Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/December 1899/Wingless Birds



IT is often said that there are no rules without exceptions. We purpose to test the truth of this maxim once more. Fishes are made to live in water, but some of them pass the greater part of their existence in mud. Some even perch upon trees, thus competing with birds, whose kingdom is the air, and which are able, with the aid of their wings, to plunge into space and travel rapidly over considerable distances. Yet there are birds, deprived by Nature, which do not possess the wing characteristic of the feathered tribe, and are consequently, like the majority of animals, pinned to the soil.

Birds do not all have equal power of flight, which is closely related to the extent of the development of their wings. There exist all grades in the spread of wings between that of the condor, which is four times the length of the body, whereby the bird is able to rise to the height of nearly twenty-five thousand feet, and the little winglets of the auk, which are of no use to it. The penguins have still smaller wings, which are nothing more than short, flattened stumps, without proper feathers and covered with a fine, hairlike down which might be taken for scales.

Another group of birds exists, called appropriately Brevipennes, the wings of which are so poorly developed as to be wholly unsuitable for flight. As an offset and just compensation for this, their long and robust legs permit them to run with extraordinary speed. For that reason they have been called running birds, in distinction from other kinds that constitute the group of flying birds. Among them are some gigantic birds, and also some that have no visible wings on the outside of their bodies, and may therefore be properly called wingless.

The ostrich is a member of this group. With its bare, callous head and short bill, its long, featherless neck, and its massive body, supported by long, half-bare legs, ending in two large toes; its very short wings, formed of soft and flexible feathers; and its plume-shaped tail, it presents a very special appearance among the birds.

The nandous, the American representatives of the ostrich, have still shorter wings, which have no remigia at all, and terminate in a horny appendage, and they have no tail feathers.

The cassowary and the emu also resemble the ostrich in many points, but their wings are still more reduced than those of the nandou. They are only slightly distinct, and can not be seen when the bird holds them close up to its body. In the Apteryx, the name of which, from the Greek, means without wings, the organs of flight are hardly apparent, and consist simply of a very short stump bearing a thick and hooked nail. The Apteryx, which is also called Kiwi, a native of New Zealand, is the most singular of living birds. The neck and the body are continuous, and the moderately sized head is furnished with a long beak resembling that of the ibis. Having long hairs similar to the mustaches of cats at its base, it is different from the bills of all other existing birds in possessing nostrils that open at its upper point. Although the Apteryx can not fly, it runs very fast, despite the shortness of its legs, and can defend itself very effectively against assailants by the aid of its long-nailed and sharp-nailed feet. The tail is absent like the wings. The very pliant feathers are extremely curious, of the shape of a lance-head, pendent, loose, silky, with jagged barbs, and increase in length as they go back from the neck. The bird is of the size of a fowl, and when in its normal position stands with its body almost vertical, and carries the suggestion of a caricature—resembling, we might say, a feathered sack, with only a long-billed head and the claws projecting, and one beholding it feels that he is looking at some unfinished creature. It is a nocturnal bird, of fierce temper, and has become rare in consequence of the merciless war that is made upon it. Everything is strange about it, even the single egg it lays, which weighs about a quarter as much as its body.

Together with the Apteryx, there lived in New Zealand a bird that reached the height of nearly twelve feet—the Dinornis. It and the Phororhaces and the Brontornis, which have been recently exhumed in Patagonia, might be regarded as the giants of birds. This bird was known to the natives as the Moa, and lived in troops like the ostriches. Its organization was very much like that of the Apteryx, from which it was, however, distinguished by its great size, long neck, and short beak. It seems to have had the aspect of an ostrich, with a feathered neck and no wings or tail. The feet of the Dinornis, with their three large toes, were really enormous. Isolated fragments of its bones suggest very large mammals, rather than birds. The femur and tibia are larger than those of a bear, the tibia alone being about four feet long, and the thickness, in the narrowest part, of the width of a man's hand, while it was more than seven inches in the thickest part. The sternum, on the other hand, was small, convex, and longer than broad. The wing could not have been visible on the outside of the body, for the bones that constitute them are proportionally smaller than those of the Apteryx. There was, therefore, a maximum reduction of the wing in this bird.

