a colony of flightless birds

Flightless Bird Names: 11 Birds That Can’t Fly

One of the first features you probably think of when talking about birds is their ability to fly and the wings that help them do so. However, not all birds can fly. Ostriches, penguins, emus and kiwis are just some of the incredible flightless bird names the Earth is home to, and there are many more. Unfortunately, many flightless birds fell to extinction many years ago due to the introduction of new predators to their habitats. But, if you’re looking for a specific flightless bird name, there are plenty of flightless birds still in existence that you could be lucky enough to spot. Here are some of the world’s most intriguing birds that can’t fly.


Scientific Name: Struthio Camelus

Conservation Status: Least Concern

The ostrich is probably the most well-known flightless bird name worldwide. Did you know, though, that the ostrich is the heaviest bird on land? With an average weight of 90 – 130 kg[i], it’s no surprise that these birds can’t fly!

However, the ostrich makes up for its lack of flight skills with its impressive running capabilities. Ostriches have extremely powerful legs, which help them to sprint up to 43 miles per hour in short bursts or maintain a constant speed of around 31 miles per hour[ii].

But, if they don’t fly, why do ostriches have wings? Well, ostriches use their wings to display power and attract a mate. Ostriches will lift their wings and tail feathers to show dominance and scare off competition, or droop them to show submission when around a mater. Furthermore, an ostrich will also use its wings to maintain balance when they run.


Scientific Name: Spheniscidae

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Another infamous flightless bird name is the penguin. These adorable creatures may be the favourite bird of a few of you, but their wings do not aid them in flight. Instead, their wing structure helps them to swim, with streamlined feathers ensuring they can move quickly and easily through the water.

Although different species of penguins can swim at different speeds, the maximum speed that we know of is bursts of 24.8 miles per hour, reached by Adélie penguins[iii]. However, the average swimming speed of a penguin is 3.73 – 5.59 miles per hour. 

Penguins spend most of their lives in water – around 75%, to be specific. Because of this, they evolved to thrive underwater. Although penguins were likely once able to fly, they will have lost that ability generations ago when attempting to fly off the ground was too much effort for birds who had become more adept underwater. 


Scientific Name: Apteryx

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

The first of several flightless bird names from New Zealand, the kiwi is probably their most recognised. This unique animal does have wings, but they’re so small that you’d be forgiven for not being able to spot them among their loose feathers. Although we’re not sure if they ever did fly, New Zealand was an island country with no land predators before humans arrived, meaning that the kiwi bird has evolved without needing flight.

As well as tiny wings, the kiwi bird has evolved with a flatter breastbone than their relatives, meaning they aren’t physically strong enough to lift themselves off the ground. And kiwis only weigh an average of 3.2 – 11 pounds[iv]!

Unlike any other bird, the kiwi has nostrils at the end of its beak. This gives them one of the strongest senses of smell in the bird world. The kiwi bird is so popular in New Zealand that it gave the islanders their nickname of kiwis, which stems from the First World War.


Scientific Name: Strigops Habroptilus

Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Our second New Zealand flightless bird name is Kakapo, a nocturnal species nicknamed the ‘Owl Parrot’ due to its similarities with these birds. Like the kiwi and other flightless New Zealand birds, the flightless Kakapo evolved without wings. In their place, this parrot gained strong legs, which allow it to run through the forests it inhabits.

The Kakapo is the world’s longest living bird, with an average lifespan of 60 years and some individuals living until 90[v]. Like many birds that can’t fly, the Kakapo does have wings; only they are short and stumpy. They use their wings to jump to the ground from trees, flapping them so they can land without injury.

Unfortunately, due to the introduction of mammalian predators, Kakapo numbers have dropped drastically. They are now extinct in their natural range, besides three small, managed islands that experts managed to translocate several birds too. Now, the Kakapo population stands at 125 individual birds.

Flightless Cormorant

Scientific Name: Nannopterum Harrisi

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Flightless Cormorants are coastal birds and the only species from the Cormorant family that can’t fly. Like penguins, ornithologists think the flightless Cormorant evolved to be so since they became so good at swimming. They are heavier than other cormorants, and their webbed feet help them to dive beneath the surface of the water to reach prey with their long necks. They evolved so well for swimming that they didn’t need the ability to fly.

