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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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Tessa Angus
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Art
Surprising Sculptures Made From Fallen Feathers
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor with an unusual medium: feathers. Her surreal, undulating works often take the form of installations—the feathers spilling out of a drain, a stove, a crypt wall—or stand-alone sculptures in which antique bell jars, cabinets, or trunks contain otherworldly shapes.

MccGwire developed her obsession with feathers after moving to a studio barge on the Thames in 2006, as she explains in a video from Crane.tv recently spotlighted by Boing Boing. The barge was near a large shed full of feral pigeons, whose feathers she would spot on her way to work. "I started picking them up and laying them out, collecting them," she remembers. "And after about two weeks I had like 300 feathers." At the time, concerns about bird flu were rife, which made the feathers seem "dangerous as well as beautiful."

When not supplied by her own next-door menagerie, the feathers for her artwork come from a network of racing pigeon societies all over the UK, who send her envelopes full every time the birds molt. Farmers and gamekeepers also send her fallen feathers from birds such as magpies, pheasants, and roosters.

The cultural associations around birds are a big part of what inspires MccGwire. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility," she told ArtNews in 2013, "but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”

The same duality is present in her own work, which she frequently shares on her Instagram account. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”

You can see some pictures of MccGwire's work, and watch the video from Crane.tv, below.

Kate MccGwire's installation "Evacuate"
Evacuate, 2010
J Wilde

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Convolous"
Convolous, 2015
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's installation "Gyre"
Gyre, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Gag"
Gag, 2009
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Writhe"
Writhe, 2010
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Quell"
Quell, 2011
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Taunt"
Taunt, 2012
Tessa Angus
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science
Meet the Terror Bird, a Bone-Smashing Beast That Once Roamed the Americas

Prehistoric Earth was filled with all kinds of impressively scary animals. But one category of avians, an extinct clade called Phorusrhacidae, was so fierce that they're today nicknamed "terror birds," as the latest video from PBS Eons explains below.

Phorusrhacidae was a group of large, flightless, carnivorous birds that roamed Earth for about 60 million years, beginning in the early Cretaceous Period. Over time, they evolved into 25 different species. Some of these birds were likely scavengers, but others lusted for blood, judging from fossils that revealed their physical makeup.

Sharp beaks allowed some terror birds to rip their prey's flesh straight from the bone, and their curved claws were ideal for stabbing. Even their skeletons were natural weapons, with strong legs powerful enough to crack bone. If these features weren't terrifying enough, experts think that the birds may have also subdued their still-living meals by lifting them up and repetitively smashing them against the ground.

One of the largest species among these birds was Titanis walleri, which once roamed the coastal plains of what's today Texas and Florida after crossing a land bridge from South America around 5 million years ago. Learn how it came to America, and why it went extinct, by watching the video below.

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