Birds are fascinating creatures. Their feats boggle the imagination. Hummingbirds can flap their wings 200 times per second, and the thick skull of a woodpecker can withstand slamming its head against an object at a force 1,000 times that of gravity.
These creatures have sparked fantasies in the hearts and minds of people who came before us – like the Phoenix or Halcyon of ancient mythology. Paleontologists point to the avians as modern-day descendants of the dinosaurs. But, like the dinosaurs themselves, there are exotic and unique birds who belong solely to ages past. They can only be admired nowadays as bones or fossils.
Unlike the dinos, however, many of the bizarre and outstanding bird species of yesterday were knocked off by deliberate hunting or the encroachment of human civilization. As we’ll see, many now-extinct fowl were island-dwellers who had nowhere to go when new predators came on the scene.
For a long time, the fauna of Madagascar had been isolated from surrounding landmasses. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about “95 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles, 89 percent of its plant life, and 92 percent of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth.” What about its bird life? Granted, the native Madagascar fody is a beautiful bird that comes in at around five inches, but it’s not something really extraordinary. It resembles a sparrow in some of its features. What would be extraordinary is a 10-foot-tall bird! As it turns out, Madagascar used to be home to just such a bird: the Aepyornis.
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With a name appropriately meaning “tall bird,” the Aepyornis reportedly went extinct in the 1600s. It’s commonly nicknamed the elephant bird, and everything about it was large. It hatched from an egg 150 times bigger than that of a chicken. Science writer Dougal Dixon calls it the “heaviest bird known to exist.” In the fossil record, there appear to be relatives of Aepyornis living in the Tertiary Period of Egypt. The bulky, grounded avians are also closely linked to the modern (and equally flightless) kiwi bird of New Zealand.
This veritable giant went extinct from overhunting in Madagascar. But prior to that, the island served as the perfect environment since the huge bird had no natural enemies to challenge its place on the food chain. Some believe the Aepyornithiformes to be the real-life influence behind the legendary Rukh, or Roc – a mythical bird of such distinguishable size that it could carry off elephants. Marco Polo described this creature during his travels through numerous islands off the East African coast. The shared proximity lends plausibility to the connection.
Though Aepyornis is billed as the heaviest bird ever, Dinornis gives it a run for its money as far as height is concerned. A specimen of moa bird distributed throughout New Zealand, Dinornis reached heights of up to 12 feet. That’s just under the height of a small giraffe. It is even likely that it was a browser like the giraffes of today.
Dinornis means “terrible bird.” It is not hard to imagine approaching this mammoth of a bird, sensing the daunting aspect of its presence. Though extinct, it roamed its natural habitats until fairly recently. They only died out in the 1800s. Although they had natural predators, sources allude to their ultimate annihilation only after their contact with humans.
Emblematic of extinction itself, the dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus) died out in the 1680s with the only other representatives of the Raphidae family – the Réunion and Rodrigues solitaires – going extinct before the beginning of the 19th century. Native to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, the bird’s existence was hindered by the arrival of travelers and their domesticated animals.
The dodo was eaten by many of the visitors who stopped off at Mauritius – and not just the people. The dogs, cats, and macaque monkeys brought by Dutch settlers found dodo eggs a delicacy readily available or else found the chicks to be easy pickings. One oddity of the dodo, apart from its flightless nature, is the fact that it laid just one egg in a single sitting. This checked the rate at which dodos were able to reproduce, and it was a biological feature that would have stunted replacement numbers amid the dwindling population.
Recently, there have been attempts to bring the dodo back to the land of the living. Beth Shapiro, a biology professor at the University of California, works as the lead paleogeneticist at the biotech company Colossal Biosciences, where she sequenced the dodo genome. Like something out of a Michael Crichton novel, the company will try to bring back a dodo hybrid. The process would mix genetic material from several related birds. The result would not be a true dodo, but still something remarkably similar. But until this variant Jurassic Park venture proves successful, we will have to be content with the dodo’s closest extant relative, the Nicobar pigeon, itself considered “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
4. Tasmanian Emu
Emus have an intimidating presence about them. While not so big as the ostrich, the emu is still the second largest bird on the face of the Earth today. Its relative the cassowary has a reputation for its lethal dagger-like toes. Modern emus are native to Australia, feed on vegetation and insects, and mate for life. They’ve been known to interfere with agricultural development. Humans have had an interesting relationship with these birds over the years, especially when it comes to hunting them.
