Not surprisingly, the heaviest birds can't fly. The heaviest bird known from fossils is Stirton's Thunder Bird (Dromornis stirtoni),1 sometimes called Mihirung birds, meaning “giant bird” in one of the Aboriginal languages. Adults are estimated to have stood 3 meters tall and weighed 500 kilos (1100 pounds). It lived in open woodlands in what is now the Northern Territory of Australia during the Late Miocene. Although Australian, it is more closely related to geese than emus. (The nickname “demon duck of doom,” sometimes applied to Dromornis, more properly refers to Bullockornis planei.)
Slightly less massive but perhaps taller is the elephant bird, or (in Malagasy) vorompatra, or Aepyornia maximus (sometimes called Aepyornia titan), which lived in Madagascar as late as the 17th century. Built somewhat along the lines of an ostrich, it was much heavier than an ostrich and not made for running (the ostrich is the fastest thing on two feet). Aepyornia stood 10 feet tall, weighed a thousand pounds, and laid 9-liter (2.4 U.S. gallons), 20-pound eggs a foot long. The yolks of these eggs are the largest known cells.
New Zealand had a remote relative called Dinornis maximus which became extinct around 1800. It was the tallest bird that ever existed, at around 11 feet 6 inches.
The bird the author would least like to meet in a dark alley is Phorusrhacus inflatus, which lived in Patagonia from the Early to Middle Miocene. Ten feet tall with a heavy, flesh-tearing beak like that of an eagle, this fellow was definitely a meat-eater. New Jersey had some big birds in the Early Eocene. Diatryma gigantea stood 7 feet tall. (Its fossils are also found in New Mexico, Wyoming, and parts of Europe.) We don't know what it ate.
The ostrich is the heaviest and tallest of living birds, with adults reaching 156 kilograms (345 pounds) and 2.7 meters (9 feet).
1. Patricia Vickers Rich.
The Dromornithidae, an extinct family of large ground birds endemic to Australia.
Bulletin of the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, number 184, pages 1-190.
Canberra: Australian Government Publishing, 1979.
For more on the elephant bird: www.geocities.com/vorompatra/index.html, a site that includes a fine bibliography full of links.
Among all living birds there is a strong correlation between the sizes of a bird's leg bones and its mass.
log M = 2.411·log CF - 0/065
log M = 2.424·log CT + 0.076
where M is body mass in grams, CF is the least diameter of the femur in millimeters, and CT is the least diameter of the tibiotarsus in millimeters.2 No such relationships have been found for wing bones; there are too many different ways of flying. The leg bone/weight relationship has been used to estimate the weights of fossil birds.
2. Kenneth E. Campbell, Jr. and Eduardo P. Tonni.
Size and Locomotion in Teratorns (Aves: Teratornithidae).
The Auk, vol. 100, pages 390-403 (April 1983).
Page 392. The authors credit John Anderson for first calling attention to this correlation.
Kenneth E. Campbell, Jr., and L. Marcus.
The relationship of hindlimb bone dimensions to body weight in birds.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Science. Series 36 pages 395–412 (1992)
The heaviest modern bird that can fly is the Great Bustard (Otis tarda) or similar-sized Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori), which weigh up to 21 kilograms. Another contender is the mute swan (Cygnus olor); adult males weigh about 20 kilograms.
© Jakob Leitner/iStockphoto.com
Among living birds, the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) has the greatest wingspan, about 3.63 meters (about 12 feet).
© James Thew/iStockphoto.com
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), a living species, has a wingspan of 3.2 meters (10.5 feet), as does the marabou stork.
The fossil bird with the largest known wingspan (as of 2010) is Pelagornis chilensis, a seabird that lived in Chile 5 to 10 million years ago. Its wing bones, which have been recovered, are the longest of any known bird. From them, the wingspan has been estimated as at least 5.25 meters (17 feet). A close second is Odontopteryx gigas, another seabird, with an estimated wingspan of about 4 m.
A vulture-like South American bird of the Late Miocene (about 6 million years ago), Argentavis magnificens, is estimated to have had a 7-meter (23-foot) wingspread and to have weighed an estimated 70 kilograms.2 The wing bones of Argentavis, however, are shorter than those of P. chilensis. Computer modeling2 using these estimates suggested that the bird didn't have enough muscle for flapping flight, but could soar on thermals. Taking off and landing would have been a problem; probably it required a head wind and/or a slope for running downhill.
1. Gerald Mayr and David Rubilar-Rogers.
Osteology of a new giant bony-toothed bird from the Miocene of Chile, with a revision of the taxonomy of Neogene Pelagornithidae.
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, vol. 30, no. 5, pages 1313-1330 (2010).
See page 1327 for a comparision with Argentavis magnificens.
2. K. E. Campbell, Jr. and E. P. Tonni.
A new genus of teratorn from the Huayquerian of Argentina (Aves: Teratornithidae).
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Contributions to Science, vol. 330 pages 59-68 (1980).
K. E. Campbell, Jr. and E. P. Tonni.
Size and locomotion in teratorns (Aves: Teratornithidae).
The Auk, vol. 100, pages 390-403 (1983).
3. Sankar Chatterjee, R. Jack Templin, and Kenneth E. Campbell,
The aerodynamics of Argentavis, the world's largest flying bird from the Miocene of Argentina.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104: pages 12398-12403 (2007).
Published online on July 3, 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0702040104
The smallest bird is found in Cuba: the bee hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae (Lembeye, 1850). Two inches long, it weighs less than 2 grams and its eggs are only 0.3 inches long. More than 30,000 Mellisuga helenae eggs would fit in a single Aepyornia maximus egg.
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Last revised: 4 November 2014.