Birds or Class Aves – Description and Characteristics   Recently updated !


Birds Class Aves

Birds are a group of warm-blooded, feathered vertebrates that lack teeth and lay hard-shelled eggs. They live in nearly every environment, from the polar regions to the tropics. Most birds fly, but there are also flightless birds, such as penguins and emus. Let’s explore the characteristics of birds, compare them with other vertebrates, and examine their classification system.

  • Birds are feathered, warm-blooded vertebrates that have wings, lack teeth, and lay hard-shelled eggs.
  • They are the class Aves in kingdom Animalia and phylum Chordata.
  • Birds are not mammals. However, they are dinosaurs.

What Is a Bird?

Birds are a group of endothermic (warm-blooded) vertebrates that are characterized by feathers, toothless beaked jaws, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, a high metabolic rate, a four-chambered heart, and a lightweight skeleton. Key characteristics of birds include:

  • Feathers: Feathers are unique to birds. These structures evolved from reptilian scales to serve functions like flight, insulation, and display.
  • Beaks and Bills: Birds have a toothless beak. The beak varies greatly in size and shape, mainly according to feeding habits.
  • Wings: Not all birds fly, but all have wings.
  • Oviparity: Birds lay eggs with a calcium carbonate shell. Unlike the eggs of fish, reptiles, and amphibians, birds lay hard eggs.
  • High Metabolism: Birds have a fast metabolism that supports their high energy activities, especially flight.
  • Four-chambered Heart: A hear with four chambers allows efficient separation of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.
  • Lightweight Skeleton: Many of a bird’s bones are hollow. This reduces weight while maintaining strength.
Bird Beaks and Feeding Strategies

Classification

Birds are Class Aves within Kingdom Animalia. Here is an example of the classification system of the European Goldfinch:

  1. Kingdom: Animalia
    • This kingdom comprises all multicellular eukaryotic organisms that are heterotrophic (consume organic material for energy) and have specialized sensory organs and nervous systems.
  2. Phylum: Chordata
    • Organisms in this phylum possess a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, and a post-anal tail at some point during their development.
  3. Subphylum: Vertebrata
    • This subphylum includes animals with a backbone or spinal column.
  4. Class: Aves
    • This class encompasses all birds, characterized by feathers, beaked jaws, a high metabolic rate, a four-chambered heart, and a lightweight skeleton.
  5. Order: Passeriformes
    • This order, also known as perching birds or songbirds, is the largest bird order. Over half of all bird species are passerine birds.
  6. Family: Fringillidae
    • This is the finch family, which includes seed-eating passerine birds with conical bills.
  7. Genus: Carduelis
    • This is a genus within the finch family, known for birds with notable coloration and patterns.
  8. Species: Carduelis carduelis
    • C. cardeulis is commonly known as the European Goldfinch. It is a small passerine bird with a striking red face and a black-and-white head.

Taxonomy Within Aves

The class Aves has several levels of taxonomy that categorize the vast diversity of bird species. These include:

  1. Orders: Birds fall into various orders based on shared characteristics. Examples include Passeriformes (songbirds), Anseriformes (ducks, geese), and Falconiformes (birds of prey).
  2. Families: Each order divides into families. For example, the family Accipitridae includes hawks, eagles, and kites.
  3. Genera: Within each family, birds divide into genera. A genus comprises one or more species that are closely related and share common features. For instance, the genus Aquila includes true eagles.
  4. Species: A species is a group of individuals that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Each species has a unique two-part Latin name, like Carduelis carduelis for the European Goldfinch.
  5. Subspecies: Sometimes there are distinct populations with slight morphological or genetic differences. These are subspecies.

Birds and Other Vertebrates: Shared Characteristics

As vertebrates, birds share several characteristics with other members of this group:

  1. Spinal Column: Like all vertebrates, birds have a backbone.
  2. Bilateral Symmetry: Birds have a symmetrical body plan in common with other vertebrates.
  3. Internal Organ Systems: Birds possess complex organ systems like the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems.

Are Birds Mammals?

Contrary to a common misconception, birds are not mammals. Both groups are warm-blooded vertebrates, there are differences:

  • Reproduction: Most mammals give birth to live young, while birds lay eggs.
  • Body Covering: Birds have feathers, while mammals have fur or hair.
  • Warm-blooded Nature: Both regulate their internal temperature, but the mechanisms and metabolic rates differ significantly.

