12 Surprising Flightless Birds

flightless cormorant on beach with wings out

robert cicchetti / Shutterstock

Over the course of time, there have been many birds that decided to give up flight and stick to the ground. Unfortunately, the result for many of these species was being wiped out, as they became easy pickings for humans and the animals that traveled with them, such as dogs, cats, and rats. Those that survived did so because they were too big (e.g. the ostrich) or too remote (e.g. the penguin) to be easy prey to new predators.

Yet, there are still a few flightless bird species that are hanging in there. Their ground-dwelling lives are possible because they live in areas still free of predators or, in the case of some, have had human support.

Here are 12 of the most unusual flightless birds found around the world.

1
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Kakapo

green kakapo perches on mossy tree branch

Jack Osborne / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The kakapo is a parrot species from New Zealand that stands out in several ways. First, it is the world's only flightless parrot. It is also nocturnal, which is a unique trait among parrot species. It is the heaviest parrot species in the world, which is appropriate considering it does not have to stay light for taking flight.

But what really makes this bird stand out is its amazing conservation story. Gathered by the thousands for museums and collections around the world and facing new predators including the stoats, cats, and rats introduced by humans, this species was nearly wiped off the planet. Thankfully, a handful of dedicated people have worked tirelessly over the last century to create a breeding program to save the remaining parrots and boost their numbers.

In 2019, there were just 213 kakapos alive on the planet, but with that number steadily increasing, there is hope that this unique and charismatic species can survive.

2
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Campbell Teal

four campbell teal birds on log above murky water

Stomac / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Campbell teal is one of two species of flightless teal. These little dabbling ducks are nocturnal, coming out at night to feed on insects and amphipods. They were once found on Campbell Island, their namesake, but were driven to extinction there after Norway rats found their way to the land. After a population was discovered on another island, the species was listed as critically endangered and conservationists worked for decades to create a successful captive breeding program.

In 2003, a massive effort was made to clear Campbell Island of rats and other pests, and in 2004, 50 Campbell teals were released there, marking the return of the species after an absence of nearly 100 years. Since then, the Campbell teal has settled in. Though it remains listed as endangered, the return to its home island gives great hope for the species.

3
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Titicaca Grebe

cute brown and white titicaca grebe swims in water

Tsirtalis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Grebes are adorable birds, but this particular species takes the prize. The Titicaca flightless grebe (also known as the short-winged grebe) is found in Peru and Bolivia. It lives primarily on its namesake, Lake Titicaca, but can also be found in several surrounding lakes. Though it cannot fly, the Titicaca grebe can swim expertly. It catches mostly small pupfish as prey.

Unlike many other flightless bird species that have been threatened by introduced predators, the Titicaca grebe is threatened because of the use of gill nets by fishermen. It is now listed as endangered as a result. Although some areas are protected, there is no concerted conservation effort underway for this species.

4
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Kiwi

brown feathered kiwi bird pokes around in tall green grass

Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

The kiwi is a famously flightless bird. It always encourages a double-take because of its small round body, feathers that look like fur, and unassuming whiskered face. So well-loved is the kiwi that it is the national symbol of New Zealand.

There are five species of kiwi, all of which are native to New Zealand. Two of the species are vulnerable, one is endangered, and one is critically endangered. Though large swaths of their forest habitat are now protected, they still face the danger of predation by introduced carnivores, such as cats.

Kiwis have been flightless for so long that their vestigial wings are barely visible among their fluffy feathers. They also lay the largest eggs relative to body size of any bird in the world. Adult kiwis are monogamous and mate for life, spending as many as 20 years as a faithful couple.

These shy birds are nocturnal and use their keen sense of smell to locate prey in the night. Unlike any other bird species, their nostrils are located at the end of their bills, making it easier for them to sniff out the worms, grubs, and seeds on which they feed.

5
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Guam Rail

tan and black guam rail stands on beige rocks

Josh More / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Guam rail was once abundant on the island of Guam, but in the 1960s, a population of accidentally introduced brown tree snakes took hold of the island. These birds nest on the ground which, combined with their inability to escape via flight, meant that they didn't stand a chance against the new predators. By the 1980s, they were extinct in the wild.

The species can still be seen today, though, thanks to zoologist Bob Beck who worked for more than 20 years on capturing the last of the wild Guam rails, creating captive breeding programs in zoos, and releasing Guam rails on nearby islands.

In November 2010, 16 Guam rails were reintroduced to Cocos Island, and through careful monitoring, the reintroduction seems to have been successful. With luck and continued conservation work, the population of Guam rails can perhaps take hold and no longer be considered extinct in the wild.

6
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Cassowary

side view cassowary with blue neck opens mouth wide

Wokephoto17 / Getty Images

This animal may look like a rendering of a prehistoric dinosaur evolving into a bird, but it's actually a modern species — the cassowary.

There are three species of cassowary — the southern cassowary, the northern cassowary, and the dwarf cassowary — all of which are native to New Guinea and Australia.

The cassowary is the second heaviest bird in the world (behind only the ostrich). It has claws on its toes that can grow to four inches long, and it can run as fast as 31 miles per hour. Plus, because the bird is flightless, it has extra strong, well-developed legs, which makes for powerful kicks.

