Temporal range: Upper Jurassic – Recent
|Scarlet macaw (Ara macao)|
They are warm-blooded and lay eggs. Their bodies are covered with feathers and they have wings. Feathers have three functions: flight, temperature regulation and display. Most birds have hollow main bones with air sacs in them. This makes them lighter and makes flight easier.
Because birds keep a high body temperature, they use lots of energy. So, they need to eat a lot of food compared with their weight.
More than 9000 different species of birds are known.
Birds are found on every continent of the world. Birds of different types can live in freezing cold environments, and others can live in hot deserts. Birds live in forests, in grasslands, on cliff faces, in river banks, on stony sea shores, down mine shafts and in the roofs of houses.
Different types of birds eat different foods. Most birds are carnivorous meaning that they eat flesh, at least some of the time. Many birds live on insects or on fish. Some eat small reptiles and mice. Birds of prey eat mammals and other birds. Some birds are scavengers and eat the bodies of creatures that have died. Many birds such as parrots and finches live on seeds and fruit. Some birds that eat mainly seeds feed their young on insects. A few types of birds eat green plants, but only one species lives on leaves (the hoatzin). Hummingbirds and honeyeaters live on the nectar or honey in flowers.
Birds come in many sizes from the bee hummingbird that is only 60 mm long to the ostrich which stands 2.5 metres high. The bird with the widest wingspan is the wandering albatross many of which measure 3 metres from tip to tip.
All this applies to living birds. Birds are the descendants of theropod dinosaurs, and the early birds looked much like small carnivorous dinosaurs. Much is now known about the origin of birds. From fossils we know that these dinosaurs had feathers, and early birds had teeth.
- Body shape
- Bird colours
- Evolution and taxonomy
- Birds and people
- Gallery of well-known small birds
Because birds live on every continent and have adapted to all sorts of conditions, different types of birds look very different from each other. The most noticeable differences are the size, the shape of the beak, the length of the legs, the length of the neck and the colour.
The smallest types of birds are tiny birds that feed on nectar, honey and insects. The biggest birds are flightless birds with long legs – ostriches, emus and cassowaries. However, very large birds are also found soaring high in the sky – eagles, vultures, albatross and pelicans. One way to understand the living habits of a bird is to look at its legs and feet, its beak, its neck and its wings.
If a bird has very long legs, then it probably spends most of its time walking, like a crane, or wading (walking in water), like a flamingo. Birds with long legs need long necks to match, so they can reach their food. Birds with short legs and long necks like pelicans, geese and swans are birds that swim well and dive their heads into the water for food. Their beaks are often flat for scooping up water weeds. A pelican's beak can change into a shape like a huge bucket for catching fish.
Birds that are shaped like torpedoes are good at diving. Albatross, seagulls and kingfishers all have long strong beaks for catching fish. Some birds, such as eagles, owls vultures and hawks, have beaks which are hooked and very large claws (also called "talons") with which they can tear and carry meat.
Some birds have very long thin beaks that they use for dipping into flowers or poking into holes in the ground. These include hummingbirds, bee eaters and avocets. Some birds have short beaks but wide mouths that are perfect for catching insects in the air, like swallows, swifts and nightjars. Some birds that eat fruit, like toucans and hornbills, have beaks which are enormous, but are very light in weight. The curved beaks of parrots are good for eating large seeds and cracking nuts, while birds that peck small seeds and food from the ground have short beaks like pigeons.
An ostrich has very long legs.
A pelican has a huge beak.
The great hornbill is a large bird with an unusual beak, photo W.Berns
Hummingbirds include the world's smallest birds.
Birds come in a huge range of colours. These colours can be useful to a bird in two ways. Camouflage colours help to hide the bird, and bright colours identify the bird to others of the same species. Often the male is brightly coloured while the female is camouflaged.
