The 20 Weirdest Birds You've Never Heard of But Need to Know

Here are some of the most exceptional dinosaur descendants in our skies, seas, and lands.

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Bob Owen / Flickr

You know pigeons and sparrows, hawks and doves. But the bird world abounds with strange and marvelous flyers. This National Bird Day (Jan. 5), get to know the strangest.

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E. Kirdler / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds are a family of blackbirds who have giant beaks and whose males all have gigantic gular pouches. The six species cover a handful of superlatives—magnificent, great, and lesser, along with the Christmas and Ascension frigatebirds. The magnificent frigatebird lives up to its description, owing to the fact that it has a giant, bright red gular pouch taking up a large portion of its body. While the birds’ appearance may be magnificent, their behavior is not—they’re known for attempting to make other birds regurgitate their food so they may feast on it.

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Eric Gropp / Flickr
Rufous Potoo

Potoos are a lineage of ancient birds, distantly related to other extant species like the nightjar and the frogmouth. Many of the species have a distinctive wide mouth and bulbous yellow eyes. But the rufous potoo, which lives in northern South America mostly in Ecuador and Peru, has a few distinctive qualities. For instance, the small bird is a camoflague expert, able to blend in with dead leaves and brush as well as trees to hide in the understory, the area just under the topmost level of canopy leaves. It also lays its eggs inside branches to hide them from would-be predators.

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Kimberley Collins / Flickr
Kakapo

The kakapo is a critically endangered flightless parrot native to New Zealand. They’re hefty boys, the heaviest of any parrot species. Even so, the birds are adept climbers, using their wings to balance as they jump between branches.

The kakapo lives a mostly nocturnal life, sniffing out food with its well adapted olfactory senses but suffering from poor eyesight. The species was driven to the brink primarily by rats and dogs brought in by human settlers. Successful conservation programs have brought the number of individuals from 51 in 1995 to 149 today.

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Carine06 / Flickr
Hoatzin

The Hoatzin has a distinctive plummage, but an even more distinctive smell, which has given this Amazonian native the nickname “skunk bird.” This is because the bird’s herbivorous diet leaves it digesting leaves and plants like a cow. This smell also seems to repel would-be predators, including humans. The birds’ call also sounds a bit like a crow with a cold. Its place on the bird family tree isn’t well known, as it seems to be its only close relative.

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Blueday / Wikimedia Commons
Tawny Frogmouth

The frogmouth family, a group related to the aforementioned potoo, has a wide mouth meant for eating prey, as they are predominately carnivorous birds that happen to be great at vermin control. For larger prey, the frogmouth may pulverize lizards and rats to make them easier to eat. They are also known to keep their mouth open and let insects come to them, snapping them shut when a tasty treat comes their way. The tawny frogmouth lives in Australia, blending in seamlessly with local trees.

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Don Metzner
Scarlet 'I'iwi

These Hawaiian birds are known for their distinct red color and unusual beaks, which are used for harvesting nectar. Though the bird is revered by native Hawaiians, the species is threatened by disease. It has the ability to hover in place, a trait it shares with the hummingbird, though the ‘i’iwi is more closely related to finches.

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travelwayoflife / Flickr
Burrowing Owl

Most owls live in trees. Go ahead and guess what sets the burrowing owl apart. This native to the Americas takes over the ground burrows of small mammals like prairie dogs and ground squirrels, claiming them as their own and hissing like a rattlesnake when their home is threatened. They have an omnivorous diet that includes prickly pears, insects, seeds, rodents, and more. To punk fans, they’re perhaps most immortalized in the song “” by the Dead Milkmen.

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Charles J Sharp / Wikimedia Commons
Indian Scops Owl

Scops owls are the genus of owls exclusive to the Old World, and the Indian scops owl has a distinctive antenna-like brow. At around 10 inches, they’re still one of the larger old-world owls. Their eye color also sets them apart from other scops species—while not entirely unique to old-world owls, their inky black eyes break from the more typical yellow-and-black of other owls.

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Joseph C Boone / Wikimedia Commons
Southern Cassowary

If there’s one bird on the list you don’t want to encounter in the wild, it’s the southern cassowary, the largest bird in the cassowary genus. These natives to Australia and Oceana are part of the larger family of ratites, giant birds like emus, ostritches, rheas, and the much-smaller kiwis. The southern cassowary is known for its territoriality, and when provoked can use its large claws to maim or even kill humans. Part of the fatal blow is attained through the speeds they can attain, topping out just a hair over 30 miles per hour. Combine that with a sharp talon and you have a recipe for destruction.

