Birds on Islands Are Losing the Ability to Fly

Birds inhibiting islands around the world, including New Zealand, are evolving flightless qualities, here's why.

Before the arrival of humans—and the rats, cats, and other predators that we brought—New Zealand was an idyllic haven for birds. Without ground-dwelling mammalian hunters to bother them, many of the local species lost the ability to fly. There’s the kakapo, a giant, booming parrot with an owl-like countenance; the takahe, weka, and other flightless relatives of coots and moorhens; a couple of flightless ducks; and, of course, the iconic kiwi.

These birds are part of a pattern that plays out across the world’s islands. Wherever predators are kept away by expanses of water, birds become flightless—quickly and repeatedly. This process has happened on more than a thousand independent occasions, producing the awkward dodo of Mauritius, the club-winged ibis of Jamaica, and the tatty-winged flightless cormorant of the Galapagos.

New Zealand is home to the kiwi and more flightless birds than any other nation. Chris McLennan, Alamy

The call of the ground is a strong one, and it exists even when the skies are still an option. Natalie Wright from the University of Montana demonstrated this by collecting data on 868 species. She showed that even when island birds can still fly, they’re edging towards flightlessness. Compared to mainland relatives, their flight muscles (the ones we eat when we tuck into chicken breasts) are smaller and their legs are longer.

“Pretty much all island birds are experiencing these pressures to reduce flight, even if some can’t go to the extreme,” Wright says.

New Zealand’s endangered takahe was previously thought to be extinct. Mitsuaki Iwago, Minden Pictures

Her results show that flying isn’t a binary thing, with a clear boundary between taking to the air and staying on the ground. Instead, there’s a full spectrum of abilities between aeronautical swifts and shuffling kiwis, and island birds exist on all parts of that continuum. “None of the species I looked at were flightless or close to being truly flightless,” says Wright. “There’s no point where, all of a sudden, they have much smaller flight muscles.”

Her study began about 20 years ago, when her undergraduate advisor David Steadman started weighing the flight muscles of birds at the Florida Museum of Natural History. When Wright got her hands on the data set, she noticed that fruit doves had smaller flight muscles on islands that were further from the mainland. She then travelled to five natural history museums herself to examine more skeletons. For each one, she measured the long bones in the lower legs and the size of the breastbone—the latter revealed how heavy the bird’s flight muscles would have been in life.

These flightless cormorants can’t fly away from their Galapagos nest. Tui de Roy, Minden Pictures

Across nine major groups of birds, with a wide range of lifestyles, body shapes, and diets, Wright found the same trend. On smaller islands with fewer species, no mammalian predators, and fewer birds of prey, birds have repeatedly reallocated energy from forelimbs to hindlimbs, away from big flight muscles and towards longer legs.

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