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Sunday, November 13, 2011

10 Prehistoric Birds You Didn’t Know Existed (But Were Totally Awesome!)

As a birder, it's a necessity to find passion in those birds around you, among them some of the coolest, rarest, and most interesting species to ever walk this Earth - amazing birds like the Araripe Manakin of South America, the Shoebill of Africa, and the Kagu of New Caledonia. But there's an entire other league of birds with which I've been interested for a long time, and I've decided to share them with you today. These are some of the coolest, rarest, and most interesting species of birds to ever walk this Earth - that are, for one reason or another, no longer alive to tell their tale.

10. Confuciusornis, the Dino-Bird of China

On this blog, we’ve already discussed how some birds are basically dinosaurs, but it turns out the line is so muddled that it goes the other way too. Some of the earliest true birds are rather superficially dinosaur-like in nature. Enter Confuciusornis, an early bird from China with some of the most exquisitely preserved fossils ever found. 

Some fossils even preserved internal organs! Photo via Wikipedia.

While it looks rather like a bird, with a pygostyle for a tail, long vaned flight feathers, and a toothless beak, but the wings have fully-formed clawed hands underneath the modern-looking feathers. From its fossils, scientists have discovered obvious sexual dimorphism among the birds, one of the first examples in the fossil record. Females look more or less like you would expect a bird to look, but the males exhibit spectacular twin tail feathers that appear as long ribbons, almost like the tail of a tropicbird or the aptly-named Ribbon-tailed Astrapia. As is often the case with such fossil creatures, nobody is sure how Confuciusornis once lived, but we can be sure of how it looked – recent research into preserved melanosomes has revealed that a male Confuciusornis looked mostly black, with large white patches on the wings. 

More or less what Confuciusornis really looked like. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s one of the most common fossils found in the shale gardens of northeastern China, so hopefully in time we can learn much more about this fascinating creature.

09. Hesperornis, the Killer Loon of Kansas

Back at the end of the Cretaceous Period, that is to say, before the dinosaurs were wiped out by a wayward asteroid, North America was split in two by a large sea called the Western Interior Seaway. Large reptiles like elasmosaurs and mosasaurs populated this ancient sea, and the whole of North America would never see anything like them ever again. Living among them, on the shores of this vast waterway, were giant diving birds called Hesperornis.

A perfectly evolved fish-eating bird! Photo via Wikipedia.

They looked more or less like today’s loons, save for teeth in their bill that helped them catch fish much like a merganser would today. Oh, plus they were about twice the size! Hesperornis wasn’t closely related to any group of birds living today, but you can still find similarities if you know where to look. As Hesperornis was flightless, it had powerful feet complete with large lobes like those of a modern grebe or coot, surely an advantage when a bird spends its entire life on the water.

It probably propelled itself using its powerful lobed feet. Photo via

While many other birds have since adopted similar aquatic adaptations, Hesperornis was the first bird to perfect them.

08. Titanis, the Terror Bird of Florida

In an age when strange creatures like mastodons, lions, and camels roamed across ancient Florida, there lived a bird more powerful than any living since. Standing more than 8ft tall with a bill that could sever bone, Titanis was surely an apex predator in its time.

Definitely one of the most deadly birds of all time! Photo via Wikipedia.

The terror birds, also known as Phorusracids, evolved in South America when it was just an island, at a time when birds, marsupials, and unique mammals ruled the land. But when the continent rammed into North America, species began crossing into new territory in an event known as the Great American Interchange. Most of South America’s unique wildlife was replaced by things like big cats and modern ungulates, but some crossed back into North America, like the giant terror birds.

Imagine watching a Snail Kite, or a Mangrove Cuckoo when you're unceremoniously
killed and eaten by one of these things! Photo via Wikipedia. 

Interestingly enough, these extinct giants have a relative living today – the unique seriemas of the South American grasslands. While today they’re much smaller and much more slender than their gigantic ancestors, the seriemas live in a very similar habitat to the ancient Phorusracids. Luckily for those of us living in the States today, and especially the retirees in Florida, Titanis hasn’t walked this land in almost two million years.

07. Dromornis, the Demon Goose of the Outback

While the terror birds were roaming the ancient Americas, would it surprise you if to know an all-together similar bird was stalking the interior of prehistoric Australia? Probably not.

I mean, they do look pretty similar...  Photo by coolislandsong24 via

But what is surprising, however, is that this giant 10ft-tall, possibly flesh-eating behemoth was nothing more than an enormous goose. Nobody can quite say how Dromornis lived. Some scientists suggest it ate grasses and other plants much like a modern goose, but others argue its enormous beak meant it ate more than its share of flesh.

Does this look like the face of a killer to you? Photo via

This family of birds, the Dromornithidae, survived in Australia until around 30,000 years ago, which means that the first settlers of the Australian continent almost certainly encountered them, perhaps even contributing to their untimely extinction.

06. Inkyacu, the Monster Penguin of Peru

Penguins! Are there any cooler birds in the world? Well, yes, but that’s not important right now. The largest penguin alive today is the giant Emperor Penguin of Antarctica, which stands four feet high on a good day. However, just 35 million years ago a much larger bird inhabited the shores of Peru, but its size isn’t even the most impressive part!

Let's just hope those aren't unsuspecting swimmers in the background! Photo via

Sure, it’s almost a full foot taller than the Emperor, and it’s got a long spear-like bill that’s unlike anything seen in penguins today, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what Inkayacu looked like? Luckily, the fossils of this giant penguin include perfectly preserved feathers that, like those of Confuciusornis, preserve the melanosomes that give the bird its color. Rather than being traditionally black and white like today’s penguins, Inkayacu had reddish feathers on its breast and belly, with a grayish coloration everywhere else on its body.

