My Column in The Hindu
Our wings are not for flying!
Waves soar, babies cry, lions roar and birds fly. Well, not all the time!
It is interesting to note that some of the most fascinating birds that inhabited our planet were flightless. One of them is the elephant bird of Madagascar. More than 10 feet high, this giant was, at the time, the world’s largest bird. Its egg is the largest known single cell — 160 times the size of a chicken egg! The giant ‘Rock’ that Sindbad the sailor fought with is said to be a distorted form of the elephant bird. This peaceful, herbivorous ratite lived happily on its island kingdom until European settlers came and hunted them to extinction during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Nowhere to fly
There are many dangers for flightless birds. One of the biggest is humans walking into their homes with their accompanying pests, pets, pollution, hunting, trapping and destroying their habitat. Unlike birds that fly, they can’t go to new homes or avoid predators like cats and rats and humans. Many flightless birds have become extinct and many are endangered today. We are their biggest danger.
Scientists have not reached a consensus on how these ratites evolved. This fascinating group of birds has been able to conceal their family secrets well. But it is widely believed that they had flying ancestors.
Emu: The second largest bird in the world after the ostrich, this wild wanderer inhabits the sprawling wilderness of Australia. Emus don’t take things lying down. They kick the animals that approach them right in the face. The father defends the young ones fiercely. They have an uncanny ability to go without food for weeks and have a habit of getting up six to seven times at night to eat, defecate or check if there is a meddler around. Emus are farmed commercially.
Flightless Cormorant: The volcanic Galapagos Islands were famed for their fascinating endemic animals and their study by Darwin before he proclaimed his theory of evolution by natural selection. It is also home to the only cormorant in the world that has lost its ability to fly. But like other cormorants, it has to spend a long time drying its wings as they are not waterproof. It is the largest cormorant in the world and quite friendly too. You can just go and pick it up. No wonder it is endangered.
Kiwi: Size matters? The smallest ratite in the world has earned New Zealanders their nickname. Kiwis are the size of chicken. These little critters are the closest relatives of the extinct elephant bird. Most kiwi species are threatened. Operation ‘Egg Nest’ is a programme run to protect kiwi eggs and babies. Kiwis lay the largest eggs in comparison to its body size.
Rhea: The wings of rhea act like sails and rudders while running. It lifts one of its big wings alternately as it runs zigzag when scared. Greater Rhea is South America’s largest bird. Although the male courts up to 12 females at a time, he does all the hard work that follows — incubating and protecting the eggs; even sacrificing a few eggs by placing them outside the nest to act as a decoy for predators. All for the greater good.
There are many other flightless birds.
So when people tell you birds fly, tell them: Waves roar, birds cry, Lions soar, babies fly.
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