Flightless Birds (Species, Characteristics & Fun Facts)

Types of flightless birds

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When we think of birds, we usually think of animals that can fly. But there are around 60 species of flightless birds. These birds evolved to lose the ability to fly and this may have happened for several reasons.

How Did Some Birds Evolve to become Flightless?

How did some birds evolve to become flightless?
Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus)

Two of the reasons that birds can fly are to find food and to escape predators. But what if those things were not a problem? Well, for some island birds, they aren’t, so the need to fly simply isn’t there.

For example, in New Zealand, you’ll find the most species of flightless birds in the world and that’s largely because this island nation provided everything the birds needed.

Birds within the ratites group can be traced back to times when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But once those dinos went extinct, the birds were no longer prey and had no need to escape. Scientists believe that they evolved to lose their flight ability. However, one ratite species, the tinamous, is able to fly so scientists are discussing the possibility that it’s not a family-wide evolutionary trait but comes down to DNA.

In terms of food, flightless birds have diets that are easily accessible from the ground. For example, a lot of aquatic species will eat fish, and of course, there’s no need to fly for that.

But it’s not just flight (or the lack thereof) that island birds seem to have adapted. It’s been demonstrated that some island species develop smaller wings, have weaker immune systems due to fewer parasites, and even adapt their song, all as ways of coping with their island environments.

Main Characteristics of Flightless Birds

Main characteristics of flightless birds
Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua)

With more than 60 species of flightless birds currently known, it’s no wonder that many of them share similar characteristics.

For starters, most flightless bird species are larger than those that can fly and are much heavier, which is thought to be an evolutionary trait. Moreover, while flying birds have hollow bones, their flightless cousins have denser bones which help them when navigating the ground.

You’ll also notice that a flightless bird’s legs are much more muscular, longer and stronger, which means they are more effectively able to run since they can’t fly to escape a threat.

The feet of flightless birds tend to be different to their flying counterparts. Flying birds have opposable feet so that they can grab onto branches, but this isn’t something we see in terrestrial species. Instead, their feet may be adapted for swimming and wading. A good example of this is the penguin which has webbed feet for in the water but that are also designed for walking long distances.

In terms of the wing and body structure, flightless birds do not have a keel which is an anchoring bone seen in flying birds, and helps with wing movement. This bone is located in the breast of flying birds and is either absent or markedly smaller in terrestrial species. Moreover, the wings are different as most flightless birds have fewer wing bones and typically smaller wings.

Flying birds have what is called a preen gland that produces oil, allowing them to preen their feathers. But this isn’t needed in flightless birds and so some species lack a preen gland.

Interestingly, the number of flightless bird species has dwindled and this is largely down to humans. Some of these species were hunted to extinction by humans that colonized new areas whereas others died out because their habitats were taken over by human settlers. On top of this, humans brought with them several non-native species that preyed on the birds.

And the concerns for the survival of flightless birds are far from over. It’s thought that as many as half of all flightless species are either vulnerable or endangered, which is certainly food for thought.

Why Do Flightless Birds have Wings?

Why do flightless birds have wings?
Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

If flightless birds don’t need to take to the sky, then it’s natural to wonder why they’d even have wings at all. Well, it’s worth keeping in mind that these species evolved from flying birds, and we are seeing their wings getting smaller.

However, wings aren’t only used for flight. Take the ostrich, for example, who will use his large wings to help brake when he’s running at high speeds. The bird will also use his wings to help him move when running, such as in a zigzag pattern. The penguin will use its wings for propulsion underwater when hunting for fish.

It has also been observed in some species, like the ostrich, that the wings will be used in mating rituals as well as for balance.

How Did Flightless Birds Spread Across the World?

How did flightless birds spread across the world?
Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)

There seem to be higher concentrations of flightless birds in certain areas of the world. Most notable islands like New Zealand, Madagascar, and some of the South Pacific islands. However, there are examples all over the world, so it begs the question of how they spread out.