Many birds are brown, green or grey. These colours make a bird harder to see; they camouflage the bird. Brown is the most common colour. Brown birds include sparrows, emus, thrushes, larks, eagles, falcons and the female birds of many species such as wrens, ducks, blackbirds and peacocks. When a brown bird is in long grass or among tree trunks or rocks, it is camouflaged. Birds that live in long grass often have brown feathers streaked with black which looks like shadows. A bittern is almost invisible in long reeds. Other birds, including starlings and minahs, are quite dark in colour, but are flecked with little spots that look like raindrops on leaves.
Many birds from hot countries are green or have some green feathers, particularly parrots. Birds that live in green trees often have green backs, even if they have bright-coloured breasts. From the back, the birds are camouflaged. This is very useful when sitting on a nest. The bird's bright-coloured breast is hidden. Budgerigars are bred in different colours such as blue, white and mauve, but in the wild, they are nearly all green and yellow. Even though they fly very well, they normally spend a lot of time on the ground, eating grass seeds. Their yellow and black striped back helps to hide them in the shadows made by long dry grass, while their green breasts are a similar colour to the leaves of gum trees.
Grey birds include most pigeons and doves, cranes, storks and herons. Grey birds are often rock-living birds like pigeons, or birds that sit on dead tree trunks looking like a broken branch. Water birds like herons often have a pale grey colour which makes it harder for a fish to notice that the bird is standing, looking down for something to catch. Water birds, no matter what colour they are on top, are often white underneath, so that when a fish looks up, the bird looks like part of the sky.
Black birds include crows, ravens and male blackbirds. Some birds that are dark colours spend quite a lot of time on the ground, hopping around in the shadows under bushes. Among these birds are the male blackbird and the Satin Bowerbird which is not black but very dark blue. Crows and ravens often perch high on bare trees in the winter, where their black shape against the sky looks like the dark bare branches.
Many birds are not camouflaged, but stand out with vivid colours. They are usually male birds whose females are dull and camouflaged. The function of the colours is two-fold. First, the colours help them get mates, and second, the colours identify them to other males of the same species. Many birds are territorial, especially in the nesting season. They give out territory sounds and are easily seen. This lets other males know they will defend their territory. It sends out a "look elsewhere" signal to their competitors.
Many other birds are very brightly coloured, in countless combinations. Some of the most colourful birds are quite common, like pheasants, peacocks, domestic fowl and parrots. Colourful small birds include blue tits, the gold finches, humming birds, fairy wrens and bee eaters (which are also called rainbow birds). Some birds, like those of the bird of paradise in Papua New Guinea have such beautiful feathers that they have been hunted for them.
The peafowl is the best example of a display of colour to attract a mate. Also the male domestic fowl and junglefowl have long shiny feathers above his tail and also long neck feathers that may be a different colour to his wings and body. There are only a very few types of birds (like the eclectus parrot) where the female is more colourful than the male.
'Pied birds' are black and white. Black and white birds include magpies, pied geese, pelicans, and Australian magpies (which are not really magpies at all). Pied birds often have brightly coloured beaks and legs of yellow or red. The silver pheasant, with its long white tail striped with fine bars of black, has a brightly coloured face.
Most birds can fly. They do this by pushing through the air with their wings. The curved surfaces of the wings cause air currents (wind) which lift the bird. Flapping keeps the air current moving to create lift and also moves the bird forward.
Some birds can glide on air currents without flapping. Many birds use this method when they are about to land. Some birds can also hover and remain in one place. This method is used by birds of prey such as falcons that are looking for something to eat. Seagulls are also good at hovering, particularly if there is a strong breeze. The most expert hovering birds are tiny hummingbirds which can beat their wings both backwards and forwards and can stay quite still in the air while they dip their long beaks into flowers to feed on the sweet nectar.
A flock of tundra swans fly in V-formation.
This osprey at Kennedy Space Centre is hovering.
A wandering albatross can sleep while flying.
The large broad wings of a vulture allow it to soar without flapping.
