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Birds Guide


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High-level taxonomy

Birds are categorised as a biological class, Aves. The earliest known species of this class is Archaeopteryx lithographica, from the Late Jurassic period. According to the most recent consensus, Aves and a sister group, the order Crocodilia, together form a group of unnamed rank, the Archosauria.

Phylogenetically, Aves is usually defined as all descendants of the most recent common ancestor of modern birds (or of a specific modern bird species like Passer domesticus), and Archaeopteryx. Modern phylogenies place birds in the dinosaur clade Theropoda.

Modern birds are divided into two superorders, the Paleognathae (mostly flightless birds like ostriches), and the wildly diverse Neognathae, containing all other birds.

Bird orders

Relationships between bird orders according the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy. "Galloanseri" is now considered a superorder Galloanserae.
Relationships between bird orders according the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy. "Galloanseri" is now considered a superorder Galloanserae.

This is a list of the taxonomic orders in the class Aves. The list of birds gives a more detailed summary, including families.


  • Struthioniformes, Ostrich, emus, kiwis, and allies
    Tinamiformes, tinamous


  • Anseriformes, waterfowl
    Galliformes, fowl
    Gaviiformes, loons
    Podicipediformes, grebes
    Procellariiformes, albatrosses, petrels, and allies
    Sphenisciformes, penguins
    Pelecaniformes, pelicans and allies
    Ciconiiformes, storks and allies
    Phoenicopteriformes, flamingos
    Accipitriformes, eagles, hawks and allies
    Falconiformes, falcons
    Turniciformes, button-quail
    Gruiformes, cranes and allies
    Charadriiformes, gulls, plovers and allies
    Pteroclidiformes, sandgrouse
    Columbiformes, doves and pigeons
    Psittaciformes, parrots and allies
    Cuculiformes, cuckoos, turacos, hoatzin
    Strigiformes, owls
    Caprimulgiformes, nightjars and allies
    Apodiformes, swifts
    Trochiliformes, hummingbirds
    Coraciiformes, kingfishers
    Piciformes, woodpeckers and allies
    Trogoniformes, trogons
    Coliiformes, mousebirds
    Passeriformes, passerines

Note: This is the traditional classification (the so-called Clements order). A more recent, radically different classification based on molecular data has been developed (the so-called Sibley-Monroe classification or Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy). This has influenced taxonomical thinking considerably, with the Galloanserae proving well-supported by recent molecular, fossil and anatomical evidence[citation needed]. With increasingly good evidence, it has become possible by 2006 to test the major proposals of the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy. The results are often nothing short of astounding, see e.g. Charadriiformes or Caprimulgiformes.

Extinct bird orders

A wide variety of bird groups became extinct during the Mesozoic era and left no modern descendants. These include the Order Archaeopterygiformes, Order Confuciusornithiformes, toothed seabirds like the Hesperornithiformes and Ichthyornithes, and the diverse Subclass Enantiornithes ("opposite birds").

For a complete listing of prehistoric bird groups, see Fossil birds.

Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex
Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex


There is significant evidence that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, specifically, that birds are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods which includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, among others.[1] As more non-avian theropods that are closely related to birds are discovered, the formerly clear distinction between non-birds and birds becomes less so. Recent discoveries in northeast China (Liaoning Province) demonstrating that many small theropod dinosaurs had feathers contribute to this ambiguity.

The basal bird Archaeopteryx, from the Jurassic, is well-known as one of the first "missing links" to be found in support of evolution in the late 19th century, though it is not considered a direct ancestor of modern birds. Confuciusornis is another early bird; it lived in the Early Cretaceous. Both may be predated by Protoavis texensis, though the fragmentary nature of this fossil leaves it open to considerable doubt if this was a bird ancestor. Other Mesozoic birds include the Enantiornithes, Yanornis, Ichthyornis, Gansus and the Hesperornithiformes, a group of flightless divers resembling grebes and loons.

The recently discovered dromaeosaur Cryptovolans was capable of powered flight, possessed a sternal keel and had ribs with uncinate processes. In fact, Cryptovolans makes a better "bird" than Archaeopteryx which is missing some of these modern bird features. Because of this, some paleontologists have suggested that dromaeosaurs are actually basal birds whose larger members are secondarily flightless, i.e. that dromaeosaurs evolved from birds and not the other way around. Evidence for this theory is currently inconclusive, but digs continue to unearth fossils (especially in China) of the strange feathered dromaeosaurs. At any rate, it is fairly certain that avian flight existed in the mid-Jurassic and was "tried out" in several lineages and variants by the mid-Cretaceous.

