The Cryptid Zoo: Moas and Other Giant Flightless Birds

Today, the largest flightless bird that science acknowledges is the ostrich, but much larger flightless birds survived until relatively recent times. Some of these were the phorusrhacids or "terror birds." They are not closely related to ostriches, emus, kiwis and other flightless birds of today. Their closest modern relatives are thought to be the snake-killing secretary bird of Africa and the seriemas of South America. These giant predatory flightless birds were among the prime predators of the southern supercontinent that consisted of South America, Africa and Australia, sharing this niche with marsupial predators. Eventually, more competitive predators from northern landmasses invaded these southern lands with the exception of Australia, and the terror birds died out, along with most of their marsupial comrades.

South America had birds of this type, but they are thought to have become extinct when the land bridge formed to North America and predators such as the cougar and coyote gradually replaced them. However, this assumption was recently overturned. Fossils from Texas and Florida show that at least one species of South American terror bird managed to establish itself in North America, and was still alive two million years ago. This species had wings that had evolved back into arms, with clawed "hands" on them. It may have looked remarkably like a small, predatory dinosaur. Estimates of its height range from a modest six feet to possibly as big as twelve feet for adult birds. The two-million-year-old fossils have been dated accurately without a doubt. Other North American terror bird fossils might date to as recently as 15,000 years ago, a time when people could have seen them. In fact, there is North American Indian folklore that is rather suggestive of the terror bird, even getting the details right, such as clawed arms instead of wings.

The first people in Australia had to contend with gigantic flightless birds called mihirungs that could be up to ten feet tall. Mihirungs seemed to drop off the fossil record a few thousand years after the arrival of humans, but these birds survived in their folktales and art up to modern times. Some cryptozoologists think that mihirungs might have survived in small pockets for thousands of years longer than they were supposed to, or even that one tiny population might exist today. A few modern sightings and footprints lend weight to this suggestion, along with the occasional discovery of eggs far bigger than those of any ostrich, eggs that are not fossilized and don't seem to be thousands of years old. Weird giant bird-monsters are reported from the deserts of western Australia, and these do not fit the description of feral ostriches. Unlike the terror birds, mihirungs were related more closely to the duck family than to any other variety of bird.

The demise of other giant birds is not as long ago as you think. According to today's science, the last of these giants to die out is thought to be the one that inhabited the African island of Madagascar until about three hundred years ago. This was the aptly-named elephant bird, a relative of the ostrich that may have stood twelve feet tall and weighed about half a ton. It laid eggs bigger than the eggs laid by any known animal, including dinosaurs! These eggs and elephant bird bones are often found in swamps today, both in non-fossilized states, showing that their owners died relatively recently. Several smaller versions of the elephant bird are known to have lived on mainland Africa and some other islands in the general vicinity of Africa, but these are thought to have died out much earlier. Some cryptozoologists hold out hope that a few elephant birds might still survive, deep within the most remote areas of Madagascar, or perhaps even hidden within some swamp in continental Africa. Elephant birds were once cryptids in every sense of the word. Before irrefutable evidence in the form of bones and eggs converted mainstream scientists, they were thought to be entirely mythical. After their discovery, elephant birds were used as the official explanation for a different giant bird that still remains mythical, the roc.

The moa is perhaps the most famous of these cryptids that might still survive. It is a gigantic flightless bird that supposedly went extinct about a thousand years ago when the Maori (the native race of New Zealand) arrived and began hunting it. Maori folklore contains legends of the moa, but these legends claim that the bird is no longer among the living. This has not stopped modern sightings of this bird in extremely remote areas of New Zealand's South Island. One of these sightings happened as recently as 1993. The birds in these sightings are described as being about seven feet tall, with reddish-brown feathers covering the entire body down to the knees. They do not have "arms" or visible wings of any kind.

However, there were about eleven species of moa, and a second, much smaller moa has also been reported in sightings. Since this bird is only about two feet tall, it has received less attention, but it is more likely to exist than its larger cousin. A number of mainstream ornithologists, not just cryptozoologists, think that it could be still alive or that it only recently went extinct.

A lesser-known giant flightless bird is the du of New Caledonia, which is supposed to have gone extinct near the year 300. However, modern sightings of these birds have continued, as recently as the 1990s. Biologist Francois Poplin is one of the few scientists who think the du might still be alive. The du stood about five feet tall when alive.

The largest species of giant flightless bird acknowledged by science as living today is the ostrich, but some of these birds still belong in the realm of cryptozoology. Ostriches once thrived in the Middle East, but the Arabian ostrich has officially been extinct since the 1950s. Sightings have continued ever since, but hope became low enough that environmentalists began stocking Saudi Arabia with African ostriches.

You can find out more about Moas and other Giant Flightless Birds from the following sources:

Clark, Jerome and Coleman, Loren. Cryptozoology A-Z. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Pages 164-167

Dickison, Mike. Moa Central

Moran, Mark & Sceurman, Mark. Weird N.J.: Your Travel Guide to New Jersey's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Page 111
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Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 26-27, 139, 149-150, 296, 301-302, 361-362, 400, 477

Rich, Pat. Kadimakara: Extinct Vertebrates of Australia.

Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Pages 75-79, 141-165

Weidensaul, Scott. The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Pages 216-219

Wikipedia, The. Elephant Bird

Wikipedia, The. Moa

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