The soft feathers of an owl allow it to fly quietly.
Some birds, such as the quail, live mainly on the ground.
A cassowary cannot fly but can defend itself.
Penguin's flippers are good for swimming.
Types of flight
Different types of birds have different needs. Their wings are adapted to suit the way they fly.
Large birds of prey, such as eagles, that spend a lot of time soaring on the wind have wings that are large and broad. The main flight feathers are long and wide. They help the eagle to stay on rising air currents without using much energy, while the eagle looks at the ground below, to find the next meal. When the eagle sees some small creature move, it can close its wings and fall from the sky like a missile, opening its great wings again to slow down as it comes to land. The world's largest eagle, the Philippine eagle has a wingspan of about 2 metres (6.7 ft) wide.
Birds that live in grassland areas or open forests and feed on fruit, insects and reptiles often spend a lot of time flying short journeys looking for food and water. They have wings that are shaped in a similar way to eagles, but rounder and not as good for soaring. These include many Australian birds like cockatoos.
Birds, such as geese, that migrate from one country to another fly very long distances. Their wings are big and strong, because the birds are large and they stock up on food for the long flight. Migrating water birds usually form family groups of 12-30 birds. They fly very high, making use of long streams of air that blow from north to south in different seasons. They are very well organised, often flying in a V pattern. The geese at the back do not have to flap so hard; they are pulled on by the wind of the ones at the front. Every so often, they change the leader so that the front bird, who does most work and sets the pace, can have a rest. Geese and swans are the highest-flying birds, reaching 8,000 metres or more when on migration. Geese often honk loudly while they are flying. It is thought that they do this to support the leader and help the young ones.
Birds that fly very quickly, such as swifts and swallows, have long narrow pointed wings. These birds need great speed because they eat insects, catching most of them while they are flying. These birds also migrate. They often collect in huge flocks of thousands of birds that move together like a whirling cloud.
Birds that live in bushes and branches have triangular wings that help the bird change direction. Many forest birds are expert at getting up speed by flapping and then gliding steadily among the trees, tilting to avoid things as they go. Members of the kingfisher family are expert at this type of flying.
Birds such as owls that hunt at night have wings with soft rounded feathers so that they do not flap loudly. Birds that are awake at night are called nocturnal birds. Birds that are awake during the day are diurnal.
A wandering albatross and Arctic tern might spend several years without coming to land. They can sleep while gliding and have wings which, when they are stretched right out, look like the wings of a jet plane.
Bird like chickens that feed mainly on the ground and only use their wings to fly to safety have small wings.
Flocks of birds can be very highly organised in a way that takes care of all the flock members. Studies of small flocking birds like tree sparrows show that they clearly communicate with each other, as sometimes thousands of birds may fly in close formation and spiral patterns without colliding (or flying into each other).
Two common behaviours in flocking birds are guarding and reconnaissance. When a flock of birds is feeding it is common for one bird to perch on a high place to keep guard over the flock. In the same way, when a flock is asleep, often, one bird will remain awake. It is also common for large flocks to send one or two birds ahead of them when they are flying to a new area. The look-out birds can spy the lie of the land to find food, water and good places to perch.
Ostriches and emus do not need to fly because although they feed and nest on the ground, their great size and their speed is their protection. Some other ground-feeding birds have not been so lucky. Some birds such as the dodo and the kiwi were ground-feeding birds that lived in safety on islands where there was nothing dangerous to eat them. They lost the power of flight. Kiwis are endangered because European settlement to New Zealand brought animals like cats, dogs and rats which kill kiwis and eat their eggs. However, kiwis and also the rare New Zealand ground parrot have survived. In the case of dodos, they were fat and delicious. They were killed and eaten by sailors until there was none left. Other flightless birds which have disappeared are the great auk and the moa.
Penguins spend a great deal of time at sea, where they are in danger from seals. On land, they usually live in areas where there were few dangers, until the arrival of European settlers with dogs and cats. Their wings have adapted to life in the sea and have become flippers which help them in swimming very fast.
