April 14 – Birds of Pray

Today’s factismal: The largest bird skull ever found was 28 inches long. Eighteen inches of that was the beak, which was used to club prey to death.

There is a joke in paleontological circles that tries to classify Big Bird. He isn’t a lark (despite what he said on Hollywood Squares) because he is too big. And he isn’t a parrot because the beak is the wrong shape to crack nuts. In fact, the group of birds that he most resembles is the Phorusrhacidae, the group whose name literally translates into “rag bearers” due to the wrinkly shape of their jaws. These flightless birds of prey ranged in size from 3 feet tall to more than nine feet tall (for reference, Big Bird is eight feet tall) and had long, sharp beaks that they used to club their prey before ripping it to shreds with their sharp talons and the tip of their beak. Like their very distant cousins the ostriches and emus, Phorusrhacidae could run quickly; unlike their cousins, the terror birds did it to catch their prey and not to escape being prey themselves. (Which brings us to the other paleontology joke about these critters: if one knocks on your door, you’d best start praying they aren’t preying!)

Not the sort of bird you'd want to meet in a dark alley (Image courtesy Michael B. H)

Not the sort of bird you’d want to meet in a dark alley
(Image courtesy Michael B. H)

The reign of the terror birds lasted for nearly sixty million years. They were an apex predator in South America from the time just after the death of the dinosaurs up until about two million years ago when South America joined up with North America. The new land bridge allowed predators from the North to head into terror bird territory; the increased competition combined with the climate changes caused by the drifting plates lead to the demise of this magnificent predator.

But many of their relatives and possible descendents still live today. And this weekend, you have a chance to see some of them and help science at the same time. That’s because this weekend is the Annual Midwest Crane Count. All you have to do to participate is go out and look for cranes; if you see any, report them to eBird (which will also help you identify any birds you do see). For more information, wing over to:

One thought on “April 14 – Birds of Pray

  1. Pingback: January 5 – Happy New Bird! | Little facts about science

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