There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.
Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.
In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.
They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.
Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.
Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).
They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.
We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.
Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.
Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right
One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.
Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.
They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.
Cassowary. Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.
While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.
Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.
Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.
We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”
Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.
Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.
We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.
The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.
Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.
There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.
But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.
Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea