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Flightless birds

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Flightless birds

Struthioniformes | Ratites

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Flightless birds evolved from flying ancestors; there are about forty species in existence today. The best-known flightless birds are the ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea and penguins. Most flightless birds evolved in the absence of predators, on islands, and lost the power of flight because they had few enemies. A notable exception, the ostrich, which lives in the African savannas, has claws on its feet to use as a weapon against predators.

Two key differences between flying and flightless birds are the smaller wing bones of flightless birds and the absent (or greatly reduced) keel on their breastbone. The keel anchors muscles needed for wing movement[1]. Flightless birds also have more feathers than flying birds.

New Zealand has more species of flightless birds (including the kiwis, several species of penguins, and the takahe) than any other country. One reason is that until the arrival of humans roughly 1000 years ago, there were no land mammals in New Zealand other than three species of bat; the main predators of flightless birds were larger birds[2].

Some flightless variety of island birds are closely related to flying varities, impling flight is a signifcant biological cost.

With the introduction of mammals (among them humans) to the habitats of flightless birds, many have become extinct, including the Great Auk, the Dodo, and the Moas.

The smallest flightless bird is the Inaccessible Island Rail (length 12.5 cm, weight 34.7 g). The largest (both heaviest and tallest) flightless bird, which is also the largest living bird, is the Ostrich (2.7 m, 156 kg)[3].

Flightless birds are the easiest to take care of in captivity because they do not have to be caged. Ostriches were once farmed for their decorative feathers. Today they are raised for meat and for their skins, which are used to make leather.


List of recent flightless birds



  • Junin Flightless Grebe
    Titicaca Flightless Grebe

Pelican-like birds

  • Flightless Cormorant
    Spectacled Cormorant (extinct)

Petrel-like birds

Duck-like birds

  • Moa-nalo (extinct)
    Magellanic Flightless Steamer Duck
    Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck
    White-headed Flightless Steamer Duck
    Auckland Island Teal

Rails and relatives

  • Red Rail (extinct)
    Rodrigues Rail (extinct)
    Woodford's Rail (probably flightless)
    Bar-winged Rail (extinct, probably flightless)
    New Caledonian Rail
    Lord Howe Woodhen
    Calayan Rail
    New Britain Rail
    Guam Rail
    Roviana Rail ("flightless, or nearly so" [Taylor (1998])
    Tahiti Rail (extinct)
    Dieffenbach's Rail (extinct)
    Chatham Rail (extinct)
    Wake Island Rail (extinct)
    Snoring Rail
    Inaccessible Island Rail
    Laysan Rail (extinct)
    Hawaiian Rail (extinct)
    Kosrae Island Crake (extinct)
    Henderson Island Crake
    Invisible Rail
    New Guinea Flightless Rail
    Lord Howe Swamphen (extinct, probably flightless)
    North Island Takahe (extinct)
    Samoan Wood Rail
    Makira Wood Rail
    Tristan Moorhen (extinct)
    Gough Island Moorhen
    Adzebills (extinct)

Gulls and relatives

  • Great Auk (extinct)


  • Kakapo

Doves and relatives

  • Dodo (extinct)
    Rodrigues Solitaire (extinct)


  • Stephens Island Wren (extinct)

See also


Taylor, Barry (1998). Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07758-0.

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