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9 Extinct Big Birds

Our friend from Sesame Street may be a big bird, but he’s tiny compared to some real birds that have roamed the earth in the past. Here are a representative few of these big birds we will never see alive again. In some cases, that’s a comforting thought.

1. Gastornis

There were four or five species of the bird genus Gastornis that lived in North America, Europe, and Asia 55 to 40 million years ago. The North American bird was previously known as Diatryma before it was reclassified. Gastornis were big flightless birds, the largest species being Gastornis giganteus, which grew to 6.5 feet tall. But they weren’t anything to be afraid of -unless you were a plant. Its powerful beak was used to crush seeds and fruit. That’s right, this bird was a vegetarian! However, it could well have used that beak as a defense against attackers. The top picture is a 1917 illustration of what Gastornis may have looked like.

2. Pelagornis Chilensis

Photograph by Ghedoghedo.

Just a few years ago, it was thought that Pelagornis chilensis had the largest wingspan possible for a bird at 17 feet. P. chilensis lived in Chile 5 to 10 million years ago, where it skimmed the ocean surface for fish. That large wingspan was necessary to carry a 64-pound flying body. It is classified as a pelagornithid, or bony-toothed (“pseudotooth”) bird. Some other species of pelagornithids may have survived long enough to have been seen by humans.

3. Pelagornis Sandersi

Photograph by Ryan Somma.

The idea that 17 feet was the upper wingspan limit for flying birds was shattered in 2014. Pelagornis sandersi is largest flying bird yet found, with a wingspan of up to 24 feet! The fossil was found in Charleston, South Carolina in 1983, but it was kept in storage for thirty years before anyone studied its measurements. And now that we know how big this pseudotooth was, the mystery that remains is how it ever achieved liftoff with such long wings. It’s possible that the bird jumped off seaside cliffs.

4. Andalgalornis

Illustration by John Conway.

Andalgalornis steulleti was a Phorusrhacid that stood 4.5 feet tall and weighed about 90 pounds. Phorusrhacids, the 18 species of the family Phorusrhacidae, are commonly called “terror birds,” because they were huge apex predators during the Cenozoic era. Andalgalornis lived in Argentina around 6 million years ago. Its skull was distinctively thin as seen from above, but its narrow beak appears huge from the side. Andalgalornis had a rigid-boned skull that gave it a powerful bite compared to other birds with more lightweight construction.

5. Kelenken

Illustration by FunkMonk (Michael B. H.).

The largest terror bird was Kelenken guillermoi, which lived 15 million years ago in Argentina. Kelenken stood somewhere between seven and ten feet tall. Its lower leg bone is 45 centimeters (18 inches), and it had a skull 71 centimeters (28 inches) long with a 45 centimeter beak. This flightless bird weighed around 500 pounds and killed its prey with its massive beak.

6. Titanis Walleri

Illustration by Dmitry Bogdanov.

The terror bird Titanis walleri became an American Phorusrhacid as a result of species moving over the Isthmus of Panama about three million years ago. Its fossils have been found in Texas and Florida. T. walleri lived from 5 to 2 million years ago. This bird stood eight feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds. The species, in a fictionalized form, stars in the 2006 novel The Flock by James Robert Smith.

7. Haast’s Eagle

Illustration by John Megahan.

Haast’s eagle is extinct, but not exactly prehistoric. Scientists believe the youngest fossils may be only 500 years old, which means the eagle’s extinction was probably due to human hunting of the eagle’s main prey, the moa. Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was native to New Zealand, and was the largest eagle that ever lived. The female, larger than the male, weighed 10–15 kilograms (22–33 pounds) and had a wingspan of 8-10 feet. The species had a relatively short wingspan for its weight.

