What is a bird?
We all know what birds are, of course! Here, I’ll talk about how birds fit into the animal kingdom – what other animals they are like, and how they are similar and different from other animal. Birds are vertebrates – they have bones in their bodies, just like us. Most birds have hollow bones. This makes them much lighter – if a bird had bones like ours, it wouldn’t be able to fly.
Birds are also “warm blooded”, which means they can keep their body at a fixed temperature (just like mammals do). This is different from other vertebrates like reptiles, amphibians and fish.
The scientific name for this group of animals is just the Latin word for “Bird” – Aves. It’s from this word that we get English words like aviary and aviator. A scientist who studies birds is called an Ornithologist.
What makes birds special?
Most vertebrates on land have four feet. Birds, instead, have two feet and two wings. Most birds can fly with their wings – some exceptions include Penguins, the extinct Dodo, and the world’s largest living bird, the Ostrich. Only birds have feathers – a bird’s feathers keep it warm, and help it fly. Birds have a beak, and no teeth. You can often guess what kind of food a bird likes to eat from the shape of its beak – a parrot that likes cracking seeds has a short strong beak, and a hummingbird that sips nectar from flowers has a long thin beak. Also, all birds lay eggs! Birds’ eggs have a hard shell, unlike the eggs laid by reptiles, amphibians and fish. These normally have soft shells – sometimes so soft you’d hardly call them shells at all!
Birds don’t have vocal cords like us. They make sounds in part of their throat called the syrinx. As air passes through it, the sides of the syrinx vibrate, making sound. Some birds can make the two sides of the syrinx work independently, singing two different songs at the same time!
What kinds of birds are there?
There are over 10000 different types of bird. Birds form a group of animals (scientists would say a class) called Aves, which is the Latin word for “bird”. This class is split into smaller groups, called Orders. Scientists are still debating on exactly what these groups should be, and exactly what birds are in each one. However, one common list is the following.
- The Accipitriformes includes most birds of prey that hunt at day. That is, birds like ospreys, vultures and hawks are all in this order. Some scientists believe instead that all these birds should be counted as Falconiformes. There are about 220 species of Accipitriformes.
- The Anseriformes include about 150 species (types) of birds. They have webbed feet, and are very happy in the water. They include – you guessed it – ducks! Also geese, swans and many other waterbirds.
- There are nearly 450 different species of Apodiformes – these are fast-flying, small bird, like hummingbird and swifts. Apodiformes means “footless” – although these birds have feet, the feet are small, and not used for much except perching.
- The Caprimulgiformes sleep during the day, and are awake at night. They eat insects, but people once thought they fed off goats! The word Caprimulgiformes means “goat-sucker”! The nightjar is a typical Caprimulgiforme.
- The Charadriiformes mostly live near the sea, picking crustaceans off the rocks, or digging in the mud. Some examples are gulls and auks.
- The Ciconiiformes include herons, storks, spoonbills, and similar birds. Some scientists believe that the American vultures and condors also belong in this group, but not all agree.
- The Coliiformes, or Mousebirds, all live in Africa. They are relatively small birds, which seem to scurry through trees like mice, as they flit from branch to branch looking for berries.
- The Columbiformes include doves and pigeons, as well as the now extinct Dodo. Unlike most other birds, doves and pigeons are able to drink by sucking water. Other birds all have to tilt their head back to drink.
- The Coraciiformes are colorful birds including kingfishers, hoopoes, bee-eaters and other. The word Coraciiformes comes from Latin words meaning “Raven-like”, even though the Ravens are not in this group.
- The Cuculiformes include the cuckoos, and other birds such Turacos (banana-eaters), and an unusual bird called the Hoatzin, which looks quite beautiful, and lives in tropical swamps.
- The Falconiformes include, you guessed it, falcons! Some scientists say that the Accipitriformes (hawks, eagles and others) should also be counted as Falconiformes. If you don’t include Accipitriformes, there are about 60 species of Falconiformes.
- The Galliformes are the 250 or so different species of chicken, turkey, quail and similar birds. All can fly, but most can’t fly very well.
- The Gaviiformes is the order given to the 5 species (types) of Loon or Diver. These birds look a bit like ducks, but their beak is sharply pointed. They hunt fish by swimming calmly on the surface, then suddenly diving down, catching a fish or frog, and swallowing it whole.
