Flightless Birds Facts

Flightless birds are those that develop or have lost the ability to fly. The term may also be applied to any bird species in which the members cannot take flight under normal circumstances. The term is usually applied to birds that are either unable to sustain or unwilling to sustain powered flight. A bird can be “flightless” due to the absence of wings, lack of motivation, or inability.

Flightless birds are also called ratites. The word ratite comes from the combination of two Latin words, “ratis” meaning rafts or squabs, and “eos” meaning dawn. Ratites can be found all over the world, but they live primarily in remote areas like New Zealand and Australia.

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Flightless Birds Facts

  • Flightless birds are unable to fly
  • The number of species is estimated to be around 60 now.
  • There are more flightless birds in New Zealand than in any other country.
  • They have more feathers than flying birds.
  • Some domestic birds have been bred not to fly, including turkeys, ducks, and chickens.
  • Everything You Need To Know About Flightless Birds

There Are More Of Them Than You Probably Realize

Takahē Bird 

There are so many more than just penguins and ostriches, which are usually the first ones to come to mind when people are asked to think of birds that are flightless. But did you know that there are plenty of others too? From emus and kiwis to cassowaries and rheas, there are plenty of them around to think about. So what are some of the main things they have in common? Or do they actually differ quite a lot?

Their Size Varies

It’s true. The ostrich is, in fact, the largest bird on earth, so maybe an ostrich’s inability to fly makes sense. But some others are actually pretty small. Take penguins, for example. Whilst some of them are certainly on the larger side, the same can’t be said for fairy penguins – the world’s smallest species of penguin. These little penguins only grow to around 12 inches, so their inability to fly is a little more confusing.

They Share A Common Reason As To Why They Can’t Fly

It can’t be 100% proven for all flightless birds, but scientists believe that most of them could fly at one point or another in history. Over time, mutations in DNA led to these birds being unable to fly, which actually proved to be a good thing.

For whatever reason, the species that could not fly survived better than those that could, until eventually, there were only flightless versions of that bird left. The birds do still have wings, but they simply don’t have enough bones in them to make flying possible, and a crucial one that attaches to the breastbone for flight is missing.

Their Feet Are Fascinating

Weka Bird

Not something we thought we’d be saying today, but stick with us. Because these birds have had to adapt to living on the ground instead of up in the skies, they’ve needed some key adjustments compared to their flying cousins, and one of the most crucial ‘upgrades’ is in their feet.

They are much larger so that it is easier to navigate the ground beneath their feet, but some have even developed feet that almost act like flippers (here’s looking at you penguins) to make them more effective in the water. You can learn a lot about these animals just by looking at their feet!

They’re Great To Look At In Relation To Extinction

If you’re researching the topic of extinction and why animals might go extinct, then look to extinct birds. The dodo is a famous flightless bird that is now extinct, and they’re fascinating creatures to look at in their own right.

But as we mentioned earlier, the flightless birds that are still alive probably would have become extinct if they didn’t stop flying, so you can look at it from both angles. It’s interesting to think that maybe the dodo would be alive if they could fly, whereas penguins might be extinct if they could!

The Males Are The More Present Parent

You probably know that male emperor penguins look after the eggs whilst females bring food before the eggs hatch, but this is actually true for most of the animals we’ve looked at here (or specifically ratites, as they are known scientifically).

This means that males are left without food whilst watching over the eggs in their nest until the females return. They survive simply off the fat they have stored until the females return with a meal!

Their Nests Can Be Especially Interesting

Aldabra Rail

Let’s look at ostriches specifically for a moment. Did you know that females actually lay their eggs in a communal nest? That’s right, they don’t find a nest of their own and keep their eggs safe in that way, instead, they think it is safer to leave them altogether.

The male digs the hole for the females, and then each of them is allowed to place their fertilized eggs into the nest. Before covering them over, the dominant female ostrich will discard some of the eggs of the weaker females in order to guarantee their own eggs’ survival!

They Are Constantly Threatened

Predators are a genuine threat to these birds. Being unable to fly makes them more susceptible to being caught by stalking cats and other predators that prefer birds for lunch.

But they’re also much more easily poached and hunted than birds that can fly, meaning they’re even under more threat from us as humans!

They Don’t Have Opposable Toes

Many birds have opposable first toes in order to allow them to grab on to branches to keep them steady in the trees when not in flight.

Since these birds don’t need to fly and therefore don’t need to grab on to things because they’re already stable on the ground, over time they have lost their opposable toes to accommodate their new way of life on solid ground.

Their Skeletons Differ From Flying Birds


Whilst structurally they may appear similar (although largely in different places compared to birds that can fly) these animals have very different skeletons. In order to fly your skeleton needs to be light, so flying birds have bones that are often hollowed out to make them even lighter.

Like birds on the ground though, they don’t need light skeletons, and it is in fact more beneficial to these animals to have more solid skeletons to help them navigate the varied terrain on the ground, so their skeletons are much thicker and heavier.

The Extinct Birds May Have Survived Longer If They Could Fly

We covered this briefly above, but it’s interesting to highlight what many scientists have theorized over the years. Take the dodo, for example. Many scientists argue that dodos simply didn’t need to fly because they lived in a predator free, safe environment for many years.

After predators were introduced to their environments such as cats, dogs, and even humans though, they quickly died out as they simply couldn’t reproduce quickly enough to replace those that were being killed as prey.

They May Be Better Off Left Alone

If the above example doesn’t show how introducing new species to a habitat can upset the natural balance and cause extinction, then perhaps this last point will. One of the rarest birds on earth is the Inaccessible Island Rail, so named after the island on which it lives, ‘Inaccessible Island’.

Because humans, and indeed most other species, could never conquer the inhabitable terrain of Inaccessible Island, these birds have flourished. So safe are they here, you can’t actually find them anywhere else on earth. That shows how easy it is for a species to prosper in an area that they are suited to!