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Mark A Harper / Wikimedia Commons
Ribbon Tailed Astrapia

Imagine a bird about one foot long with striking green-and-blue plumage around its head. Now give that bird a three foot ornamental tail and you have this New Guinea native. These tail feathers, exclusive to the males, are the longest tail-to-body ratio in the whole class of birds. Like many male birds, the tails are a way to impress female birds—and the birds are known to get tripped up or caught on their own tails from time to time.

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Mark A Harper / Wikimedia Commons
King of Saxony Bird of Paradise

Though it’s within the larger family of birds of paradise (all of whom are quite striking), the king of Saxony bird of paradise is the only member of its particular genus. While the coloration of the bird is quite striking, the most notable characteristic is two large plumes extending from the back of its head, measuring up to 20 inches long in some cases. The plumes are used to attract females, where the male kings of Saxony sing a distinctive song to lure in females and then use the ornamental plumes as part of an elaborate mating dance.

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Edward the Compressor / Wikimedia Commons
Kea

No one can really describe the kea as shy. The parrot, endemic to New Zealand, is known as a bit of a pest for its propensity for rooting through backpacks and other human belongings and stealing little bits and bobbles. The 19-inch birds have also been reported to prey on livestock from time to time. They also show signs of tool use, making them one of the most remarkably intelligent birds on the list.

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Bob Owen / Flickr
Shoebill Stork

The shoebill stork has one of the most distinctive beaks in the bird kingdom, looking a bit like a wooden clog. The jaw muscles and hardened bill help it easily dismember captured prey. It feasts primarily on fish, with occasional amphibians, reptiles, and even smaller birds thrown in the mix.

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US Fish and Wildlife Service
Peregrine Falcon

The peregrine falcon is one of the more familiar birds on the list, and while some of its behaviors are typical of raptors, it has one feat that sets it apart in the bird class: it’s fast. Really, really fast, able to go up to 240 miles per hour. This is attained by flying high up in the air and then plunging down in a carefully controlled descent that sees it breaking airspeed records. This allows it to sneak up and feast on smaller birds mid-flight, going so fast the smaller birds never see it coming.

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Ryan A Candee / Flickr
Long-Wattled Umbrellabird

Found exclusively on the coasts of Colombia and Ecuador, this unusual bird has a crest on the top of its head that says "Elvis," and the males have a long throat wattle that are a little more Liberace, flamboyant and used to attract mates. The unique species is considered vulnerable, though ongoing conservation efforts can hopefully keep it alive and kicking with that rockabilly pompadour.

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Hersfold / Wikimedia Commons
Blue-Footed Booby

A favorite bird of scatalogical grade schoolers, the blue-footed booby is an oceanic bird whose range is the shorelines and Pacific seas of Central and South America. The bird has a distinctive blue face and feet. The birds hunt in groups, at times diving into the ocean in search of fish. The name booby comes not from any resemblance to human anatomy, but from the clumsiness of the bird on land, deriving from the Spanish word “bobo” which translates roughly as “clown.”

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(A–D) Edwin Scholes/ML458167, (E) Kimberly Bostwick/ML487258 and (F) Kimberly Bostwick/ML487259.
Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise

This bird of paradise was confirmed as a unique species only last year, when it was determined to be genetically distinct from the regular bird of paradise. In order to attract females, the Vogelkop will spread its plumage until it resembles a deep black fan with a flourish of blue in the middle and then perform an elaborate dance, which includes unique side-to-side motions that use the plumage to lightly glide.

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William H. Majoros / Wikimedia Commons
California Condor

Once extinct in the wild, the largest North American bird has since precariously rebounded thanks to extensive conservation efforts. While distantly related to other vulture species, it is the last surviving member of the Gymnogyps genus, making it a unique specimen. The bird uses its strange bald head to change skin color in response to its environment, using a kind of visual language not unlike the octopus, an example of convergent evolution.

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Andrej Chudý
Great Bustard

The great bustard, like the condor, is the only member of its genus. The bird, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, predominately lives in Portugal and Spain, though there are other populations in Europe and moderately successful reintroduction efforts in the United Kingdom. The males can weigh up to 40 pounds, making them the heaviest flying animal in the world. All birds heavier than that are flightless. Females of the species weigh around half that, giving the bird some pretty severe sexual dimorphism.

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Charles J Sharp / Wikimedia Commons
Bee Hummingbird

The islands of Cuba are home to the smallest bird species in the world, the 2.4-inch-long bee hummingbird. They’re noted for their shiny blue plumage, which has been described as iridescent. They lay eggs the size of coffee beans. Though they’re tiny, they have a large appetite, and their thirst for nectar leads them to pollinate as many as 1,500 flowers in a given day.

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