However, flightless Cormorants do have wings, though they are small and inadequate for flying. So instead, they use them to help balance as they jump across rocks on the coastline.

You can only find flightless Cormorants on the Galapagos Islands. Even here, they are one of the rarest birds, but conservation efforts have helped stabilise the flightless Cormorant population and protect their nesting grounds.


Scientific Name: Gallirallus Australis

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Another New Zealand flightless bird name is the Weka, a unique bird somewhat similar in appearance to a pigeon. As with most New Zealand birds, the Weka evolved as a flightless bird due to the lack of predators that inhabited the island country. However, the Weka’s numbers are quickly dwindling since many land predators, including dogs, weasels and ferrets, regularly hunt these birds.

Ornithologists believe that the banded rail is the closest flying relative to the Weka, which is incredibly similar in appearance besides a more flattened plumage. Like the kiwi bird, Wekas have reduced wings, implying that they were likely able to fly at some point but lost the ability during evolution.


Scientific Name: Porphyrio Hochstetteri

Conservation Status: Endangered

Ornithologists thought this New Zealand native flightless bird was extinct until a group of intrepid explorers spotted it in the wild in 1948. The takahē is the largest living rail in the world, notable for its vibrant blue, red and green colours. Like ostriches, the takahē use their short wings to display to potential mates or to show aggression and dominance to potential threats or competition.

Takahē birds are large and robust, with the average adult measuring around 25 inches in height[vi]. They are related to the pūkeko, a strikingly similar bird that arrived in New Zealand from Australia hundreds of years ago. The pūkeko can still fly, leading ornithologists to believe that the takahe also had flying abilities in the distant past.


Scientific Name: Casuarius

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Here’s a flightless bird name you should know! The cassowary is a large bird native to Australia, and the second heaviest bird in the world behind its distant cousin, the ostrich. As well as having tiny wings unsuitable for flying, the cassowary’s feathers did not evolve for flight. Instead, their purpose is to keep the cassowary dry and safe within its natural rainforest habitat, particularly from the sharp thorns on several rainforest plants.   

Similar to most other flightless birds, the cassowary evolved with muscular legs rather than the ability to fly. As a result, cassowaries can jump as high as 7 feet in the air and run as fast as 31 miles per hour[vii]. Plus, they are strong swimmers, allowing them to move swiftly on land and in water. Because of their versatility and power, many consider the cassowary to be the world’s most dangerous bird to humans.

Inaccessible Island Rail

Scientific Name: Atlantisia Rogersi

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Inaccessible Island is an isolated island in the Tristan Archipelago, home to the tiniest living flightless bird. The Inaccessible Island Rail measures only 5 – 6 inches[viii], and shares its nature reserve island home only with other birds and wildlife species.

Ornithologists believe that the ancestors of this tiny rail were able to fly, making their home on the island. Once there, they evolved to become flightless, since there were no predators for them to have to fly away from.

Inaccessible Island is the only single population of this rail species. Although they are common on the island, the conservation status of this bird still states them to be vulnerable. This is because of the risk of an invasive species reaching the island from nearby populations.

The World’s Flightless Birds

Here at Love Garden Birds, we can’t get enough of these flightless birds. Birds that can’t fly are a wonder, and the intrigue they provide us, and ornithologists is endless. But, unfortunately, many of the world’s flightless birds are endangered or close to it. Since many of them evolved to survive on land before humans arrived on it, they are not able to escape from the predators that our infiltration unwillingly brought along. However, you can help reverse these effects by donating your time or money to sanctuaries that support some of these famous flightless bird names, if you are able to.

With all these interesting flightless bird names, what’s your favourite? Let us know below.


  [i] https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/ostrich

[ii] https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/ostrich

[iii] https://seaworld.org/animals/all-about/penguins/adaptations/

[iv] https://www.livescience.com/57813-kiwi-facts.html

[v] http://www.edgeofexistence.org/species/kakapo/

[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takah%C4%93

[vii] https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/zoology/item/worlds-most-dangerous-bird/

[viii] http://www.sci-news.com/biology/inaccessible-island-rail-mystery-06574.html#:~:text=The%20Inaccessible%20Island%20rail%20is,collections%20at%20the%20British%20Museum.

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