One suggestion is that, as a result of continental drift, several species were spread out to different areas. The elephant bird is thought to be the common ancestor to two of the most famous flightless birds out there; the emu and the ostrich. Yet, while they’re related, one lives in Africa and the other in Australia. But way back when, these pieces of land would have been connected.

That said, there is some dispute to this theory since many of the supposed descendants of the elephant bird have more in common with other species. For this reason, it’s thought that these species came from flying ancestors and only lost their ability to fly once they had settled in their modern habitat.

For example, one study from the Museum of New Zealand shows an undeniable DNA connection between the elephant bird and the kiwi, something that was previously unknown.

Ratites Flightless Birds

Ratites, coming from the Latin word meaning rafts, are flightless birds who lack a keel and therefore have smooth breastbones. These prehistoric birds are all unable to fly, and the family consists of some of the most well-known species. However, many, like the moa, have become extinct.

Kiwis (Apteryx spp.)

There are five species of kiwi, including the northern brown kiwi, the Okarito kiwi, the great spotted kiwi, the little spotted kiwi, and the southern brown kiwi. However, all of these birds are endemic to New Zealand, where it is the national bird.

Kiwis have fluffy, round bodies and a long bill with whiskers on their cheeks. They’re certainly a unique-looking bird, but all of the species are currently under some sort of threat of extinction which is incredibly worrying.

The kiwi lays very large eggs, in fact, it lays the largest eggs in comparison to body size, and that body also hides the very small wings of these birds. It’s thought that these birds lost the ability to fly owing to the low number of predators on the islands. However, it’s also suggested that they’re also evolving to lose their sight since they are nocturnal hunters that primarily use other senses, preying on things like grubs, worms, and also eating berries.

Cassowary (Casuarius spp.)

The cassowary is a large flightless species found in Guinea and Australia exclusively. There are three cassowary species, including the southern, northern, and dwarf cassowaries. They’re the heaviest birds in the world, aside from the ostrich, and have a long claw on each of their feet.

You wouldn’t want to mess with one because they’ve even been known to cause fatal injuries to humans.

But while they might be fighters, the cassowary is undoubtedly a beautiful bird with rich inky blue or black plumage and a large casque on the head which may be used to move vegetation when moving through their rainforest habitat.

The cassowary may not be able to fly owing to its weight and size (some can grow up to 6 feet (1.8 meters)), but it does have very powerful legs that make it an excellent runner.

Ostriches (Struthio spp.)

Ostriches are the largest living bird species on the planet and can grow as tall as 9 feet (2.7 meters)! One of the adaptations of these incredible birds are their long legs which are so powerful and used to help the bird run long distances at speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kmh)!

These are also the only birds in the world to have just two toes. Their inner toenails are used in defense, and the two-toed design means the ostrich can run much more effectively and a lot faster.

The ostrich is native to the continent of Africa, where you’ll find two species, including the common ostrich and the Somali ostrich. The latter prefers a bushier habitat, while the common ostrich can be found roaming the savannah.

It’s thought that these giant birds (who also lay the biggest eggs in the world) lost the ability to fly around 65 million years ago, around the same time the dinosaurs became extinct.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

The emu is the second largest bird behind the ostrich and while they share many similarities, these birds are found in Australia. Emus live in all kinds of habitats from forests to plains and anything in between. That said, emus are no longer found on the Australian island of Tasmania, where they went extinct in the late 1700s. However, other species of emu are not considered to be under threat.

Amazingly, emus have lost their ability to fly up to six times over a period of 10 million years, according to research. It’s thought that this happened around the same time as the dinosaur extinction when the birds also grew in size owing to the fact that there was a lot more vegetation for them to feed on.

Rheas (Rhea spp.)

These large flightless birds are often referred to as the South American ostrich. There are two species of rhea, the greater rhea and the lesser rhea, also known as Darwin’s rhea, which is found in the Patagonia and Altiplano regions. Regardless of the species, these birds prefer open spaces.

It’s not hard to see why they are so closely associated with the ostrich with their long legs, tall height, and large wings that can span up to 8 feet (2.4 meters)! However, unlike ostriches, rheas have three toes. Comparatively, whilst tall, rheas do not have as much height as ostriches, with males typically reaching 4 feet (1.2 meters) on average.

