Mad About Science:

Giant Birds

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

We’re going big. How big? Bigger than Big Bird Big. How Big was Big Bird? Pretty big. Eight feet, two inches tall.

Wow. That’s one big bird!

In the animal kingdom, height isn’t everything. In fact, height could actually be disadvantageous. Length, width and wingspan, however, are a completely different story.

So what are some big birds?

The ostrich. Sure, it’s not as sexy as a bald eagle. You don’t see a lot of people painting an ostrich on the side of their van, but the ostrich has a higher body count under its belt than any eagle does.

Ostriches are tall, anywhere from five feet to almost nine, and they can weigh up to 360 pounds (usually closer to 320), heavier than a center in the NFL. Unlike your favorite player, the ostrich can sprint up to 45 mph. You know, how fast you should be going when driving through Kootenai. Could you imagine being able to run that fast? Especially if you were 360 pounds.

Ostriches have a higher human body count than sharks, though part of this is probably humanity’s fault for not actively avoiding a bird that can rip doors off trucks by simply running.

Moving on to another flightless bird, the terror of the south Pacific, the cassowary from Papua New Guinea. You may not recognize the name, but if you saw one you would immediately recognize it as “that terrifying killer monster-bird.”

The southern cassowary is the most common variant and easily recognized, standing anywhere from four to six feet tall with two long, straight legs and a goofy-looking head emerging from what appears to be a giant black tribble. They sport a hard sail-like crest on their heads, and their eyes radiate pure evil. OK, maybe not pure evil. They’re just protective of their territory, but they’re notorious for attacking humans.

To be fair, at least 75 percent of all cassowary-human incidents are a result of humans feeding the birds, and as any North Idaho resident knows: Don’t feed the wildlife. They don’t need your help, and you do need your body parts.

Let’s move away from the flightless birds, and get to some that can actually go airborne. (Could you imagine a flying ostrich? I’d pee a little.) The California condor, a bird that was briefly extinct in the wild has since been reintroduced to several habitats throughout the United States. It’s still listed as critical, barely a step above being extinct in the wild, and our changing climate doesn’t seem to be doing this guy any favors.

When you see a California condor (and boy, are they rare!), they don’t look so big. That’s perspective playing tricks on you. The have a wingspan of almost nine feet. Make no mistake, the condor is a BIG bird. Luckily for us, they don’t like to feast on the living; instead, they’re more like nature’s garbage men. They find sun-baked carcasses sitting in the sun, just waiting to spread horrible disease and pestilence when these guys swoop in and chow down, eliminating the threat altogether. Isn’t nature weird?

The next bird is by no means a colossus when looking at the rest of these magnificent avian specimens, but they should definitely get a mention because they’re quite heavy for their size.

You’ve watched them dance, and you’ve listened dreamily to Morgan Freeman talking about them: the emperor penguin.

Penguins?!

Yes, penguins. They’re about four feet tall, which is pretty dang big for a bird, and they can also get up to be almost 100 pounds. Basically, if your average fourth grader got into a wrestling match with an emperor penguin, the penguin would win.

I have one last bird up my sleeve, which means I must have some pretty huge tarp-like sleeves. I saved the biggest and best for last.

But Brenden, what could possibly be bigger than everything else on this list? The Albatross? The Bald Eagle?

Nope, cop out! I’m going prehistoric on your oculars!

Pelagornis sandersi. Funny as it would be, this bird is not named after Colonel Sanders, but instead named after Albert Sanders, the curator of the Charleston Museum in South Carolina at the time of its discovery.

So how big was this bird? It was a beast, man. It had a wingspan of up to 24 feet. Legally, the largest stretch limousines in the United States can’t exceed 18 feet. If you could have gone all Bedrock and taken your date to prom on a Pelagornis sandersi, you would have made fools of all the popular kids.

Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic for reasons other than the fact that it’s extinct. This guy only got up to be about 88 pounds, so trying to fit two adult humans on its back wouldn’t have gotten you very far. It also seems it couldn’t fly conventionally, ironically, because its wings were too big. Pelagornis could only dive off cliffs to catch ocean-wind currents and hope for the best.

The fact that this is a major inconvenience, and “hoping for the best” has never been a prime subject of the evolutionary model. That’s probably one of the many factors that drove this giant to extinction. But with a wingspan like that, you can bet it had a good ride.

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