Doesn't look anything like the ones we've got today.  Photo via

Why penguins all evolved to become black and white is anybody’s guess at this point, but what’s clear is they once inhabited a much wider range of the color spectrum.

05. Osteodontornis, the Meanest Seabird in the Pacific

The longest wingspan in the bird world today belongs to the Wandering Albatross of the Southern Ocean, but compared to Osteodontornis, a wingspan of just 11ft is child’s play. Outwardly, it may have looked and acted like an albatross, soaring low over the rolling waves of the Pacific, but the bird with a 20ft wingspan was anything but – it’s actually more closely related to pelicans, with one key difference.

Let's see if you can guess what it is... Photo via

Where most birds today are entirely toothless, Osteodontornis’s huge beak was filled with tooth-like serrations, the perfect recipe for catching fish on the wing. Standing almost four feet tall at rest, it may have been one of the largest birds ever to fly on this Earth. That is, until we get farther down the list.

04. Copepteryx, the Flightless Booby of Japan

Today, the family Sulidae is known for their extreme hunting methods – dive-bombing the ocean, wings swept back until the bird resembles a giant dart piercing the ocean’s surface. However, there once existed an altogether similar family of birds. Only instead of being perfectly evolved for aerial assault, they were completely flightless.

It's not the wings you have, it's how you use 'em! Photo by Meribenni via

In fact, Copepteryx didn’t act like boobies or gannets at all, but rather swam much like modern penguins, large agile birds propelled by flipper-like wings. Just before Copepteryx and its compatriots went extinct, the world became heavily populated with mammalian predators like seals and dolphins, and it’s likely this radiation led to the extinction of the so-called “Flightless Boobies”.

03. Ornimegalonyx, the Running Owl of Cuba

Imagine you’re walking through the forests of Cuba, a scant 10,000 years ago, when you hear a rustle off to your left. You see a large bird has just pounced on a rodent, but it’s not like any bird you’ve seen – at almost four feet tall, it’s long-legged like a heron or a stork, but it dawns upon you the bird you’re looking at is, in fact, an enormous owl.

It's basically a giant owl on stilts! Photo via Wikipedia.

Ornimegalonyx probably acted rather like the modern Burrowing Owl, preferring to walk on the ground as it was a rather poor flyer, evidenced by its reduced sternal keel. It probably fed on native rodents like the enigmatic hutia, but the owl was so large it’s possible it preyed on some of the smaller ground sloths that inhabited the island. No one is quite sure why the owl went extinct, but it’s likely the same event that wiped out the very ground sloths it once preyed on.

02. Talpanas, the Kiwi-Duck of Kaua'i

A braincase can tell you a lot about a bird. In this case, Talpanas lippa was a small duck whose remains were discovered in 2009 on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i. Its braincase was shallow and wide, with very small optic foramina (aka “eye holes”), but what does this mean for the bird? It would appear that Talpanas foraged upon the forest floor, likely blind and flightless, using sensitive nerves on the end of its bill to locate things like worms and grubs in the topsoil.

Looks like a walking platypus, doesn't it? Photo by HodariNundu via

Funnily enough, there’s a bird alive today that lives almost exactly like this – none other than the secretive kiwi of New Zealand. That a duck would convergently evolve almost the exact same lifestyle is extraordinary, but good luck finding one alive today – the species went extinct almost 6000 years ago.

01. Argentavis, the Largest Bird that Ever Flew

The largest birds flying today are the majestic condors of the Americas, specifically the Andean Condor. A monster of a bird with a 10.5ft wingspan and a top weight of 33lbs, it’s nothing to scoff at – in fact, it’s so heavy that it only rarely takes off from the ground, preferring to take off from a cliff face or mountain peak. However, in the past, there used to be much larger condors called Teratorns. These enormous birds were so big that the smallest one, the famous Teratornis of the La Brea Tar Pits, was still significantly larger than the Andean Condor. But the most amazing Teratorn was Argentavis, an epically large condor once found in the very habitat where the Andean Condor lives today.

Yeah, you better believe this picture's to scale! Photo via

It’s larger than any flying bird that has ever lived – a wingspan of 23ft makes it a larger soarer than Osteodontornis mentioned above, more than twice the wingspan of today’s longest wingspan, the Wandering Albatross. But wait, there’s more! The tallest flyer today is the Sarus Crane, at over 6.5ft tall – but the Argentavis was taller than that sitting down! This was truly a gigantic bird, and it persisted over the eastern Andes until just 6 million years ago. So how did Argentavis live?

I believe the technical Latin term is "amo a bulla"... Like a boss!
Photo by Wandering Albatross via

With its long wings and terrific mass (most estimates range over 150lbs), Argentavis was probably a dedicated scavenger like its living relatives, but there aren’t many large animals to scavenge in South America today. In the Miocene, herds of odd hoofed mammals totally unrelated to today’s ungulates roamed the grassy hills adjacent to a gigantic inland seaway, meaning Argentavis had plenty of carrion to scavenge from, and probably evolved its large size to maximize its feeding range. How such a large bird took off from the ground, like much of this amazing bird's biology, is totally unknown, and will probably remain unknown for a very long time.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little diversion from my normal weekend bird report. It's been fun telling you about these awesome creatures, but this is truly just the tip of the iceberg. Many hundreds of fossil birds have been described to date, and there are many more to come. Perhaps in the near future I'll do a sequel to this list, but for now have fun with those birds that are still alive to grace us with their avian presence!


  1. One word... AWESOME! Thanks for sharing all this fantastic information.

  2. @Jeremy - Thanks, glad you liked it! I'm thinking of doing a sequel with more recently extinct birds (that you still didn't realize ever existed!)

  3. Is there a bird that was called a barracuda that flew with its head looking back?