It’s the males that build the nests where eggs can incubate for up to forty days. After this, the males take care of the young, even adopting those from other nests that have been abandoned.

Anseriformes (Waterfowl) Flightless Birds

Anseriformes are broken down into three families. These consist of geese, ducks, and swans. There are around 180 species in total, and some are unable to fly.

Fuegian Steamer Duck (Tachyeres pteneres)

Out of the four species of steamer duck, only one can fly. The remaining three, including the Fuegian steamer duck from South America, are flightless. These are coastal birds that can be found on rocky shorelines and have a unique way of getting about.

They swim, but not in the way that other aquatic birds do. Instead, the fuegian steamer duck moves its feet like the paddles of a steamer, hence its name.

It’s thought that the main reason these birds adapted not to fly was because of a lack of predators, which is still true to this day. The birds are very aggressive, which is likely why they aren’t at the bottom of the food chain.

However, this character helps to protect their nests and the birds will use their flightless wings during fights. Moreover, the fuegian steamer duck is pretty large which gives it an advantage when defending itself.

Falkland Steamer Duck (Tachyeres brachypterus)

nomis-simon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Another type of steamer duck is the Falkland steamer duck which, as you may guess from its name, is endemic to the Falkland Islands. You’ll sometimes hear this bird being called the logger duck and it is the smallest type of steamer.

One of the things you’ll notice immediately when observing these birds is that the wings are incredibly short and obviously unsuitable for flight. However, they’ll be seen wandering around the shore and are very characterful birds that aren’t afraid to defend their territory.

The good thing about the Falkland steamer duck is that it’s currently thriving with more than 16,000 breeding pairs on the Islands.

Chubut Steamer Duck (Tachyeres leucocephalus)

The final example of a flightless steamer duck is the Chubut steamer duck which is a carnivorous bird that feeds mainly on crustaceans and mollusks. They’re of least concern in terms of being endangered although there has been a noticeable decline in their population in recent years.

Amazingly, these ducks were not discovered until 1981 and this is largely because the population is contained to such a small area around Golfo San Jorge in Southern Chubut as well as in the northern Santa Cruz provinces.

These ducks are not able to fly but they are very good at diving which they will do in order to find food under the water.

Auckland Teal (Anas aucklandica)

The Auckland teal is the first of two species of flightless teal and is endemic to the Southern Islands of New Zealand. These brown birds tend to inhabit islands where there are few to no predators and are sometimes simply called the brown teal.

In order to tell the males from the females, one only needs to spot the green iridescent plumage on the back of the male’s head. The breast may also be slightly darker in color.

Campbell Teal (Anas nesiotis)

Out of two species of flightless teal, we have the Campbell teal which is named after a nearby island in its native home of New Zealand. These are small ducks that actually became extinct on Campbell Island due to a population of rats. However, new colonies were discovered on a neighboring island, although they are critically endangered.

The Campbell teal is brown in color, with a head slightly darker than its body. They’re nocturnal birds that feed mainly on insects and amphipods, and despite their endangered status, the current population appears to be doing extremely well.

Suliformes (Boobies, Cormorants, etc) Flightless Birds

Once classified as pelecaniformes, suliformes is a family that consists of five types of birds including darters, gannets, boobies, shags, and cormorants.

Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

Also known as the Galapagos cormorant, the flightless cormorant is one of 29 cormorant species. However, it is the only one of these that cannot fly. With incredibly small wings, it demonstrates that these birds have been unable to fly for a very long time. It’s thought that the growth stunt of the wings was as a result of genetic mutation.

However, they’re excellent swimmers and will go up to 300 feet (90 meters) out to sea in search of food. They’ll typically feed on octopus and eels as well as a range of fish.

Unfortunately, these birds are currently under threat owing to predators, but they’re also one of the rarest birds in the world, so there are a lot of efforts going on to ensure their survival.

