Some of the biggest birds on the planet can stand taller than any NBA player and spread their wings wider than a king-size bed.
There are nearly 10,000 species of birds on Earth and they come in all different shapes and sizes – from the tiny bee hummingbird to the enormous ostrich. Here are 10 of the largest birds on our planet, including the largest, heaviest, and those with the widest wingspans.
Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)
Named after a man-bird hybrid in ancient Greek mythology, harpy eagles are among the largest birds on Earth. These dark gray birds are among the largest eagle species on Earth, especially when comparing their weights. An adult female can weigh up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms) and males can reach 12 pounds (5.4 kg), depending San Diego Zoo. In comparison, the Bald Eagle can weigh up to 14 pounds (6 kg), depending on the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These birds soar across South America, held aloft by their impressive 6.5-foot (2-meter) wingspan, in search of prey. When their prey is in sight, as porcupines, stag and possumsharpy eagles descend at speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) and use their 5-inch (13 centimeter) claws to deliver a killing blow to their prey, according to the San Diego Zoo.
Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Meet the largest bird in the world, at least in terms of wingspan. According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Wings of this size mean these albatrosses can spend a lot of time in the sky – for example – a bird would have traveled around 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometres) in just 12 days.
There are 23 species of albatross, but all but one are either threatened, endangered, or vulnerable to extinction. This is due to birds getting caught in fishing hooks while retrieving fish and squid bait from fishing vessels and trawlers.
Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
The largest of all birds on Earth, both in size and weight, is undoubtedly the ostrich. These giant birds stand up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall and can weigh up to 287 pounds (130 kilograms), according to San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Despite having a wingspan of up to 2 meters (7 feet), ostriches are flightless. Instead, they use their wings the same way a ship uses its sails.
During a ferocious 43 mile per hour run, these birds open their wings and use them as rudders for quick braking and steering. This agility allows them to escape some of the many threats they face in the African savanna, including predatory species. like lions and jackals. In some situations, ostriches will go on the offensive and use their powerful clawed feet to deliver a blow strong enough to kill a lion, according to PBS Nature.
Greater rhea (Rhea americana)
Although these birds may look like a juvenile ostrich, rhea are actually their South American cousins. At only about a fifth the size of an adult ostrich, the rhea can still weigh an impressive 66 pounds (30 kilograms) and grow up to 5 feet tall (1.5 meters), according to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institute of Conservation Biology. Rheas are flightless birds and, like ostriches, use their wings as balance aids when running at high speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, according to the Houston Zoo. Female rheas lay up to 40 eggs per breeding season, but it is the males of the species that will indicate the eggs for about 30 days before they hatch.
Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
The southern cassowary is one of the most prehistoric birds to prowl New Guinea and mainland Australia. Growing up to 6 feet (2 meters) tall, cassowaries are one of the tallest birds on the planet, according to the Australian Museum. To top off their height is a prominent headpiece called the helmet which is made of a thick layer of keratin – the same material that makes up your fingernails and hair. Cassowaries use these helmets to fend off vegetation as they pass through the forest, according to the Edinburgh Zoo. Apart from being one of the largest species of birds, they have also gained a reputation for being one of the most dangerous. As one of the few birds recorded to have killed humans, the cassowary uses its pointed 3-toed feet – which sport a 4-inch (10 centimeter) long middle toe – to deliver a killing blow to its target, according to American Scientist.
Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
The Dalmatian pelican is not only the largest pelican species, it is also one of the largest flying birds in the world. With a wingspan of around 11 feet (3 meters), these high-flying pelicans have been observed to reach altitudes of over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), according to the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation. In addition to a big pair of wings, Dalmatian pelicans also have a big appetite. An adult pelican can devour around 4 pounds (1.8 kg) of fish in a single day, according to San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Dalmatian pelicans herd this amount of fish by using their huge beak pouches to dive into the water and pick up fish near the surface. Once the fish are trapped inside their beaks, the pelicans tilt their heads forward to filter the water and devour their meal.
Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)
Also known as whale-headed storks, shoebills are one of Africa’s strangest and largest birds. According to Animal Diversity Web. As hunters, shoebills have a high success rate and deliver a killing blow in water around 60% of the time, according to the charity Bird Life International. These solitary birds are not found in groups and often occupy a territory of around 1 square mile (3 square kilometers).
Great bustard (Otis tarda)
Great bustards are the largest land bird in Europe, but are also found in Central Asia, Russia and Morocco according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Males can weigh up to 31 pounds (14 kilograms) and stand nearly 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall, which also means they are an easy target for hunters. As a result, their numbers have dwindled over the years – more than 30% of the world’s population has disappeared since the 1960s – and have disappeared nationally in some countries like the UK, according to Bird Life International. According to RSPBthe last great bustard was shot in 1832 in the UK, but was reintroduced in 2004 and currently supports a self-sustaining population of over 100 birds, according to the BBC.
Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
Of all the 18 penguin species on Earth, emperor penguins are the largest, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They are about 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and weigh about 88 pounds (40 kilograms), but this fluctuates regularly throughout the year. These flightless birds use their fat stores to insulate themselves against the harsh conditions of the Antarctic winter, as well as multiple layers of scale-like feathers that would withstand winds of up to 68 miles per hour before ruffling, according to the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. In addition to their own insulation, emperor penguins group together in colonies to reduce heat loss by 50% and create a temperature above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) inside the group.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
The Andean condor is the largest species of raptor on the planet and the second-largest wingspan of any bird – spanning about 10.5 feet (3.2 meters), according to San Diego Wildlife Alliance. With their impressive wingspan, these birds can reach heights of up to 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) as they pass over the peaks of the Andes, according to Welsh Mountain Zoo. Due to their large wingspan, these birds can easily move on the air current without expelling much energy. Andean condors are a species of vulture and like many vulture species are not primarily hunters and scavenge their food from dying or deceased animals. about 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) of carrion (dead or rotting flesh) in a single meal, according to the San Diego Wildlife Alliance. The Andean condor also has a long lifespan of around 50 years in the wild and up to 80 years in captivity, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society Peru.
For more information on birds around the world, visit online databases such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) webpage, Birds of the World by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Red List of IUCN. For more on the evolution of birds, check out “How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals About Their Origin, Lives, and Diversity” by Douglas J. Futuyma and “The Rise of Birds: How Modern Science Reveals Their Story” by John Reilly.
Josep Del Hoyo, “All the Birds of the World”, Lynx Edicions, August 2020.
Dominic Couzens, “Extreme Birds: The World’s Most Extraordinary and Bizarre Birds”, Firefly Books, August 2011.
Rob Hume, “RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe”, DK, August 2020.
Peter Harrison, Martin Perrow and Hans Larsson, “Seabirds”, Lynx Edicions, June 2021.