8. Dinornis

Speaking of New Zealand, it was once home to an extinct bird genus that actually resembled Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Dinornis, or the giant moa, was the main food source of Haast’s eagle until it was hunted to extinction by the Māori in the 15th century. The female of the species Dinornis robustus stood 12 feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds, possibly up to 600 pounds! New Zealand had no mammals before human settlers arrived from Polynesia, and so they thrived for 40,000 years, despite Haast’s eagle.

9. Argentavis

Illustration by Stanton F. Fink.

With an estimated wingspan of 23 feet, Argentavis magnificens is the only extinct bird found so far that can approach Pelagornis sandersi in wingspan. And we have more fossil specimens of the “magnificent bird of Argentina.” It existed more recently than many of the birds on this list, living around six million years ago. A. magnificens weighed between 60 and 80 kg (140-180 pounds), so it is a mystery how it managed to take off, but it is inferred that the bird soared on thermal currents instead of flapping its wings. Argentavis ate carrion instead of swooping down on live prey. A. magnificens is related to modern vultures.

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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10 Fun Facts About Pelicans
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Here’s a scoop for you: Pelicans are awesome. They’ve got interesting feet, spectacular hunting habits, and throat pouches that can trap a lot more than fish. Here are 10 things you might not have known about these eccentric birds.

1. THE PELICAN FAMILY IS AT LEAST 30 MILLION YEARS OLD.

The earliest pelican fossil on record is a 30-million-year-old skull that was found in the Oligocene deposits of France. Paleontologists have also uncovered younger material from places like Germany, India, Kenya, Peru, Australia, and North Carolina. Today, there are eight living species and you can find some combination of them dwelling on every continent except Antarctica.

The question of where pelicans fit on the avian family tree has been debated for centuries, though genetic evidence now suggests that their closest extant relatives are the bizarre-looking shoebill and a wading bird known as the hamerkop.

2. THEY DON'T STORE FOOD IN THE POUCH ON THEIR BILLS.

The large, fibrous skin pouch that dangles from a pelican's bill is called the gular pouch (or, occasionally, the gular sac). Many people mistakenly believe it’s used to store food, like a built-in lunch box. The idea was popularized by a limerick of unknown authorship:

“A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak enough food for a week.
But I’ll be damned if I can see how the helican."

While the rhyme is amusing, it isn’t accurate. In reality, pelicans use their gular pouches as a means of capturing food—not as a place to keep it tucked away for extended periods. The highly-flexible sacs can expand or contract, and the lower jaw bones they’re connected to are capable of bowing outwards, which enables the birds to use their sacs as fishing nets. Once a pelican captures its prey, the bird drains any water it may have accidentally captured with it by tilting its head and contracting those pouch muscles. (Fun fact: Some species can hold three gallons’ worth of liquid in their gular sacs.) Usually, the prey is swallowed immediately after the water purge.

3. PELICANS DON’T JUST EAT FISH.

In 2006, Londoners were shocked when a pigeon was swallowed whole by a great white pelican in front of some horrified kids at St. James's Park. Attacks like that aren’t unusual: Although pelicans specialize in eating fish, they also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and—yes—other birds. If it can fit down their throats, it’s fair game.

4. TWO SPECIES PLUNGE-DIVE FOR FOOD.

The brown pelican is a keen-eyed predator that can spot a fish swimming under the ocean’s surface even while flying 60 feet above. Its bigger cousin, the Peruvian pelican, also has great vision. Once a target has been spotted from above, the pelicans plunge into the sea bill-first at high speeds—and often from a height of several stories. When they collide with the prey, the impact force usually stuns the victim and it’s then scooped up in the gular pouch.

It’s a dangerous stunt, but pelicans have numerous adaptations that keep them from injuring themselves when they smack into the water. To keep their neck vertebrae from getting broken, they stiffen the surrounding muscles as they dive; by throwing their wings straight backwards, pelicans can avoid fracturing any of the bones in the appendages on the unforgiving waves. Air sacs under the skin around their neck and breast area inflate before the bird hits the water’s surface, and the gular pouch behaves like an air bag: the instant a bird’s jaws are thrown open under the water, its forward momentum is slowed. Good form takes practice. Young brown and Peruvian pelicans struggle with their marksmanship at first, but over time, they get better at successfully dive-bombing fish.

