12 Surprising Flightless Birds

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Have wings, won't fly

Photo: robert cicchetti/Shutterstock

Over the course of time, there have been many birds who decided that flight wasn't really for them and stuck to the ground, or in the case of penguins, the water. Many of these species, however, were quickly wiped out as humans started exploring the planet, since they make easy pickings for humans and the animals that traveled with them, such as dogs, cats and rats.

Those that survived are mainly too big (like the ostrich) or too remote (such as the ocean-faring penguin) to be easy prey to new predators. And yet, there still happens to be a few more amazing flightless bird species that are hanging in there. Their ground-dwelling lives are made possible by living in areas still free of predators, or in the case of some, have had humans switch from enemy to friend just in the nick of time.

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

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Photo: Mnolf/Wikipedia

The kakapo is a parrot species from New Zealand that stands out in several ways. First and foremost, 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 makes sense considering it doesn't have to stay light to be able to take 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 stoats, cats and rats introduced as humans arrived to the islands it calls home, this species was nearly wiped off the planet. But 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.

Today there are only around 126 individual birds alive on the planet, but with them there is still hope that this unique and charismatic species can survive.

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Campbell teal

Photo: Stomac/Wikipedia

There are two species of flightless teal, including the Auckland teal and this species, the Campbell teal. These little dabbling ducks are nocturnal, and come out at night to feed on insects and amphipods. They were once found on Campbell Island, their namesake, but were driven to extinction after Norway rats found their way to the island. 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 and though it remains listed as endangered, its return to its home island gives great hope for the species.

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Titicaca grebe

Photo: Tsirtalis/Wikipedia

Grebes are pretty adorable, but this species may take the cake for cuteness. The Titicaca flightless grebe or short-winged grebe is found in Peru and Bolivia, living primarily on (you guessed it) Lake Titicaca, but also in several surrounding lakes. Though it can't fly, it can swim like a champ and catches mainly small pupfish as prey.

Unlike so many other flightless birds that have been threatened by introduced predators, the Titicaca grebe is threatened because of the use of gill nets by fishermen, which drown the birds by the thousands. It is now listed as endangered. And although some areas are protected, there is no concerted conservation effort underway for this species.

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Photo: Glen Fergus/Wikipedia

The kiwi is a famously flightless bird and always makes us do a double-take when we look at its round little body, its feathers that look almost like fur, and its 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. While large swaths of their forest habitat are now protected, they still face the danger of predation by introduced carnivores including cats.

Kiwis have been flightless for so long that their vestigial wings are barely visible among their fluffy feathers. Kiwis lay the largest egg relative to body size of any bird in the world. The shy birds are nocturnal and use their sense of smell to locate prey. 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. Adult kiwis mate for life and are monogamous, spending as many as 20 years as a faithful couple.

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Guam rail

Photo: Greg Hume/Wikipedia

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 on the island and the numbers of Guam rail dropped. These birds nest on the ground and that, 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 be successful. With luck and a lot of continued conservation work, the population of Guam rails can take hold and perhaps one day the species will no longer be considered extinct in the wild.

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Photo: Worakit Sirijinda/Shutterstock

For a moment you may think you're looking at a rendering of a prehistoric dinosaur in the midst of evolving into a bird. But it is actually a modern species — the noble (and kind of scary) 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 one shown here is the southern cassowary, also known as the double wattled cassowary for its two wattles hanging from its neck.

Apparently "death by cassowary" is one of the worst ways to leave this world. Because the bird is flightless, it has extra strong, well-developed legs, and that means some serious kicking power. These birds are the second heaviest bird behind the ostrich, they have claws on their toes that can grow to 5 inches long, and they can run as fast as 31 miles per hour. These stats basically tell you that the inability to fly does not make this bird any less tough! Introduced predators? Pshhhhh! Only those cassowaries habituated to humans are actually dangerous but still, don't mess.

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Photo: Jörg Hempel/Wikipedia

Rails are usually known for being shy but not this species. "The weka is a large, brown flightless bird that has a famously feisty and curious personality," says the Department of Conservation in New Zealand. Like other secretive rail species, the weka is more often heard than seen, but like raccoons, they are known for thieving food and other small objects and running off to a hiding place to explore them. So if something small goes missing from your campsite or even your house, it may very well be this flightless bird that snatched it.