In the 1930s, for example, Australia went to war with its local emu populace, resulting in what was dubbed the Great Emu War. Pressed by the economic strains still stifling them from the Great Depression, Australia’s farmers struggled with swarms of migrating emus devastating their crops. To combat the large flightless birds, the Australian government recruited military veterans, who used machine guns, to try to eliminate the surplus of emus. Amazingly, this government-supported venture was ultimately unsuccessful.
Though recognized as natural in many settings “Down Under,” emus also used to live on Tasmania, an island state just south of Australia. Recent research on the sustainability of emus on Tasmania after colonists settled there suggests killing more than 1,500 adult birds every year would eradicate the population. The Tasmanian emu and kangaroo were often hunted and, like the dodo, settlers’ animals (eg. hunting dogs) had an impact on the survival of these animals. Thus, it’s likely overhunting led to the Tasmanian emu’s extinction. Sightings were sparse after 1845. Later, it would be officially declared extinct.
5. Arabian Ostrich
The Arabian ostrich, Struthio camelus, has also been called the Syrian or Middle Eastern ostrich and even the “camel bird.” Reports suggest that come mating season, the males’ plumage transformed from a dark to a pinkish hue. This notified the females that the males were ready for the game of love. The habitat of this subspecies of ostrich ranged throughout the Arabian peninsula and parts of the Middle East. It’s believed the Arabian ostrich was native to this vicinity for several millennia before going extinct.
In modern times, huntsmen prized the bird for its feathers, skin, and eggs – all of which were valued for food or decoration. The ostrich meat was often cooked and served for the same palates that fancied camel and zebra for dinner. Due to overhunting in the World War II era, the camel bird population took a nosedive. And, in 1941, the last of its kind was documented in Bahrain.
6. Great Auk
Resembling an odd-looking penguin at first glance, the great auk inhabited North Atlantic regions as far-reaching as Europe and North America. The bird was also known as the “garefowl.” They were “never particularly plentiful,” researchers have noted, since they required rather specialized island nesting locales. Some have supposed their population grew endangered due to the climate changes of the Little Ice Age, which made a big impact, especially in the North Atlantic. During that period, numerous great auk breeding islands would be reachable by natural predators like polar bears. Then they began to be targeted by humans. As the New York Times points out:
“…starting around the 15th century, [great auks] became a staple for sailors traveling near the American and European coasts. Crews ate their eggs, brought them onboard as mobile food sources and plucked out their feathers to sell to pillow-makers. They even burned their oil-rich bodies for fuel.”
This was detrimental to the great auk’s already fragile status. Yet, even early on, some rule-makers thought the flightless birds ought to be protected. It was a highly valued product on the market – whether it was to be used for oil, fishbait, food, or pillow stuffing. According to the Audobon Society, England outlawed the killing of great auks for their feathers in 1794. Despite such counter-poaching endeavors, illegal hunting continued until the last confirmed pair of great auks was killed by fishermen on Eldey Island, Iceland, in 1844.
7. Hawaii Mamo
Honeycreepers is the common term for a variety of specialized birds native to the Western Hemisphere that feed on nectar. Thus, many honeycreepers have very long, distinctive bills adapted for getting inside a flower and at their delectable quarry. They are spread throughout Central and South America, and some are known as sugarbirds. Apart from their bills, another outstanding feature many honeycreepers have is their brilliant plumage.
The Hawaii mamo is an extinct honeycreeper that died out circa 1898. Unfortunately, its beauty was also a death warrant. Hawaiian royalty hunted and eradicated mamos to collect their attractive feathers. But the real dent that was made in the mamo population happened when Americans came to Hawaii, demolishing the woodlands they called home.
8. Oahu Akiaola
It’s not just deforestation that endangers honeycreepers, disease also takes a toll on these birds. In recent years, the honeycreepers of Hawaii have battled avian malaria, for which they have no natural immunity.
“An infection can lead to death in as few as 10 days,” reads a 2018 report from the Smithsonian Insider. “Of the original 55 species of honeycreepers that once thrived across Hawaii, only 18 remain today.”
One of these that was lost to a bygone era is the Oahu Akiaola, so named for its residence on Oahu Island. Like other honeycreepers, the Oahu Akiaola fell victim to habitat loss and, presumably, avian malaria transmitted by mosquitoes.
As with most of the birds we’ve looked at above, the honeycreepers of the Hawaiian islands find themselves in isolated ecosystems, vulnerable and acutely susceptible to the effects of hunters and habitat-destroyers.
Dixon, D. (2014). The world encyclopedia of dinosaurs & prehistoric creatures. Annes Publishing Ltd.