Early Birds - Habitats and Niches approach.

Not many of these birds feature as key sightings on the average birders list and they don't raise much excitement amongst the birding community. In fact, because they are flightless, quite a few birders ignore them altogether. However, to ignore them is to pass up on the opportunity to learn something about the earliest of our modern birds. Hopefully this brief review of where I have photographed these birds and my comments about their habitats and behaviour will be helpful.

Key Features

  • Large to medium sized, flightless or reluctant fliers, plant eating, ground foragers although many have evolved to be omnivorous.
  • Only found in specific regions of the world and exhibit features, like head ornamentation, implying relatively early evolution.

1. Ostriches, Rheas, Cassowaries, Emu and Kiwis.

Ornithologists call these birds Ratites which is their term for a group of birds which have no keel to their sternum. Without this keel there is no place for their flight muscles (if they ever developed them) to attach and they are flightless.

These birds are thought to have originated in various parts of Gondwanaland before this giant land mass broke up to form the southern hemisphere continents we know today. They went where ever their particular part of the land mass went and they had probably already become flightless so they are now only found in specific regions of the world.

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The Ostrich (2 species) is now only found in Africa. The Common Ostrich (right) was readily seen and photographed in Kenya. These large robust birds prefer open spaces where their good vision enables them to spot potential predators and run if necessary.

Rheas (2 species) are only found in South America. The Greater Rhea (below, left) is a bird of the pampas.

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They eat shoots, seeds and plant flowers which contain cellulose. This is a highly desirable foodstuff because it is a pure carbohydrate, made up of molecules of sugar joined together, which provide energy when digested. The birds need a large gut capable of holding quite a lot of cellulose. The process requires special enzymes and is rather slow but this is perfectly adequate for the low metabolic rate of these birds.

The Emu (1 species, below, right) is now only found in Australia and the Kiwi (5 species) are birds of New Zealand.

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Kiwis (5 species) are nocturnal and spend most of their time underground. They are the smallest of the Ratites and are only found in New Zealand. I have not so far managed to photograph them.

The Southern Cassowary (below, left) is more secretive and is only found in the rain forests of North-East Australia and New Guinea. It is flightless and feeds on fallen fruit, plants, seeds and the occasional small animal.

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Although the habitats which the above birds occupy are clearly available in other parts of the world none of them have developed elsewhere.

However a number of other families, some of which appear to have evolved in Gondwanaland, show quite primitive behaviour and are again only found in specific regions of the world.

These birds, which are smaller than the Ostrich, Rhea and Emu, are reviewed country by country in the section which follows.

Although they are ground dwellers and feeders, they are never far from tree cover. They often run rather than fly when disturbed.

2. Early Game Birds.

Australia - Scrubfowl.

The names Malleefowl, Megapodes, Brush-turkey and Scrubfowl will be well known to birders in Australia. They are primitive “mound nesting” birds found in Australasia and some Pacific Ocean islands.

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I photographed the Australian Brush-Turkey (below, right) in Cairns, Australia.

Africa - Guineafowl.

The Guineafowl of Africa prefers the scrub at forest edges where they find open spaces protected from aerial predators by the overhanging canopy.

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They eat leaves, shoots, seeds, fruit and small invertebrates and can be seen scratching the ground to find food beneath the soil.

The Helmeted Guineafowl (below, left) were photographed in South Africa.

Kenya is a good place to see the Helmeted, Vulturine and Crested Guineafowl.

Middle and South America - Chachalacas, Guans and Curassows.

The Rheas are not the only birds to have developed mainly in South America following the break up of Gondwanaland. The Chachalacas (16), Guans (22) and Curassows (14) are ground feeders but spend much of their time walking along the branches of trees, presumably because they feel safer there. They take food from the ground but fly up to a branch to eat it.

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The Rufous-vented Chachalaca (right) is readily seen and definitely heard, in Tobago.

The Mc Allen Birding Centre in Texas is a very good place to see the Plain Chachalacas walking along tree branches.

In Costa Rica the Arenal Observatory gardens provide a good chance to see the Crested Guan (below, left). They feed on fruit and vegetation.

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They can be found up to 1200 metres in most of Costa Rica and up to 1800 metres in the southern Pacific region.

The Great Curassow (below, right) was photographed by Robert D in Costa Rica.

These birds are ground foragers which favour forested areas up to about 1200 metres. They forage in pairs on the ground but fly up into the trees to escape danger and to roost.

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Head ornamentation, which you may have noticed in the photograph of the Cassowary, is a key feature of many of these birds and has perhaps been carried to extremes in the Great Curassow.

Concluding remarks.

These birds are listed in 8 families - Struthionidae, Rheidae, Casuariidae, Dromaiidae, Apterygidae, Megapodiidae, Cracidae and Numididae and account for 93 species, just less than 1% of the world's species.