Although birds are warm-blooded creatures like mammals, they do not give birth to live babies. They lay eggs like lizards do. Unlike most reptiles, the shell of a bird's egg is hard. The baby bird grows inside the egg and after a few weeks, breaks out, or hatches.
Birds in cold climates usually have a breeding season once a year in the spring. Migratory birds can have two springs and two mating seasons in a year. So can birds that live in hot climates.
When the breeding season arrives, the birds choose partners. Some birds are mated for life, like married couples. These birds include pigeons, geese, and cranes. Other birds look for new partners each year and sometimes a male bird or cock will have several wives.
For birds that choose new mates, part of the breeding season is display. The male bird will do all sorts of things to attract females. These include singing, dancing, showing off the feathers and building a beautiful nest. Some male birds have splendid feathers for attracting females. The most famous is the peacock who can spread the feathers above his tail into a huge fan.
Once the birds have found partners, they find a suitable place to lay eggs. The idea of what is a suitable place differs between species, but most build bird nests. Robins will make a beautiful little round nest of woven grass and carefully line it with feathers, bits of fluff and other soft things. Swallows like to nest near other swallows. They make nests from little blobs of clay, often on a beam near the roof of a building where it is well sheltered. Many birds like a hollow tree to nest in. Eagle's nests are often just piles of dead wood on the top of the tallest tree or mountain. Scrub turkeys scratch together a huge pile of leaves that may be 10 metres across. Guillemots lay their eggs on rock shelves with no nest at all. Their eggs are shaped so that they roll around in circles and do not fall off cliffs. A cuckoo does not make its own nest. It lays its egg in the nest of another bird and leaves it for them to care for. The cuckoo eggs are camouflaged to look like the host's eggs.
When the nest has been prepared, the birds mate so that the eggs are fertilised and the chicks will start growing. Unlike mammals, birds only have one opening as the exit hole for body fluids, and for reproduction. The opening is called the cloaca. A female bird, called a hen, has two ovaries, of which the left one usually produces eggs.
Most male birds have no sex organs that can be seen. But inside the male are two testes which produce sperm which is stored in the cloaca. Birds mate by rubbing their cloacas together, although with some birds, particularly large water birds, the male has a sort of a penis inside the cloaca.
Once the hen has mated, she produces fertile eggs which have chicks growing inside them. She lays the eggs in the nest. There might be just one egg or a number of them, called a clutch. Emus might lay as many as fifteen huge dark green eggs in a clutch. After the eggs are laid, they are incubated, or kept warm so the chicks form inside. Most birds stay together for the whole nesting season, and one advantage is that the work is shared. Many birds take turns sitting on the eggs, so that each adult can feed.
This is not always the case. With emus, the male does all the sitting and all the baby-minding. With emperor penguins it is also the male that cares for the egg. There is only one egg, which he keeps on his feet and under his feathers, standing in a big group of males without feeding until the chick is hatched. While the eggs are hatching, the females are at sea, feeding, so that they can care for the chicks when they return.
Some birds put the eggs inside or on top of the mound of leaves and twigs. The mound acts like a compost heap. The decomposition of the rotting leaves causes the temperature to rise. This is heat released by the chemical action of bacterial and fungal respiration. It is the same reaction as that which keeps mammals and birds at a high temperature. The parents leave the mound. When the chicks hatch, they are able to feed themselves.
Many small birds take 2–4 weeks to hatch eggs. Albatrosses take 80 days. During this time the female loses a lot of her body weight.
The quickest hatching time is for the cuckoo. Some types of cuckoos take only 10 days. This means that when they hatch in the nest of their 'foster parents', the eggs that the parents have laid are not yet ready. Newborn cuckoos are naked, blind and ugly, but they are strong. They get under any eggs that are in the nest and throw them out before they hatch. That means that the cuckoo has the whole care of both parents. Baby cuckoos grow fast and often get bigger than the parents who feed them.