Similarities include advanced nervous systems and complex social behaviors.

Examples of Birds and Non-Birds

Not every animal that has wings or can fly is a bird. Also, not all vertebrates that lay eggs are birds.

Bird Examples:

  • Sparrows
  • Eagles
  • Penguins
  • Owls
  • Emus
  • Chickens
  • Finches

Non-Bird Examples:

  • Bats (Mammals): Although capable of flight, they have fur and give birth to live young.
  • Butterflies (Insects): Winged but not vertebrates.
  • Crocodiles (Reptiles): Share a common ancestor with birds but are cold-blooded and scaly.

Avian Senses

Birds, like all animals, rely on their senses to interact with their environment, find food, avoid predators, and communicate with each other. Here’s an overview of the primary senses in birds:

Vision

  • Acuity: Birds typically have excellent vision. Many species have a higher density of photoreceptors in their retinas compared to mammals, including a higher proportion of cones, which enable detailed and color vision.
  • Color Perception: Birds see a wider spectrum of colors than humans, including ultraviolet light (UV-A). This plays a significant role in mate selection, foraging, and detecting predators.
  • Field of View: Many birds have a wide field of view, with some species having nearly 360-degree vision. However, birds of prey have more forward-facing eyes, providing binocular vision for depth perception, crucial for hunting.

Hearing

  • Range and Sensitivity: Birds have a good sense of hearing, though generally not as sensitive as that of many mammals. They detect a wide range of frequencies and are particularly attuned to the sounds made by other birds.
  • No External Ears: Unlike most mammals, birds lack external ears, but they have well-developed middle and inner ears. The shape of their head and feathers also helps direct sound to their ears.

Touch

  • Bill and Feet: Birds have nerve endings in their bills and feet, allowing them to sense touch. This is particularly important for birds that feed in the dark or probe for food in mud or water.
  • Skin Sensitivity: The skin itself is sensitive to touch, which is important for behaviors like preening. While feathers don’t sense touch, they connect to nerve endings that feel movement and vibration.

Taste

  • Taste Buds: Birds have fewer taste buds compared to mammals, suggesting that taste may be less important in their overall sensory perception. However, they still discern basic tastes and this sense may play a role in food selection.

Smell

  • Variable Sense: The sense of smell in birds varies widely among species. While traditionally thought to be poor, recent studies suggest that some species, like vultures and seabirds, have a keen sense of smell which they use to locate food.

Other Senses

  • Magnetic Reception: Some birds sense the Earth’s magnetic field, aiding in navigation during migration. This sense is not well understood but likely involves magnetite crystals in certain cells or light-sensitive retinal proteins.
  • Pressure Changes: Some birds sense changes in air pressure, helping them anticipate weather changes.
  • Echolocation: While commonly associated with mammals like bats, a few bird species, such as the oilbird and some species of swiftlets, use echolocation for navigation in complete darkness.

Adaptations for Flight

The avian body has remarkable adaptations to enable flight:

  1. Lightweight Skeleton: Birds have a lightweight yet strong skeletal structure. Many of the bones are hollow (pneumatized) with internal struts for structural strength, reducing the overall weight without compromising durability.
  2. Powerful Flight Muscles: The most significant muscles for flight in birds are the pectorals, which power the downstroke of the wings, and the smaller supracoracoideus muscles, responsible for the upstroke. These muscles constitute a large percentage of a bird’s body weight, providing the necessary power for flight.
  3. Wings and Wing Shape: Bird wings are essentially modified forelimbs. The shape and size of the wings vary among species. For instance, long, narrow wings are typical in birds that soar for long distances, while shorter, broader wings are found in birds that require quick, agile flight in forested habitats.
  4. Feathers: Feathers play a crucial role in flight. Flight feathers on the wings and tail are particularly important, providing lift and enabling steering and braking. Feathers are also lightweight and have an interlocking structure for aerodynamic efficiency.
  5. High Metabolic Rate: Birds have a high metabolic rate to meet the energy demands of flight. This is supported by their efficient digestive and respiratory systems.
  6. Efficient Respiratory System: Birds possess a unique respiratory system that includes air sacs and a lung structure that allows for a continuous flow of air and a more efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This system provides the high levels of oxygen required for sustained flight.
  7. Streamlined Body Shape: The body of a bird is streamlined for efficient airflow, reducing drag during flight. The shape is typically teardrop-like, with a rounded front and tapering at the rear.
  8. Strong yet Flexible Beak: The beak is made of lightweight keratin, which reduces the weight at the front of the bird compared to a toothed jaw.
  9. Rigid Spine and Tail Structure: A rigid spine provides a stable base for the powerful wing muscles. The tail feathers, or rectrices, aid stability and maneuverability in flight.
  10. Specialized Heart and Circulatory System: Birds have a four-chambered heart, like mammals, which efficiently separates oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.

