My children really enjoy learning about animals. They like to catch and release critters, visit animals at the zoo, do animal science projects like dissecting owl pellets, watch movies like Whale Rider and The Story of the Weeiping Camel, do craft projects like this blue morpho butterfly craft, and read books like these about Australian animals. We are animal lovers! So on a recent visit to the zoo, we learned about ratites: large flightless birds. They share several characteristics, even though they are spread widely among different continents. Many scientists believe that their similarities and distance from each other suggest that the earth’s land masses were once much closer together than they are now. Scientists also believe that flightless birds on islands like Australia and New Zealand evolved because they had little reasons to escape flying because there were few predators. These birds developed short wings, great running or swimming skills, and special defenses like large toe claws. Let’s discover some special characteristics of these unique birds!
An excellent book that explains how flightless birds evolved is “Charlie and Kiwi” by Peter Reynolds and the New York Hall of Science. Learn how “little changes in each generation can add up to BIG changes” in the long term.
After reading the book, begin the lesson by having your child make a chart with the types of birds across the top:
After locating Australia and New Zealand on a map, read about the birds below, watch the videos, and check out the pictures. Have your kids right down important facts about each of the birds as they learn.
Flightless Birds of New Zealand and Australia
Cassowary: this large and heavy bird is mainly found in New Guinea, though one species lives in northern Australia. Cassowaries are HUGE birds, standing at 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m) tall, and they have a large bony growth on their heads called a “casque,” which is taller on the female than the male. Notice that the rest of their head is featherless and usually bright blue. Despite their size, cassowaries are shy creatures that live in the forest, moving around at night. They eat lots of different types of fruits, and also flowers, fungi, snails, insects, frogs, birds, fish, rats, mice, and carrion (wikipedia.com). Cassowaries have very powerful legs and long feet with 3 toes and the inner toe on each foot has a sharp claw used for defense.
The emu is the national bird of Australia! The emus have adapted to the dry central plains of Australia by feeding on different things during the different seasons. For example, they feed on seeds in the dry season, and seasonal plants and insects such as grasshoppers and crickets, once it has rained. The emus are the second largest standing bird, standing 5-6 ft (1.5-1.8m) tall, but its wings are so small they are mere stubs! Scientists believe that the emu has been on Earth since prehistoric times and dates back 80 million years roaming the outback of Australia.
The kiwi are native to New Zealand, and are the national symbol of the country. In fact, the term Kiwi is used all over the world as a nickname for New Zealanders! Kiwis have no tails, tiny wings that are useless, and feathers that are almost like coarse hairs. Unlike the other flightless birds, kiwi are the size of a domestic chicken, making them the smallest living ratites. They use their unique long and skinny beaks- having nostrils at the end- to poke into the ground in search of earthworms, their favorite food. Another interesting fact is that a female kiwi lays one egg that is nearly 1/4 of her body weight!
The kagu is another *almost* flightless bird, and no one can say for certain what this bird is and what it is related to! Unlike the other ratites here, its wings are large, but not quite strong enough for flight. The kagu is the size of a duck, and wanders around on the forest floor, using its beak to stab creatures on the ground. In the video above, you can see how the chick hides among the leaves while its mother brings it a worm. The kagu’s feathers are silky, it has distinctive bright red eyes, and a wild, wispy crest. Kagus are in danger from dogs, and its nests are frequently targeted by cats and rats. Like the other flightless birds, it is in danger of extinction.
The kakapo are huge, goose-sized parrots confined to New Zealand, and on the edge of extinction (less than 150 left in the world!). The introduced predators such as dogs, weasels, and rats have decimated the population since the early 1900s. Kakapos are probably the longest living bird in the world- the average life expectancy is 90 year old, and some live even longer! Like the other ratites, because it is living on an island without mamalian predators, it is large, slow-moving, and flightless. Kakapos are vegetarian, with an acute sense of smell used to find nutritious leaves and stems. It spends its time walking around and using its strong claws to climb to feed on shrubs and trees. Kakapo have lime green fleathers, and use a low booming sound to attract the females.
Additional Resources about Flightless Birds
Print out these free printables about flightless birds.
Read this article for reading comprehension on flightless birds.
Check out these National Geographic photos of flightless birds.
Play this Flightless Birds Quiz.
*All of the pictures in this post have been taken from wikipedia, used under the creative commons license.