5. SOME HUNT IN GROUPS.

Most pelicans don't dive bomb their prey; they scoop it up while treading along on the water’s surface. To increase their chances of success, the birds occasionally form hunting parties, gathering in a U-shape and beating their wings on the water to corral fish into a tight cluster—or drive them into the shallows.

6. THE AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN GROWS A TEMPORARY “HORN.”

An impressive bird indigenous to North America, this pelican stands around 4 feet tall and sports a 9-foot wingspan. Every year, something weird happens to the adults. Breeding season for American white pelicans lasts from late March to early May. When it arrives, a broad, flat, yellow or orange “horn” appears on the upper bills of sexually mature birds (both male and female). At some point in May, the fibrous structures fall off, to be replaced with brand new ones the following season.

7. ALL FOUR OF A PELICAN'S TOES ARE UNITED BY WEBBING.

Water birds tend to have four toes on each foot along with some degree of webbing. But in geese and ducks, the webbing is only present between the three toes that point forward. None is connected to the fourth toe, which—in the aforementioned species—is small and oriented in the opposite direction. Pelicans are different. They have totipalmate feet, which means that on each foot, there’s webbing that connects all four toes. Other birds with this kind of arrangement include cormorants, gannets, and boobies.

8. THEY PLAYED A SURPRISING ROLE IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN ART.

In medieval Europe, it was believed that whenever food grew scarce, mother pelicans would intentionally stab themselves on the breast with their beaks and then use the blood to feed their chicks. It's a noble idea, but it's a myth that probably has something to do with the gular pouches of Dalmatian pelicans, which turn an orang-reddish color during the breeding season. Maybe an onlooker saw one preening and got the wrong idea. Regardless, the myth of bloodletting pelicans struck a chord with Christian artists, who compared the gesture to the sacrifice Jesus made on humanity’s behalf. Thus, the motif became widespread in Europe during the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. A 1611 edition of the King James Bible featured the image of a breast-piercing pelican. The symbol also appears in a 1575 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

9. THEY'RE MOUTH-BREATHERS.

As this video from Ohio University explains, pelicans technically have nasal openings. However, in all eight species, the nostrils are sealed off, buried under the beak’s horny sheath. This doesn’t mean that the cavities are functionless, though: The hidden nostrils house special glands which remove excess salt from the blood stream. Since pelicans and other maritime birds ingest sea water to survive, this trait is a real life-saver. Because their nostrils are walled-off and clogged up by desalinizing glands, it should come as no surprise that pelicans predominantly breathe through their mouths.

10. BROWN PELICANS HAVE MADE A REMARKABLE COMEBACK OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS.

The insecticide known as DDT, which rose to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s, infested whole food chains. After it was sprayed on crops, it was consumed by earthworms, and run-off ensured fish got a dose, too. In turn, these animals were transferring the substance to the various birds that ate them. Although DDT didn’t kill many avians directly, it did have a knack for weakening their egg shells. As a result, the populations of many beloved species—including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans—took a hit, and the brown pelican all but vanished in vast swaths of the country.

A 1938 census had counted 5000 breeding pairs of brown pelicans in Louisiana. But in 1963, not a single brown pelican sighting was recorded within the state. Texas birders observed similar declines. While early declines were caused by hunters and fishermen, these later declines were pinned on industrial pollutants and insecticides like DDT. Then, a badly-needed break came when public outrage drove the Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT in 1972. Since that time, the brown pelican has reversed its once-gloomy fortunes. Reintroduction campaigns helped the birds bounce back in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. The brown pelican was listed as endangered in 1970, but in 1985, brown pelicans in a few southern states were removed from the list. Then in 2009, the species was taken off the list entirely.

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