Evolution of Birds

The evolution of birds traces back to the theropod dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era. Archaeopteryx, often considered the first bird, displayed both avian and reptilian features. This transitional fossil highlights the evolutionary path from dinosaurs to modern birds. Over millions of years, various adaptations such as beak shape, flight capabilities, and nesting behaviors have evolved, giving rise to the over 10,000 bird species we see today.

Are Birds Dinosaurs?

Most scientists now agree that birds are living dinosaurs and not just descended from dinosaurs. Specifically, birds are a subgroup of theropod dinosaurs. This classification comes from numerous shared anatomical features, including hollow bones, similar eggshell microstructure, and certain aspects of lung physiology. Basically, all birds are dinosaurs, but not all dinosaurs were birds.

Interesting Bird Facts

  1. Superb Memory: Crows and other corvids are remarkably intelligent. They recognize individual human faces and remember them for years.
  2. Tool Use: Some bird species, like the New Caledonian crow, use and even craft tools to aid in food gathering, demonstrating complex problem-solving abilities.
  3. Mimicry Skills: The Lyrebird of Australia mimics almost any sound it hears, including chainsaws, camera shutters, and even human voices.
  4. Longest Non-stop Flight: The bar-tailed godwit holds the record for the longest non-stop flight; one individual flew 11,680 kilometers (7,258 miles) from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping.
  5. Extreme Speeds: The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird and fastest animal on the planet. When in a dive, it reaches speeds over 320 km/h (200 mph).
  6. Built-in Compass: Migratory birds like the Arctic tern, which travels from pole to pole, have a built-in ‘compass’ that helps them navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field.
  7. Sex Selection: Temperature affects the sex ratio of chicks, but there is evidence females also exert control. This appears to do with progesterone release during egg production.
  8. Deepest Diver: The emperor penguin can dive deeper than any other bird, reaching depths of over 500 meters (1,640 feet) and holding its breath for more than 20 minutes.
  9. Longevity in Captivity: Parrots, especially larger species like macaws, often live for over 50 years in captivity, with some individuals reported to have lived over 80 years.
  10. High-Altitude Flight: Bar-headed geese fly across the Himalayas during migration at altitudes up to 9,000 meters (29,500 feet), where oxygen levels are significantly lower.
  11. Rain Prediction: Some birds, like the African grey parrot, change their behavior in anticipation of rain, possibly sensing changes in air pressure or humidity.
  12. Anting Behavior: Some birds rub ants on their feathers, a behavior known as “anting”. This likely helps rid them of parasites, as the ants release formic acid.
  13. Reverse Sexual Dimorphism: In many bird species, females are larger and more colorful than males, which is the opposite of what is typically seen in other animal groups.
  14. Incredible Endurance: Albatrosses travel vast distances without much effort by skillfully utilizing wind currents. They can stay at sea for years at a time.
  15. Nest Building Skills: The African weaver bird builds elaborate and intricate nests, demonstrating remarkable architectural skills.

References

  • Andersson, S.; J. Ornborg; M. Andersson (1998). “Ultraviolet sexual dimorphism and assortative mating in blue tits”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 265 (1395): 445–450. doi:10.1098/rspb.1998.0315
  • Attenborough, David (1998). The Life of Birds. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01633-X.
  • Bonney, Rick; Rohrbaugh, Ronald Jr. (2004). Handbook of Bird Biology (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-938027-62-X.
  • Correa, S.M.; Adkins-Regan, E.; Johnson, P.A. (2005). “High progesterone during avian meiosis biases sex ratios toward females.” Biol Lett. 1(2):215-8. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2004.0283
  • Göth, A.; Booth, D.T. (March 2005). “Temperature-dependent sex ratio in a bird”. Biology Letters. 1 (1): 31–33. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2004.0247
  • Humphrey, Philip S.; Parkes, K. C. (1959). “An approach to the study of molts and plumages”. The Auk. 76 (1): 1–31. doi:10.2307/4081839