When baby birds hatch, in most types of birds, they are fed by both parents, and sometimes by older aunties as well. Their mouths are open all the time and are often very brightly coloured, which acts as a 'releaser', a trigger which stimulates the parent to feed them. For birds that eat grain and fruit, the parents eat and partly digest the food for the babies. It is then vomitted carefully into the baby's mouth.
A reed warbler feeding a baby cuckoo
Two sulphur crested cockatoos from a big flock are on the lookout
Many birds, particularly those that mate for life, are very sociable and keep together in a family group which might be anything from 4 or 6 adult birds and their young to a very large flock.
As chicks grow they change the fluffy down that covers them as babies for real feathers. At this stage they are called fledglings. Other family members may help care for fledgling chicks, feeding them, and protecting them from attack while parents are feeding. When the fledglings have their new feathers, they come out of the nest to learn to fly. In some types of birds, like pigeons, the parents watch over this and as the young ones get stronger, will give them flying lessons, teaching them how to glide, how to fly in spirals and how to land like an expert.
Most birds are social animals, at least part of the time. They communicate to each other using sounds and displays.
Almost all birds make sounds to communicate. The types of noises that vary greatly. Some birds can sing, and they are called songbirds. Examples are robins, larks, canaries, thrushes, nightingales and crows. Birds that are not songbirds include pigeons, seagulls, eagles, owls and ducks. Parrots are not songbirds, even though they can be taught to sing human songs.
A favorite songbird, the European robin.
The crow of the rooster is a familiar bird call.
The pied currawong, an outstanding singer.
The jackdaws helped Lorenz to understand bird communication.
All birds make noises ('bird vocalisation'), but not all sing. Songbirds are passerines, many of which have beautiful melodic songs. Songs have different functions. Danger cries are different from territorial songs, and mating calls are a third type. Fledgling may also have different calls from adults. Recognition calls for partners are quite common.
As to where the song comes from, there are three kinds of species:
- Those where the song is entirely inherited, and the bird always sings the same song in the same situations.
- Those where the song is partly inherited, but the bird tunes it in by copying others. In this case the slight differences between the calls of different birds may be used by partners for identification.
- Those where the song is entirely learnt, and the bird often copies sounds from its environment.
Most singing birds that are kept as pets, like canaries, have several tunes and some variations.
The same species of bird will sing different songs in different regions. A good example of this is the currawong. This is an Australia bird which is like a black and white crow. In the autumn, families get together in large flocks and do a lot of singing. Currawongs from some areas sing much more complex songs than others. Generally, currawongs from the Blue Mountains are the finest singers. The song of the currawong can be sung as a solo, but is often performed as a choir. One bird will take the lead and sing "Warble-warble-warble-warble!" All the other birds will join in and sing "Wooooooo!" When all the birds know the song, the choir will sing the "Warble" part and the soloist will sing the "Woo!". The song changes from year to year and from place to place.
The Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz studied the way in which birds communicate, or talk to each other. He found that each type of bird had a number of sounds which they made automatically, when ever they felt a certain way. Every sound had an action that went with it. So, if the bird was frightened, it acted frightened and made a frightened sound. This told the other birds around it that something frightening was happening.
If a flock of birds were flying over a field, they would be calling "Fly! Fly!" But a hungry bird, seeing something good to eat down below might start calling "Food! Food!" If other birds were also hungry, they would make the same call until more birds were calling "Food! Food!" than "Fly! Fly!". At this point, the mind of the flock would be changed. Some of the birds would start to yell "Fly downwards! Fly downwards!" as they sank from the sky, until the whole flock was all noisily calling the same thing.