The Dinornis was covered with a rich plumage, and this was doubtless what led to its destruction, women preferring its plumes to all other ornaments. The large number of bones which have been discovered in the alluviums, the caves, and the peat bogs of New Zealand authorize the thought that the island was once inhabited by a considerable number of these birds, which were able easily to repel the attacks of other animals by means of their big feet. But they could stand no chance against Nature's more terrible destroyer—man—who, when seeking the gratification of his taste and fancy, does not hesitate to exterminate whole species. The natives of New Zealand still recall the history of these singular birds; their extermination seems to have occurred about the time the island was visited by Captain Cook (1767-1778). Moreover, some of the bones collected in later years still had animal matter upon them. Even parts of the windpipe have been discovered, mixed with charcoal, and evidences of cooking have been found.

A near relative of the Dinornis, which the Maoris regard as extinct, is the Notornis, of which only four living specimens have been found since 1842, the last one having been captured in the latter part of 1898.

The eggs of the Dinornis were very large, having a capacity of about a gallon and being equivalent to eighty hen's eggs. Still larger eggs than these, however, are known. In 1851 Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire exhibited, in the French Academy of Sciences, eggs of a bird coming from Madagascar that had a capacity of two gallons. Some specimens of these eggs may be seen in the galleries of the Paris Museum, and still larger eggs have been found. The museum in London has one with a capacity exceeding eleven quarts, or equivalent to two hundred and twenty hen's eggs, or more than seventy thousand humming birds' eggs. It was thought at first that the bird which laid these gigantic eggs was still living, for natives of Madagascar spoke of having seen a bird of colossal size that could throw down an ox and make a meal of it. Such, however, were not the ways of the bird called the Epiornis, which had no talons or wings, and fed on vegetable substances. The description by the celebrated traveler Marco Polo of a great flying bird of prey, called a roc, has no reference to the Epiornis. M. Grandidier has demonstrated that this bird no longer exists in Madagascar, and that if man ever knew it the stories with marvelous details which the savages hand down from generation to generation make no mention of it. "We owe to M. Grandidier, M. Milne-Edwards, and Major Forsyth what is known of the history of this large wingless bird, which resembles the Dinornis in several points. If its size was proportioned to that of its eggs it should have been twice as large as the Dinornis. It was not, however, but constituted a family represented by very diverse forms and of variable size, though never much exceeding eleven feet. The head was similar in appearance to that of the Dinornis, but the surface of the forehead was furrowed with wrinkles and cavities, indicating the presence of a crest of large feathers. A curious peculiarity was the opening of the Eustachian tube directly on the exterior. The cervical vertebrae are very numerous, while the sternum is much reduced. It is a flat bone, broad but very short, especially in the median part. The wing also has suffered a great regression, for it comprises only a thin, short rod, the humerus, and a small osseous mass representing all the other bones of the wing stuck together. The Epiornis had no wings externally visible. The bones of the feet were, on the other hand, of considerable size, and indicate that the bird that possessed them was larger than the Dinornis.

The Epiornis, according to M. Milne-Edwards, frequented the borders of waters, keeping among the reeds along lakes and rivers, for its bones are found associated with those of turtles, crocodiles, and a small hippopotamus. It most probably nested in the low plains around lakes.

Just as the Apteryx among birds, and the bison and the beaver among mammals, so the Dinornis and the Epiornis have been destroyed as man has extended his abode and his domination. When we regard the fauna of Madagascar and of New Zealand we are struck by the great resemblance between them, from the points of view of their recent and ancient vertebrate fauna. These resemblances suggest the past existence of relations between these two lands now separated by a wide expanse of sea, and this agrees with geological observations.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.