- Gruiformes means “crane-like”. This is an odd grouping of birds – some members look quite different from others, but their internal anatomy works similarly. Also, in the past, some birds have been called Gruiformes just because they didn’t fit well into any other group. Because of these, scientists are still debating exactly which birds belong in the Gruiformes.
- The Passeriformes are the largest group of birds, with over 5000 different types (species). They are also called passerines, or perching birds.
- The Pelecaniformes are medium-sized waterbirds. They have webbing that covers all four of their toes, and they breathe through their mouths because they can’t breathe through their nostrils. Some better-known Pelecaniformes are pelicans and cormorants.
- The Phoenicopteriformes‘ name means Phoenix-like. These are the half-dozen or so species of Flamingo.
- The Piciformes are the woodpeckers, toucans and similar birds. Most Piciformes live in trees and eat insects.
- The Podicipediformes include just 22 species of birds, called Grebes. Grebes are medium to large in size, and live near water. They don’t fly very well, so when they want to escape, they dive underwater instead. There’s a picture of a Grebe on the right.
- The Procellariiformes include Petrels and the Albatrosses, in particular the biggest (but not the heaviest) flying bird, the Wandering Albatross .
- The Psittaciformes are the parrots and cockatoos. This order includes some of the most intelligent of all birds!
- There are only 16 types of Pteroclidiformes – the Sandgrouses. These solid, strong flyers live on plains in Spain, Portugal, Africa and India.
- The Sphenisciformes are the 17 to 20 different species of Penguin. Penguins only live in the Southern hemisphere – so Polar Bears never meet Penguins in fact. Not all penguins live in snowy places – there’s even one that lives on the Galápagos Island in the tropics!
- The Owls are called Strigiformes. Most owls sleep during the day, hunt at night, and have eyes facing the front. However (like most birds) they can’t turn their eyes, so to look around, they have to turn their whole heads!
- Struthioniformes means “Ostrich-like”. These birds can’t fly, and couldn’t even if they had big wings. This is because their chest bone is flat – it has no place for their wing muscles to attach properly to. Because of this, these birds are also called “Ratites“, after the Latin word for “raft”. The world’s biggest living bird – the ostrich – is a Ratite. What’s more, the tallest and heaviest ever birds (the Giant Moa and the Elephant Bird) were also Ratites.
- The Tinamiformes include about 47 types of ground-dwelling bird that look similar to quail. They live in South America and Mexico, and are called Tinamous.
- The name Trogoniformes comes from the Greek word trogon, which means “nibbling”. These birds, called Trogons or Quetzals, get their name from their habit of gnawing holes in trees to make their nests.
- The Turniciformes are another group of birds that look like quails. Also called Buttonquail, they live in Africa, Asia and Australia.
What is the world’s biggest bird?
The world’ biggest living bird is the Ostrich. Ostriches are native to Africa, but are now farmed all over the world. It can grow up to 2.7 metres (9 feet) tall, and weigh 155 kilograms (285 pounds). An ostrich egg weighs as much as two dozen chicken’s eggs!
The ostrich has small wings for its size, and can’t fly. The bird with the biggest wings is the Wandering Albatross. The average wingspan is 3.1 metres (10.2 feet), but some have reached as big as 3.7 metres (12 feet). Because its wings are so big, it is able to glide for hours at a time!
Young albatrosses weigh about 16 kilograms, that is, 35 pounds during their first flights – and they quickly lose a lot of this weight. This makes the Wandering Albatross is much lighter that the heaviest flying bird, either the Kori Bustard or the Great Bustard. These Bustards can reach 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Although they can fly, they avoid flying as much as they possibly can!
The heaviest ever bird was a kind of Elephant Bird called Aepyornis, that lived in Madagascar. It grew to over 10 feet tall (3 metres), and weighed maybe 450 kg (1000 pounds)! It is believed that humans may have caused it to go extinct about 400-500 years ago.
However, the Giant Moa of New Zealand was even taller. The females grew to over 13 feet tall (4 metres), but weighed “only” 240 kilograms (510 pounds) or perhaps up to 280kg (610 pounds). Unfortunately, after people arrived in New Zealand, we hunted them, and destroyed the forests for farming, until the last Moa died in the 15th century.