All of this means that although the cassowary cannot fly, it is still tough enough to fight off predators. That said, only those cassowaries habituated to humans are actually prone to attack.

7
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Weka

tan weka facing sideways walks through grass

erozen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Rails are usually known for being shy, but not this particular species. According to the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, the weka "has a famously feisty and curious personality."

Like other secretive rail species, the weka is more often heard than seen. They are known for thieving food and other small objects and running off to a hiding place to explore them, much like raccoons. So if something small goes missing from your campsite or home, it may very well be this flightless bird that snatched it.

The weka is listed as vulnerable due to a variety of threats coming from different angles; these include drought, car strikes along roads, and pest control operations that use traps and bait on the ground.

8
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Flightless Cormorant

gray flightless cormorant spreads wings near water

Charles Sharp / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Galapagos Islands are home to many species that evolved with peculiar traits, including a wide array of unique bird species. One of these is the world's only cormorant that cannot fly, aptly named the flightless cormorant.

The stubby little wings of the flightless cormorant are a testament to how long ago it gave up the pleasure of flight. In fact, the wings are about one-third of the size they would need to be for flight to even be possible. Instead of soaring over the waves, the flightless cormorant uses its powerful legs to swim up to 300 feet from the shore, searching for fish and other marine prey.

Research has been conducted to explain how the cormorant lost its ability to fly. In 2017, Leonid Kruglyak from the University of California, Los Angeles found that this flightless bird has a long list of mutated genes, including the genes that can distort limb growth. Researchers believe it's this particular combination of mutated genes that created shorter wings and smaller breastbones, stripping the bird of its ability to fly.

The flightless cormorant is one of the rarest birds in the world, partly because it is found only on two islands in the Galapagos. However, it is also susceptible to harm by storms and has been introduced to predators, so the species is listed as vulnerable. Conservation efforts are important to its continued survival.

9
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Tasmanian Nativehen

blue and brown tasmanian nativehen walks through dirt

Edoddridge / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This appropriately named chicken-like bird is endemic to Tasmania. The Tasmanian nativehen is an unusual species of flightless bird; unlike so many species that have gone extinct or declined with the arrival of humans, it has actually thrived alongside its new also-flightless counterparts.

The Tasmanian nativehen benefits from agricultural practices that provide a source of easy food. The clearing of new grasslands opens up the areas of short grass that they love to graze on.

This bird makes up for its lack of flight with its speedy run. They have been clocked at running up to 31 miles per hour.

The Tasmanian nativehen lives in small flocks of a few individuals and sticks to clear territories of about five acres. Because these birds keep their own territories, fights can break out at borders when intruders press in on someone else's turf.

10
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Takahē

bright blue and orange takahe walks on grass in sunlight

Harald Selke / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Somewhat of a cross between the colors of the cassowary and the body of the native hen is the takahē, a species found in New Zealand. This bird was thought to be extinct for almost 50 years, but it was rediscovered after an extensive search in 1948. There are still individuals in its home range, and more have been relocated to nearby predator-free islands. Still, it is considered critically endangered with fewer than 400 individuals.

The takahē is a fairly large bird for a rail, about the size of a small turkey.

Pairs are monogamous, mating for life. Interestingly, chicks will often stay with their parents for one to two years, helping to raise the newest chick. Meanwhile, those chicks born in captive breeding programs are reared with the help of a puppet that looks like an adult takahē, which the human handler uses to feed the chick and thus minimize any habituation to humans.

11
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Fuegian Steamer Duck

two gray fuegian steamer ducks with orange beaks

Olaf Oliviero Riemer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

There are four species of steamer duck, three of which are flightless. One of them, the Fuegian steamer duck, can be found in South America along the rocky shores from southern Chile to Tierra del Fuego. The steamer duck species get their name from the way they swim—when they really get to moving quickly, they flap their wings while paddling with their feet and end up looking a bit like a paddle steamer. Meanwhile, the genus name for the species, Tachyeres, means "having fast oars" or "fast rower."

The Fuegian is the largest of the steamer ducks and the heaviest of the species by far—about the same mass as large species of goose. Their large size is to their benefit, as it helps keep predators away from nests with eggs or chicks.

Adult Fuegian steamer ducks have few — if any — natural predators, thanks to the combination of their size and aggressive temperament. Their wings may be too short for flight, but they are definitely used for fighting.

12
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Inaccessible Island Rail

black inaccessible island rail looks out from rock

Brian Gratwicke / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

If you want to survive as a flightless bird in this world, it helps to be inaccessible. The Inaccessible Island rail is just that. It lives on an island (literally called Inaccessible Island) that is surrounded by huge cliffs, making getting to the island — let alone reaching the interior — difficult for visitors.

The Inaccessible Island rail is the smallest flightless bird in the world, and it is found only on its namesake, predator-free island in the Tristan Archipelago. On their private island paradise, the birds enjoy roaming the grasslands and open fern-brush looking for insects, worms, and seeds to feast upon.

Though living in such a remote location helps these birds stay safe, such a minimal range means the species is listed as vulnerable. Should, one day, predators or a species that would compete for food be introduced to the island, the little rail would be in grave danger. This is why conservation efforts, including the designation of the island as a nature reserve, exist, helping to keep the species as protected as possible.