While the plumage of these birds is brown and seemingly uninteresting, they do have the most brightly colored turquoise eyes.

Sphenisciformes (Penguins) Flightless Birds

Penguins don’t have a wingspan that’s large enough for flight but it is suitable for swimming which they’ve adapted into a very special skill. In fact, their wings serve more as a type of flipper than anything else, propelling them through the water.


There are 18 species of penguin, and all but one, the Galapagos penguin, can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. Other examples of penguin species include the macaroni penguin, the king penguin, and the enormous emperor penguin. This is the largest species that can grow up to 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) in height!

Penguins are perhaps one of the most well-known flightless birds and scientists now believe that they lost their ability to fly because it wasn’t worth the effort getting their heavy bodies off the ground. Instead, they became incredibly adept swimmers, diving to depths of up to 1500 feet (460 meters) in search of fish to eat.

Their feet are perfectly adapted for walking long distances, which is good because penguins may migrate up to 100 miles (160 km) each year!

Podicipediformes (Grebes) Flightless Birds

Grebes are a type of aquatic diving bird and there are about 22 different species. Grebes are well-known for their elaborate mating rituals and displays, but another interesting thing about them is that some cannot fly.

Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii)

Birdingperu / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Junin grebe is found on and around Lake Junin in the central Andes. Living at elevations of up to 13,100 feet (4000 meters), these birds are just surviving, and it’s thought that there are just 250 left in the wild, which is of the utmost concern.

That said, these birds can live for a very long time, with some individuals living up to 14 years. They’ll only lay between one and three eggs at a time and mainly prey on insects and small fish.

The Junin grebe tends to frequent the channels around the lake but spends a lot of time within the reeds during the breeding season. There’s fossil evidence of these birds that dates back as far as 35 million years so they’re certainly a prehistoric creature!

Titicaca Grebe (Rollandia microptera)

Tsirtalis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Titicaca grebe, also known as the short-winged grebe, is found in South America in both Bolivia and Peru. It is an aquatic bird that, while unable to fly, is a very good swimmer. However, owing to the fact that it lives on the water, numbers are declining because of human fishing nets.

One of the most notable things about the Titicaca grebe is its coloration. There are no other grebes with this type of coloring aside from maybe the red-necked grebe that has a mildly similar appearance but is not even found on the same Continent.

These birds prefer shallow waters and are, as their name suggests, found on Lake Titicaca and surrounding bodies of water. In the main, they prey on pupfish.

Psittaciformes (Parrots) Flightless Birds

There are around 398 species of parrot, and all but one of them can fly. While there are parrots in many areas of the world, the greatest diversity can be seen in Australasia and South America. The one flightless species is endemic to New Zealand, as is the case with many flightless birds.

Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)

The most interesting thing about the kakapo is that this is the only species of flightless parrot on the planet and the heaviest. However, it’s also endangered owing to the fact that it was hunted by humans for museums, and more predators have been introduced to its natural habitat in New Zealand.

At one point, as few as 50 individuals remained in the wild, but in 2022, there was a very successful breeding season, which sent this number soaring above 250. There’s still a way to go, but it feels as though there’s renewed hope for these beautiful flightless birds.

The kakapo is also known as the owl parrot, given the uncanny likeness of its face to that of an owl. Moreover, these are nocturnal birds which is not a trait commonly seen in other parrot species.

While they might not be able to fly, kakapos certainly know how to get noticed, with the males making a booming call that can travel up to half a mile (800 meters)!

Gruiformes (Cranes, Rails & Coots) Flightless Birds

The term gruiforme translates to mean ‘crane-like’ and there are many species within this family; as many as 145, to be exact.

Inaccessible Island Rail (Atlantisia rogersi)

Brian Gratwicke / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A lot of flightless birds are large in size, but the inaccessible island rail is the world’s smallest flightless bird that only gets to around 6 inches (15 cm).

These birds live on an island called Inaccessible Island, which is located some 1550 miles (2500 km) from any mainland in the South Atlantic Ocean. This tiny island, measuring just a little over 4 square miles, contains very little life, so it begs the question of how the rail got there.