The species is listed as vulnerable, with a variety of threats coming from different angles, including drought, car strikes along roads, and pest control operations that use bait on the ground or traps. Unfortunately, that famous curiosity for new objects doesn't do it any favors when traps for other pests are set.

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Flightless cormorant

Photo: putneymark/Wikipedia

The Galapagos Islands are home to many species that evolved with peculiar traits, including a wide array of unique bird species such as the world's only cormorant that cannot fly. The stubby little wings of this species are a testament to how long ago it gave up the pleasure of flight. In fact, the wings are about one-third 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 to swim for fish and other marine prey within about 300 feet of the shore.

Recent research attempts to explain how the cormorant lost its ability to fly. Leonid Kruglyak from the University of California, Los Angeles, found this flightless bird had 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, thus the bird could no longer fly.

The flightless cormorant is one of the rarest birds in the world. Because it is found only on two islands in the Galapagos, and it is vulnerable to storms, introduced predators and other impacts, the species is listed as vulnerable. Conservation efforts are important to its continued survival.

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Tasmanian nativehen

Photo: Edoddridge/Wikipedia

This chicken-like bird is endemic to (you probably guessed it) Tasmania. This is a really unusual species of flightless bird because unlike so many other species that have gone extinct or declined with the arrival of humans, the Tasmanian nativehen has actually thrived alongside its new also-flightless counterparts. What they love is the agricultural practices that provide easy food for grazing. While it has been blamed for crop damage, researchers found that the blame was misplaced. It was actually rabbits causing the trouble. The nativehens are grazers that prefer areas of short grass, so they benefit from introduced rabbits and the agricultural practices of clearing new grasslands.

As for being flightless, it's really not an issue for this little bird which can run like lightning. They have been clocked at up to 30 miles per hour.

This species lives in small flocks of a few individuals, and sticks to clear territories of about 5 acres. Because they keep their own territories, fights break out at the borders when intruders press in on someone else's turf.

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Photo: Jeffrey B. Banke/Shutterstock

Looking something like a cross between the colors of the cassowary and the body of the nativehen, the takahē is a species found in New Zealand. This species was thought to be extinct for quite a while, but then one of those miraculous moments in science happened as it was rediscovered in 1948 after an extensive search. There are still a few individuals in its home range, and more individuals have been relocated to nearby predator-free islands. Still, it is considered critically endangered with fewer than 300 individuals.

It's a fairly large bird for a rail, growing to about 25 inches long and weighing between 5-6 pounds. Pairs are monogamous, mating for life which can be 12 years or more. And interestingly, the chicks will often stay with their parents for 18 months or more, helping to raise the newest chick. Meanwhile, those chicks born in captive breeding programs are reared with the help of a puppet that looks (sort of) like an adult takahē, which the human handler uses to feed the chick and thus minimize any habituation to humans.

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Fuegian steamer duck

Photo: Olaf Oliviero Riemer/Wikipedia

There are four species of steamer duck, three of which are flightless. 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 moving fast, they flap their wings while also 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."

This particular species is the largest of the steamer ducks, measuring 26–33 inches long and weighing anywhere from 7.7–15.4 pounds. This makes it the heaviest of the ducks by far, and basically the same mass as large species of goose. But their size and aggression is to their benefit, as it helps keep predators away from nests with eggs or chicks, and adults have few if any natural predators. Their wings may be way too short for flight, but they are definitely used for fights!

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Inaccessible Island rail

Photo: Brian Gratwicke/Wikipedia

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

This is the smallest flightless bird in the world, and it is found only on Inaccessible Island in the Tristan Archipelago, which has, thankfully, remained free of predators. On their little island paradise, the birds enjoy roaming the grasslands and open fern-brush looking for insects, worms and seeds to feast upon.

Though such a remote location helps significantly to stay safe, such a minimal range still means the species is listed as vulnerable. Should one day rats or other predators, or species that compete for food be introduced to the island, the fate of this little rail may change. This is why conservation efforts, including designation of the island as a nature reserve, help keep the species as protected as possible.