Big, Beastly, and very Extinct Birds
In the right circumstances birds can evolve into giants. In the vast majority of cases they have done this on oceanic islands in the absence of any large land predators and most of these extinct giant birds are decidedly lacking when it comes to predatory ferocity, as birds like the moa and elephant bird attest; big, but decidedly vegetarian animals.
However, a long-legged bird living in South America several million years ago, probably very similar to the living seriemas (Cariama cristata and Chunga burmeisteri), gave rise to a group of birds collectively known as terror birds (, technically known as phorusrhacids) and as their name suggests they were not the sort of feathered critters you would find nibbling nuts at a bird-table. They were big birds; the smallest of the 17 known species were at least 1m tall, while Brontornis burmeisteri stood as high as 3m and may have weighed as much as 350–400 kg, but even B. burmeisteri may have looked a bit pathetic next to an even bigger species, the skull of which was discovered by a high school student in Patagonia in 2003.
(image: Terror bird (Paraphysornis brasiliensis) by Renata Cunha, from Extinct Animals, Greenwood Press)
There’s every possibility these animals were the largest birds ever to have lived and all of them were undoubtedly fierce predators. Why these nightmarish birds came to evolve in South America is not fully understood, as no other place on Earth has ever produced a group of predatory giant birds. Gigantism in birds is normally associated with herbivory, yet whatever conditions prevailed in South America many millions of years ago allowed the evolution of a varied group of feathered carnivores that were around for a huge stretch of time; from around 60 million years ago to about 1.8 million years ago, which goes to show how successful these birds were…
(read more: Scrubmuncher’s Blog)
(top image: A selection of terror birds and silhouette of a man (1.75 m high) for scale, byHerculano M.F. Alvarenga)
* thanks to the lovely and brilliant Sagittariidae for letting us know about this article!!!
no other place on Earth has ever produced a group of predatory giant birds
everyone’s always forgetting about Australia! man, when it comes to looking at bizarre animals, check the antipodes first. it’s kind of our thing.
this dapper chap is Bullockornis, also called the Demon Duck (of Doom), and it stood 2.5 meters tall and weighed up to half a ton. in another example of South American-Australian convergence, it’s entirely unrelated to the terror birds— Bullockornis was a duck and the terror birds were either related to cranes or a bunch of modern, derived birds— but it’s pretty similar.
it had a lot of omnivorous sister species, but recent studies suggest that Bullockornis lived mainly on a diet of giant wombats, kangaroos, and possums, making it more or less the most terrifying bird ever. along with the other giant Australian birds, it was driven to extinction by the spread of Indigenous Australians.
Just to emphasise that point: at some stage in history there was a war between humans and giant carnivorous ducks.
I think we’re all the poorer for that having happened before the invention of the video camera.
…whenever I see an article about terror birds, I have very vivid flashbacks of being pecked within an inch of my life by some random chocobo I was trying to catch ¬_¬
Hmm, I wonder… were these guys discovered before 1987? I’ve only read about them quite recently, but it would be funny if they’d been an inspiration X3