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Which Birds Can't Fly?

Which Birds Can't Fly?

When we think about our feathered friends, we tend to think about birds in flight. After all, the ability to fly is one of the most impressive things about birds. However, birds represent an incredibly diverse type of animal. As you likely know, there are some birds that cannot fly. In fact, there used to be 40 different families that included flightless birds around the world. Now, that number is much smaller, down to 12 families (roughly 60 species). Let’s take a look at some of the world’s birds that can’t fly.


When you think about flightless birds, penguins are probably the first thing that comes to mind for many people. Well-known for their regal tuxedo-like look and popularized in movies like Happy Feet, Madagascar, and The March of the Penguins, they are favorites for many.

There are between 17 and 19 species of penguin (there is some debate on this issue). No species of penguin is able to fly. However, they are excellent swimmers. You’ll find penguins almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere. The Galapagos Penguin is the only one that lives to the north. One thing that surprises people is there are warm weather penguins such as the African Penguin and Humboldt Penguin.

Ostrich, Emu, & Rhea


We are grouping these together because they look somewhat similar and are related. Ostriches are possibly the most well-recognized. These are the largest flightless birds, checking in at up to nine feet tall and 300 pounds. Ostrich can also run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour over short distances. They live in African plains and woodlands.

In many ways, emus look like smaller ostriches. They can reach up to 5.7 feet tall and weigh up to 130 pounds. They can be found throughout Australia. In fact, Australia has even fought a “war” against emus, which the emus won. They can run up to 30 miles per hour.

Finally, rheas are very tiny versions of emus. They can be found in South America. Adults stand between three and five feet tall and weigh between 30 and 60 pounds. They can run up to 40 miles per hour.



Cassowaries are also related to ostrich; however, we are placing them in their own section as they look quite different. You can find these birds that can’t fly in northeastern Australia, New Guinea, and a number of Pacific Islands. They tend to live in tropical forests.

Cassowaries are shy and relatively territorial. They have black and brown bodies with bright blue, red, and orange coloring on their neck and head as well as a large crest. Adults can stand up to six feet tall and weigh up to 130 pounds. There are actually three different subspecies of this bird, including a dwarf cassowary that is much smaller than the other varieties.


Steamer Duck

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia, Steamer Duck)

You’re probably thinking, “ducks can fly!” That is generally true; however, there are a few species of this waterfowl that can’t fly. These include the Auckland Teal, Campbell Teal, Falkland Steamerduck, Megellanic Steamerduck, and White-headed Steamerduck. The former two live in New Zealand and the latter in South America.

There are also other types of ducks where the jury is still out regarding their ability of flight. A good example of this is the Pekin Duck. You may hear that it can fly or that it cannot. This often comes down to how a person classifies “flight.” Pekin Ducks can often fly for very short distances but have great difficulty. Some of them cannot take to the air at all.


Kiwi Bird

Perhaps the most adorable of all flightless birds (don’t tell the penguins) is the Kiwi. This bird is native to New Zealand and quite tiny as far as flightless birds are concerned. It can grow up to 18 inches tall and weighs less than five pounds. They have brown feathers that can be described as looking like hair. They also have a long, pointy beak.

There are five different species of Kiwi. These birds are seen as a cultural symbol for both New Zealand and Maori. They are not very shy so can be easy to see in their habitats. However, they are both nocturnal and quite territorial.

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