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus
Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus

Although ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaurs share the same hip structure as birds, birds actually originated from the saurischian (lizard-hipped) dinosaurs (if the dinosaurian origin theory is correct), and thus arrived at their hip structure condition independently. In fact, the bird-like hip structure also developed a third time among a peculiar group of theropods, the Therizinosauridae.

An alternate theory to the dinosaurian origin of birds, espoused by a few scientists (most notably Lary Martin and Alan Feduccia), states that birds (including maniraptoran "dinosaurs") evolved from early archosaurs like Longisquama, a theory which is contested by most other scientists in paleontology, and by experts in feather development and evolution such as R.O. Prum. See the Longisquama article for more on this alternative.

Modern birds are classified in Neornithes, which are now known to have evolved into some basic lineages by the end of the Cretaceous. The Neornithes are split into the Paleognathae and Neognathae. The paleognaths include the tinamous (found only in Central and South America) and the ratites. The ratites are large flightless birds, and include ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis and emus (though some scientists suspect that the ratites represent an artificial grouping of birds which have independently lost the ability to fly in a number of unrelated lineages). The basal divergence from the remaining Neognathes was that of the Galloanseri, the superorder containing the Anseriformes (ducks, geese and swans), and the Galliformes (the pheasants, grouse, and their allies). See the chart for more information.

The classification of birds is a contentious issue. Sibley & Ahlquist's Phylogeny and Classification of Birds (1990) is a landmark work on the classification of birds (although frequently debated and constantly revised). A preponderance of evidence seems to suggest that the modern bird orders constitute accurate taxa. However, scientists are not in agreement as to the relationships between the orders; evidence from modern bird anatomy, fossils and DNA have all been brought to bear on the problem but no strong consensus has emerged. More recently, new fossil and molecular evidence is providing an increasingly clear picture of the evolution of modern bird orders.

Anatomy of a typical bird
Anatomy of a typical bird

Bird anatomy

Main article: bird anatomy

Birds have a body plan that shows so many unusual adaptations (mostly aiding flight) that birds have earned their own unique class in the vertebrate phylum.



All birds lay amniotic eggs[2] with hard shells made mostly of calcium carbonate. Non-passerines typically have white eggs, except in some ground-nesting groups such as the Charadriiformes, sandgrouse and nightjars, where camouflage is necessary, and some parasitic cuckoos which have to match the passerine host's egg. Most passerines, in contrast, lay coloured eggs, even if, like the tits they are hole-nesters.

The brown or red protoporphyrin markings on passerine eggs reduce brittleness and are a substitute for calcium when that element is in short supply. The colour of individual eggs is genetically influenced, and appears to be inherited through the mother only, suggesting that the gene responsible for pigmentation is on the sex determining W chromosome (female birds are WZ, males ZZ).

The eggs are laid in a nest, which may be anything from a bare cliff ledge or ground scrape to elaboratey decorated structures such as those of the oropendolas.

Social systems and parental care

The three mating systems that predominate among birds are polyandry, polygyny, and monogamy. Monogamy is seen in approximately 91% of all bird species. Polygyny constitutes 2% of all birds and polyandry is seen in less than 1%. Monogamous species of males and females pair for the breeding season. In some cases, the individuals may pair for life.

One reason for the high rate of monogamy among birds is the fact that male birds are just as adept at parental care as females. In most groups of animals, male parental care is rare, but in birds it is quite common; in fact, it is more extensive in birds than in any other vertebrate class. In birds, male care can be seen as important or essential to female fitness. "In one form of monogamy such as with obligate monogamy a female cannot rear a litter without the aid of a male" [3].

These Redwing hatchlings are completely dependent on parental care.
These Redwing hatchlings are completely dependent on parental care.

The parental behavior most closely associated with monogamy is male incubation. Interestingly, male incubation is the most confining male parental behavior. It takes time and also may require physiological changes that interfere with continued mating. This extreme loss of mating opportunities leads to a reduction in reproductive success among incubating males. "This information then suggests that sexual selection may be less intense in taxa where males incubate, hypothetically because males allocate more effort to parental care and less to mating" [4]. In other words, in bird species in which male incubation is common, females tend to select mates on the basis of parental behaviors rather than physical appearance.