Well, scientists have learned that these birds share a common ancestor with another species called the dot-winged crane found in North and South America. The ancestors of these birds were able to fly, and it’s believed that they landed on the island a whopping 1.5 million years ago and have since lost their flight abilities.

But why? Well, the island, not home to any predatory animals, was a safe haven for the birds. Moreover, the lack of wildlife meant that food was plentiful so the rails never needed to fly again!

Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

Scientists believed the takahe to have become extinct in the 1800s only for it to make a reappearance in 1948. It’s amazing that it was able to hide so well since these birds are very brightly colored and distinct-looking. The body looks something like a mash-up between a chicken and a cassowary and while they’re now known not to be extinct, wild takahe numbers are worryingly low with just over 400 surviving individuals.

The takahe is native to New Zealand, but there are some examples on nearby predator-free islands where humans have made attempts to save their threatened population.

The birds mainly feed on tussock seeds and sedge, which seems to be an appropriate diet considering these birds can live up to 20 years!

Weka (Gallirallus australis)

If you’re camping in New Zealand, the native country of the weka bird, you might find that items start going missing, and it could be the weka that’s the culprit. Not only are these birds known for their thieving nature, but they’re also pretty vocal, and you’ll more likely hear one than see it.

The weka is a brown bird that’s about the size of a chicken. For all intents and purposes, it’s pretty ordinary looking, but they’re talented singers and are excellent swimmers.

Unfortunately, the weka is under threat due to pest control, traffic collisions, and a scarcity of food. However, the population tends to fluctuate with the availability of food. They can be found in grasslands and rocky shorelines, where they’ll eat invertebrates and fruits.

Tasmanian Nativehen (Tribonyx mortierii)

As you may guess from its name, the Tasmanian nativehen is endemic to the Australian island of Tasmania. These birds are similar in shape and size to a chicken, while their coloration is not all that dissimilar to a pigeon.

They might not be able to fly but Tasmanian nativehens can certainly move quickly, running at up to 30 mph (48 kph)! And what’s super interesting is that they actually thrive alongside humans rather than becoming a victim of our actions. In many cases, the birds will take advantage of agriculture which provides them with a viable source of food.

The birds used to be found on mainland Australia but are thought to have become extinct there due to predators. Fortunately, in Tasmania, these birds are not considered to be under threat.

Lord Howe Woodhen (Hypotaenidia sylvestris)

Sadly another flightless bird that’s facing extinction is the Lord Howe woodhen. Much of this is to blame on human hunting as, when humans first arrived on Lord Howe Island, they discovered there to be 15 flightless bird species which they used as a food source.

That said, while numbers declined to worrying levels in the 1960s, there have been successful conservation efforts made.

But despite still being endangered, these are very independent birds that leave the nest just 65 days after birth to become self-sufficient. At this point, they’ll form groups to ensure survival, feeding on spiders, worms, and crustaceans.

Extinct Flightless Birds

There are still lots of flightless bird species in the world, but sadly not all have survived. While we cannot provide an exhaustive list of every flightless bird to have existed and gone extinct, we’ll provide a brief overview of some species below.

What’s interesting is that it’s thought that flightless birds may have become more prone to extinction because of humans. Humans have caused the extinction of many species and this has been proven to have quelled the process of further evolution. Essentially, species cannot thrive in their environments owing to an inability to further adapt.

Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

You’ve probably heard the saying dead as a dodo, and that’s because this is probably one of the most well-recognized extinct bird species in the world. However, the dodo hasn’t been around for the last 400 years, with the last sighting in 1662 in Mauritius.

The dodo, although flightless, was able to survive for many years in its natural habitat on the island owing to a lack of predators. It’s believed that they evolved from a group of pigeons that landed there in the Pliestocene era and eventually lost their ability to fly.

Sadly when Dutch settlers arrived on Mauritius, they hunted the birds for food. But the dodos would walk right into the firing line as they were such trusting creatures.

