What’s In The Bush – Part 2: Birds

Downunder is on top, for birds anyway!

This world map is upside down, because this really is the right way up when it comes to birdlife.

This infographic shows the distribution of the large birds of the world (not including the geese & swans, which are worldwide).  As you can see, large birds have a predominantly southern distribution.

Predominantly southern distribution of large birds of the world
Where the big birds are

The world’s biggest birds – Ostriches – can only be seen in Africa.  Their similarly enormous relatives, Emus & Cassowaries, can only be seen in Australia/New Guinea.  In fact, all of the ratites (those mentioned, plus kiwis, rheas & tinamous) are only found in the Gondwana continents – Australia, New Zealand, South America & Africa.


The next largest in weight, the penguins, are only found in southern waters except for one – the Galapagos Penguin.  The huge ones – the Emperor & King Penguins – only live around Antarctica.  Smaller members of the family live as far north as southern Australia, South Africa and up the west coast of South America.

The heaviest flying birds, the bustards, have two representatives in Europe, and three in central Asia, but by far the largest diversity of the family is in Africa – Africa has 19 species of bustard. India has another three, South-east Asia and Australia both have one species each.

Pelicans are very large birds that range widely.  Seven of the eight species live in the Gondwana continents.  Two of those range into Europe (Great White, Dalmatian), and another one ranges into North America (Brown).  The only one that doesn’t live in the south – the American White Pelican – lives in North America and winters in Mexico.

Australian Pelican – restricted to the Australasian region

For an excellent table of the world’s heaviest birds see this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Largest_organisms#Birds_.28Aves.29

In terms of wing span, the largest birds are the albatrosses.  The great albatrosses, the Wandering and Royal Albatrosses, can have wingspans up to 3.7 metres.  Albatrosses have a primarily southern distribution.  Of 22 species*, 18 are restricted to the southern oceans.

Shy (White-browed) Albatrosses in New Zealand

Vultures, both Old World and New World (which are not closely related to each other) have very large wingspans to 3metres.  North America has three species, and Europe has four, but Africa has ten species, India and South America have six species each.  Again, the great diversity of these two families is in the Gondwana continents.

one of the most colourful Australian parrots – the Rainbow Lorikeet

In addition, the ‘charismatic’, well-known bird families of the world also live mostly in the southern continents.  Birds of Paradise, Bowerbirds, Lyrebirds live only in Australia/New Guinea/South-east Asia; Toucans & Quetzals live only in South & Central America.  Parrots are at their greatest diversity in Australia, and almost all the species worldwide live in the southern continents.  Cockatoos only live in the Australia/New Guinea/SE Asia region.

Even some of the best known of European birds – pigeons, herons, storks & cranes – actually have many more species in the south than in the north.

Superb Lyrebird – only in Australia

But why?

Because Gondwana – and Australia in particular – is where most of them began!  In his amazing book “Where Song Began” Tim Low outlines what ornithologists have known for years: the southern continents have stocked the world with birds.

Even the songbirds – the canaries, finches, sparrows, larks, warblers, mockingbirds, thrushes, blackbirds, robins, shrikes, orioles, cardinals, flycatchers, kinglets, wrens and chickadees – have all come from Aussie ancestors.

So next time you hear a wonderful dawn chorus, say thanks to our little continent at the bottom of the world (or the top, depending on how you look at it!!)

*debate continues on the number of species of albatrosses – some say as few as 13 exist, others believe 24.  This number based on IUCN and BirdLife International.


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