The Hindu: Fabulously Flightless

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Fabulously flightless


All dressed up: Standing tall. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library


Strange as it may seem, some birds don’t fly. They have wings but it’s not possible for them to take off! So, what use are the wings?

“If I were a bird, I’d sing a song

And fly about the whole day long

And when the night comes, go to rest

Up in my cozy little nest”

When we think of fish, we think of water. When we think of birds, we think of wings. All fish can swim, but all birds can’t fly. They have wings, yes, but they’re just for flapping, distracting a predator or just expressing their annoyance at being disturbed. These flightless birds might be missing the keel of the breastbone, one which attaches to the flight muscles, but they don’t miss anything in spirit.

Other uses

Some have developed outstanding camouflage plumages, others muscular legs for running, yet others super-bird feet for wading and swimming. And even elaborate rituals to impress their mates without flying. The wings are not redundant after all, in many bird families who have given up flying. They’ve developed them for alternate uses like flippers for swimmers and brakes for runners.

Of the many fabulously flightless birds, here are a few:

Penguin: The cuddly aquatic birds, dressed in black and white tuxedos, with their flippers hanging by their side like Charlie Chaplin arms, live in the Southern Hemisphere. Fairy or the little blue penguin is the tiniest of all (40 cm) and the emperor penguin the largest (3 ft 7 in), but their prehistoric ancestors stood as tall and as heavy as an adult human. Once a year, penguins shed their feathers. No swimming or fishing is possible then, so they fatten themselves up to survive two to three weeks till they re-grow them. No wonder it is called the “catastrophic molt!”

Invisible Rail: Any guesses on why it’s called invisible? Well, yeah, it is difficult to spot. It lives in the almost impenetrable spikey sago swamps of North Maluku in Indonesia. It uses its wings to make a ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ sound along with a drumming call. Abundance of food, lack of predators and no need for migration make island birds readily lose their ability to fly. Too bad they don’t take into account humans who come walking into their island homes and hunt them to extinction. This bird is listed as threatened.

Southern Cassowary: It is a ratite — a large flightless bird like the ostrich and rhea. With intimidating three-toed legs, horn-like casque, blue face, two red wattles, a well-rounded back body and a fiery temper. Don’t fluff yourself and go too near it, it might poke holes in your body and leave you like a sponge. The second heaviest bird on earth, it can reach up to 5.9 feet in height!

Kakapo: The owl-faced Kakapo is the only parrot that doesn’t fly! What’s more, it is heavy (can reach around four kgs), lives long (between 95-120 years!), smells musty-sweet and walks for miles to gather for group dances to compete for the attention of the ladies. In the 1880s, due to the arrival of European settlers and their pets, their numbers went down drastically. Today, they are critically endangered.

We are advised now and then to spread our wings and take a flight. I’d prefer to stay on ground and live for 120 years like the Kakapo, thank you.

The writer is Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur

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