Birds and humans

Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica
Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica
A birdbox is an artificial platform for birds to make a nest
A birdbox is an artificial platform for birds to make a nest

Birds are an important food source for humans. The most commonly eaten species is the domestic chicken and its eggs, although geese, pheasants, turkeys, and ducks are also widely eaten. Other birds that have been utilized for food include emus, ostriches, pigeons, grouse, quails, doves, woodcocks, songbirds, and others, including small passerines such as finches. Birds grown for human consumption are referred to as poultry.

At one time swans and flamingos were delicacies of the rich and powerful, although these are generally protected now.

Besides meat and eggs, birds provide other items useful to humans, including feathers for bedding and decoration, guano-derived phosphorus and nitrogen used in fertilizer and gunpowder, and the central ingredient of bird's nest soup.

Many species have become extinct through over-hunting, such as the Passenger Pigeon, and many others have become endangered or extinct through habitat destruction, deforestation and intensive agriculture being common causes for declines.

Numerous species have come to depend on human activities for food and are widespread to the point of being pests. For example, the common pigeon or Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) thrives in urban areas around the world. In North America, introduced House Sparrows, European Starlings, and House Finches are similarly widespread.

Other birds have long been used by humans to perform tasks. For example, homing pigeons were used to carry messages before the advent of modern instant communications methods (many are still kept for sport). Falcons are still used for hunting, while cormorants are employed by fishermen. Chickens and pigeons are popular as experimental subjects, and are often used in biology and comparative psychology research. As birds are very sensitive to toxins, the Canary was used in coal mines to indicate the presence of poisonous gases, allowing miners sufficient time to escape without injury.

Colorful, particularly tropical, birds (e.g. parrots, and mynas) are often kept as pets although this practice has led to the illegal trafficking of some endangered species; CITES, an international agreement adopted in 1963, has considerably reduced trafficking in the bird species it protects.

Bird diseases that can be contracted by humans include psittacosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, Newcastle's disease, mycobacteriosis (avian tuberculosis), avian influenza, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis.

Threats to birds

According to Worldwatch Institute, bird populations are declining worldwide, with 1,200 species facing extinction in the next century. [5] Among the biggest cited reasons are habitat loss,[6] predation by nonnative species,[7] oil spills and pesticide use, hunting and fishing, and climate change.


  • To preen or groom their feathers, birds use their bills to brush away foreign particles.
  • The birds of a region are called the avifauna.
  • Few birds use chemical defences against predators. Tubenoses can eject an unpleasant oil against an aggressor, and some species of pitohui, found in New Guinea, secrete a powerful neurotoxin in their skin and feathers.
  • The Latin word for bird is avis.
A juvenile Laughing Gull
A juvenile Laughing Gull

Bird families and taxonomic discussion are given in list of birds and Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.


  1. ^ Early Adaptive Radiation of Birds: Evidence from Fossils from Northeastern China -- Hou et al. 274 (5290): 1164 -- Science. Retrieved on 2006-07-21.
  2. ^ Education - Senior 1. Manitoba Fisheries Sustainable Development. Retrieved on 2006-10-09.
  3. ^ Gowaty, Patricia Adair (1983). Male Parental Care and Apparent Monogamy among Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). The American Naturalist 121 (2): 149-160.
  4. ^ Ketterson, Ellen D., and Nolan, Val (1994). Male Parental Behavior in Birds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 25: 601-28.
  5. ^ Worldwatch Paper #165: Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds. Retrieved on 2006-07-21.
  6. ^ Help Migratory Birds Reach Their Destinations. Retrieved on 2006-07-21.
  7. ^ Protect Backyard Birds and Wildlife: Keep Pet Cats Indoors. Retrieved on 2006-07-21.

External links

| Birds
| Aviculture
| Bird migration flyways
| Bird topography
| Birds by classification
| Birds by geography
| Birds of prey
| Birdwatching
| Bird diseases
| Extinct birds
| Famous birds
| Feathers
| Fictional birds
| Flightless birds
| Heraldic birds
| Oology
| Poultry
| Prehistoric birds
| Seabird
| Shorebirds
| Swifts
| Wading birds
| License

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