Stephens Island Wren (Traversia lyalli)

John Gerrard Keulemans / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Sometimes called the Lyall’s wren, these tiny birds were no bigger than a mouse and could not fly. These birds were endemic to New Zealand and lived peacefully here until Aboriginal settlers arrived around 10,000 years ago.

But there was not an immediate war between birds and humans for the Stephens Island wren didn’t actually go extinct until the late 1800s.

There’s a myth that a lighthouse keeper accidentally let out some cats, which was the main cause of the decline of these birds. This lighthouse keeper was called David Lyall, and while the extinction took around two years to happen, by the time it did, the whole island was rife with feral kitties.

King Island Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae minor)

By par L.P. Vieillot et par M.P. Oudart. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Around 14,000 years ago, King Island and Tasmania were still connected, and it’s thought that this is why the King Island emu is very closely related to the Tasmanian emu. In any case, these birds lived both in mainland Australia as well as Tasmania.

It’s thought that the main cause of extinction was due to a group of seal hunters who also took the opportunity to hunt these large flightless birds. One interview with one of the men saw him reveal that he alone had killed as many as 600 King Island emus in just 6 months. However, there were also wildfires that could have contributed to their demise.

Moas (Dinornithiformes)

Joseph Smit / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The moa was a massive bird that grew up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in height. It lived in New Zealand, where there were no predators, so these giant birds lived in relative peace. However, these birds have not been seen for as long as 600 years because human settlers would hunt them for meat and take their eggs for food.

There were nine different species of moa in New Zealand, and humans managed to kill off all of them. What’s more, when New Zealand was first populated by humans, it was thought that there were only around 400 settlers. By the time the moa went extinct, there were still only 2500 people living there. It’s alarming that so few people could have wiped out these birds within just 150 years!

Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria)

Frederick William Frohawk / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Another flightless bird that is now extinct was the Rodrigues Solitaire which was a member of the pigeon family. These birds were discovered by European settlers and were incredibly large animals that grew up to 3 feet (90 cm) and could be found on the Madagascan island of Rodrigues.

The birds had bony knobs on their wings that are thought to have been used when defending territory and fighting. Unfortunately, they could not defend themselves against humans, with settlers immediately taking a liking to the taste of the meat, especially in younger birds.

Humans brought with them a range of predatory animals that preyed on the Rodrigues solitaire, including cats and pigs that would eat the eggs and young. Moreover, tortoise traders would burn vegetation which meant fewer food sources for the birds. It’s thought that the species went extinct around the year 1750.

Elephant Bird (Aepyornithiformes)

El fosilmaníaco / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The elephant bird holds the record for being the heaviest and largest bird to have ever lived, with individuals growing up to 500 lbs (226 kg) in weight! It was thought that the elephant bird was the ancestor of several ratites, and DNA testing has shown that these huge creatures are actually the closest relative of the kiwi bird.

Unfortunately, human settlers on the elephant bird’s native home of Madagascar almost hunted it to extinction. Perhaps it would have stood some sort of chance if it wasn’t also for disease-infested rats that helped to wipe out the population.

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

John James Audubon, Bird Artist of America. (1785-1851) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The great auk was a beautiful black and white bird which was related to the penguin. With its upright stature and small wings, it’s not hard to see the relation. The birds were found in North Atlantic regions such as Iceland and the Faroe Islands, although some examples were found as far south as Italy and Spain.

However, around 2000 years ago, humans began hunting these birds for food, and while it took some time, we eventually managed to hunt them to extinction towards the middle of the 19th century.

Just like their modern penguin cousins, great auks would use their flipper-like wings to help them swim. And, much like dodos, these birds were not afraid of humans, which probably didn’t help their decline.

Red Rail (Aphanapteryx bonasia)

Frederick William Frohawk / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The red rail was a bird found on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, where, for many years, it thrived owing to a lack of predators. These birds were reddish in color and around the size of a chicken.

Humans hunted the red rail to extinction, and it’s believed that the final individual perished in the year 1700. However, before this, there were very few sightings, and scientists had to rely on drawings and descriptions. That was until fossilized remains were found.

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