to “steer”.

3. Penguins

Scientific name: Spheniscidae 
Where it’s found: The Southern hemisphere

There are 17 species of penguins. They vary greatly in size, but all share common features. They walk fairly upright on two legs, with wings that resemble flippers held close to the body. They have dark backs with white fronts, which helps camouflage them in the water when they dive for fish and krill. Penguins have species-specific markings or feathers which along with their size helps to distinguish them.

Facts about penguins

  • The Galapagos penguin is the only species that will travel north of the equator.
  • Male Emperor penguins incubate a single egg and care for the hatchling until the mother returns from the sea two months later. After this, they take turns caring for the hatchling until it is old enough to feed itself.
  • The suborbital gland being a penguin’s eye filters out seawater which they excrete through their beaks.

4. Cassowaries

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Casuarius

Where it’s found: New Guinea, Australia, Maluka Islands

There are 3 species of cassowaries and they vary slightly in appearance. They all have wedge-shaped bodies, dark feathers, and a bright blue head, which is topped by a hard casque.  The size of the casque varies by species and is an identifier. Other variations are the wattle which is red on the Southern cassowary, and yellow on the Northern cassowary. All cassowaries have 3 toes which they use as weapons. Cassowaries are fruit eaters, and their droppings help reseed the rainforests the call home.

Facts about Cassowaries

  • Cassowaries are able to jump 7 feet off the ground to use their claws on an attacker.
  • The vestigial wings on cassowaries are tipped with a single claw. This claw serves no known purpose.
  • Cassowaries can reach speeds of up to 30 mph when running, and they will charge anything they perceive to be a threat.

5. Kiwis

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Apteryx

Where it’s found: New Zealand

These flightless birds are bout the size of a chicken. Their vestigial wings are hidden under feathers, and they do not have a tail. They have a long bill, which is sensitive to touch, and 3 toes on each foot. They have poor eyesight, but their other senses make up for this. Their color will vary based on the species. Kiwis are primarily insectivores but will eat some plants and seeds.

Facts about Kiwis

  • Kiwis form bonded pairs and mate for life. Some pairs have been mated for as long as 20 years.
  • The kiwi has a very unique beak. Unlike other birds, its nostrils are located at the end of its beak.
  • Possibly evolving as a way to compensate for its poor eyesight, the Kiwi has whiskers that sprout from its face. These function similarly to cat whiskers and help them feel their way in the dark.

6. Rhea

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Rheiformes

Where it’s found: South America

Rheas are very similar in appearance to ostriches, though they are substantially smaller, with light brown plumage. They have fairly large wings, which they spread while running to help them gain speed.

Facts about Rheas

  • Rheas are the largest birds in South America, standing about 5 ft tall.
  • Rheas can reach a running speed of up to 40 miles per hour.
  • During the winter Rheas flock together, and will often join with herds of deer.

7. Flightless Cormorant

image: Dan | Flickr | CC 2.0

Scientific name: Phalacrocorax harrisi

Where it’s found: The Galapagos Islands

The flightless cormorant resembles a stubby winged duck. It has dark brown or black feathers, blue eyes, and a hook at the end of its beak. They have dense hair-like feathers that produce very little oil. Unlike flightless birds in the Ratite family, which includes ostriches and emus, the flightless cormorant has the keel bone that is present in flying birds. This bone is greatly reduced in size, about 1/3 of the size it would be in a flying bird the size of the flightless cormorant. These birds dive for fish and eels like their flying cousins and spend a great deal of time drying out since their feathers are not waterproof.

Facts about Flightless Cormorants

  • The Flightless Cormorant is the largest of all the cormorant species, weighing in at 11 pounds.
  • The Flightless Cormorant has no natural predators. It has become threatened due to human interference, and the introduction of pigs and dogs into its habitat. Some scientists believe it may have lost the ability to fly due to the scarcity of predators.
  • The Flightless cormorant is unique to the Galapagos Islands.

8. Kakapo

image: Department of Conservation | Flickr | CC 2.0

Scientific name: Strigops habroptilus

Where it’s found: New Zealand

The Kakapo is a large ground-dwelling parrot. It has mossy green feathers and the unique ability to pack on body fat. It is an adept climber and is able to live off of very little food. It subsists on a diet made up of mostly fruit, leaves, and seeds

Facts about Kakapos

  • The Kakapo is the only flightless parrot in existence. Since they don’t fly, their feathers are very soft helping blend into the background.
  • For a wild bird, they are incredibly friendly. Even birds not kept in captivity will approach and climb on humans.
  • Like most parrots, they have incredibly long lifespans. They may even be the longest living parrot, with lifespans of over 90 years old.

9. Fuegian Steamer Duck

image: Tambako The Jaguar | Flickr | CC 2.0

Scientific name: Tachyeres pteneres

Where it’s found: South America

This large duck is about the size of a goose, with the heaviest males weighing in at around 15lbs. Males have bluish-grey heads and necks, and white eye-rings,  while females are darker, with a reddish patch on the throat. These ducks live off of mollusks and crustaceans. The adults have no natural predators.

Facts about Fuegian Steamer Ducks

  • The Fuegian steamer duck has a reputation for being extremely aggressive. They will often attack other animals unprovoked.
  • Steamer ducks get their name from the way they move across the water. The motion of their legs combined with their thrashing wings resembles a steamer boat.

10. Titicaca Grebe

Scientific name: Rollandia microptera

Where it’s found: Peru, Bolivia

This midsized grebe, sports ornamental plumes on its head. It has a yellow lower bill and a white throat patch. Its diet consists mostly of fish, and it is an expert diver.

Facts about Titicaca Grebes

  • They have a highly specialized diet. 95% of their food consists of Orestias, a type of killifish.
  • They will only eat prey smaller than 15cm.
  • They can not fly, but they do use their wings to help them run across the water.

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