These communication sounds are often short hard sounds like chirps, squeaks, squawks. and twitters. Sometimes the calls are longer and more musical. They include the "Rookety-coo" sound of a pigeon and the "Cockadoodledoo!" of a rooster. The bird cannot change these sounds. They always make them in the same way. The bird is locked into making each sound every time a particular idea comes into its head. The connection between how they feel and how they call is innate: they are born with it. Some calls in some species are learnt. Then, it is the tendency to learn which is inherited.
The Jackdaw of Altenberg
Konrad Lorenz noticed that when birds sing, they often use a lot of their regular calls as part of the song. Lorenz had a flock of jackdaws which were scattered during World War II. One day, an old bird returned. For many months she sat on the chimney singing her song, but in the song she kept making the call which Lorenz knew meant "Come home! Come home!" One day, to the great surprise of Lorenz, a male bird flew from a passing flock and joined her on the chimney. Lorenz was sure that it was her long-lost "husband" who had found his way home at last.
Evolution and taxonomy
Palaeontologists have found some exceptional places (lagerstätten) where fossils of early birds are found. The preservation is so good that on the best examples impressions of their feathers can be seen, and sometimes even the remains of meals they have eaten. From these remains we know that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods) in the Jurassic period. They radiated into a huge variety in the Lower Cretaceous. At the same time, their direct competitors, the pterosaurs, dwindled in numbers and variety, and became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic.
Birds are classified by taxonomists as 'Aves' (Avialae). Birds are the only living descendants of dinosaurs (strictly speaking, they are dinosaurs). Birds and Crocodilia are the only living members of the once-dominant Archosaur reptiles.
The first bird-like creatures
Archaeopteryx, from the Upper Jurassic (some 150–145 million years ago), is the earliest bird which could fly. It is famous, because it was one of the first important fossils found after Charles Darwin published his ideas about evolution in the 19th century. By modern standards, Archaeopteryx could not fly very well. Other early fossil birds are, for example, Confuciusornis, Anchiornis huxlei, and other Paraves.
Many fossils of early birds and small dinosaurs have been discovered in the Liaoning Province of Northeast China. The fossils show that most small theropod dinosaurs had feathers. These deposits have preserved them so well that the impressions of their feathers can be clearly seen. This leads us to think that feathers evolved first as heat insulation, and only later for flight. The origin of birds lies in these small feathered dinosaurs.
Birds and people
Canaries are often kept as pets for their beautiful songs.
The African grey parrot is a renowned talker.
Blue-winged teal. Ducks used to be shot for sport.
In many countries storks are thought to bring good luck.
Some birds are eaten as food. Most usually it is the chicken and its eggs, but people often also eat geese, pheasants, turkeys and ducks. Other birds are sometimes eaten are emus, ostriches, pigeons, grouse, quails, doves, woodcocks, and even songbirds. Some species have died out because they have been hunted for food, for example the dodo, and the passenger pigeon.
Many species have learned how to get food from people. The number of birds of these species has grown because of it. Seagulls and crows find food from garbage dumps. The feral pigeon (Columba livia), sparrows (Passer domesticus and starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) live in large numbers in towns and cities all over the world.
Sometimes people also use working birds. For example, homing pigeons carry messages. Nowadays people sometimes race them for sport. People also use falcons for hunting, and cormorants for fishing. In the past, people in mines often used a canary to see if there were bad gas methane in the air.
People often have colorful birds such as parrots and mynahs as pets. These intelligent birds are popular because they can copy human talking. Because of this, some people trap birds and take them to other countries to sell. This is not usually allowed these days. Most pet birds are specially bred and are sold in pet shops.
People can catch some bird diseases, for example psittacosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, Newcastle's disease, mycobacteriosis, influenza, giardiasis, and cryptosporiadiosis. In 2005, there was an epidemic of bird influenza spreading through some parts of the world, often called avian flu.
Some people have birdboxes in their gardens to give birds a place to nest and bird tables where birds can get food and water in very cold or very dry weather. This lets people see some small birds close up which are normally hidden away in bushes and trees.
Gallery of well-known small birds
Bird for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.