The concept of flight is intimately connected to birds, but some birds, called flightless birds, don't fly. Instead, some birds develop other ways to get around and no longer need their wings. These birds often develop better plumage camouflage, more muscular legs for running, specialized feet for swimming, or other adaptations that help them survive on the ground in their native habitat.
What Are Flightless Birds?
Flightless birds are birds that have lost their ability or the need to fly through evolution.
Flightless birds are found throughout the world. The largest concentration of flightless birds is in New Zealand. Until humans arrived roughly 1,000 years ago in New Zealand, there were no large land predators in the region. Due to a lack of predators and the region's diverse habitat and rich ecosystem, the birds from that isolated area no longer needed flight to survive.
However, time seems to be catching up to some flightless birds. More than 50 percent of flightless bird species are considered threatened or vulnerable, 20 percent are endangered, and many have gone extinct. More than 80 percent of flightless birds have a grave and uncertain future. Conservation measures and human help is necessary to protect the remaining numbers of these unique species and keep these birds thriving in the wild.
Read on to find out the names of flightless birds and other information about the birds from down under and in other parts of the world.
Traits of Flightless Birds
Flightless birds have many commonalities, including body physiology, environment, and courtship customs. Here are some common flightless bird traits:
- Similar body type: Reduced forelimbs (wings) and loss of the keel in their breastbone that anchors flight muscles
- Gigantic bird species (ratite group, such as ostriches, emus, rheas)
- Many originated from isolated or island regions, where predators were few
- They do not migrate
- Many are monogamous; males will sit on eggs while females hunt for food
List of Flightless Birds
There are approximately 60 flightless bird species, though the exact count can differ depending on subspecies and split classifications. While many people can name a few species, the different types of flightless birds are often a surprise.
* Listed as threatened or vulnerable due to declining populations and increasing survival threats
** Listed as endangered and in critical danger of extinction if conservation is not implemented
Threatened and endangered designations as indicated by BirdLife International.
- Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
- *Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes)
- Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
- Dwarf Cassowary (Casuarius bennetti)
- Northern Cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus)
- Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
- *Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii)
- *Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii)
- *Northern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
- *Okarito Kiwi (Apteryx rowi)
- *Southern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx australis)
- *Greater Rhea (Rhea americana)
- Lesser Rhea (Rhea pennata)
- *Auckland Teal (Anas aucklandica)
- **Campbell Teal (Anas nesiotis)
- Falkland Steamerduck (Tachyeres brachypterus)
- Magellanic Steamerduck (Tachyeres pteneres)
- *White-headed Steamerduck (Tachyeres leucocephalus)
- **Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii)
- **Titicaca Grebe (Rollandia microptera)
- *Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)
All penguins are flightless.
- *Calayan Rail (Gallirallus calayanensis)
- *Drummer Rail (Habroptila wallacii)
- Giant Coot (Fulica gigantea) (adults only; immature birds can fly)
- *Gough Moorhen (Gallinula comeri)
- *Guadalcanal Rail (Hypotaenidia woodfordi)
- **Guam Rail (Gallirallus owstoni)
- *Henderson Island Crake (Zapornia atra)
- *Inaccessible Island Rail (Atlantisia rogersi)
- **Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris)
- **Makira Moorhen (Gallinula silvestris)
- *New Britain Rail (Gallirallus insignis)
- **New Caledonian Rail (Gallirallus lafresnayanus)
- *New Guinea Flightless Rail (Megacrex inepta)
- **Okinawa Rail (Gallirallus okinawae)
- *Roviana Rail (Gallirallus rovianae)
- **Samoan Moorhen (Gallinula pacifica)
- *Snoring Rail (Aramidopsis plateni)
- **South Island Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri)
- Tasmanian Native-hen (Gallinula mortierii)
- *Weka (Gallirallus australis)
- **Kakapo (Strigops habroptila)
Why Be Flightless?
Birds have evolved with their surroundings and needs. Birds that fly primarily use the skill to find food, migrate seasonally, and escape predators. Birds that no longer fly usually have very few natural predators and their food sources have changed to fruits or fish. They also no longer need to migrate and have found different ways to protect themselves.
Flightless birds still have wings, but their wings are typically smaller or less fully developed than birds that fly. Feather shapes may be different, look fluffy like fur, they are tiny and compact and used for insulation while swimming. Birds that don't fly usually have fewer wing bones, or the bones may be fused, making the wings much less mobile than is needed for flying. Most flightless birds are missing the keel of the breastbone, the part of the bone that attaches to flight muscles.
Dangers of Being Flightless
Flightless birds still may face many dangerous threats. Invasive predators such as cats and rats can stalk flightless birds more effectively or invade their nests. Birds that don't fly are more susceptible to poaching, traps, and other man-made threats such as litter, pollution, or fishing lines. Because they cannot fly to a new range, habitat loss is also a critical threat to non-flying birds.
A Note About Domestic Birds
Many domestic birds such as turkeys, ducks, and chickens have been bred to be flightless to make raising them for agricultural purposes easier. Alternatively, they may have their wings clipped as a control measure to keep them from flying while in captivity, just like pet birds may have their wings clipped. Their wild ancestors, the wild turkey, mallard, and red junglefowl are all accomplished fliers. Because domestic bird breeds are not counted among the roughly 10,000 species in the world, and because their lack of flying ability is through artificial means, these birds are not considered genuinely flightless.
The Origin of the World's Smallest Flightless Bird. National Library of Medicine.