Bird Groups & Species
There are a vast amount of bird species on our planet. The number of species ranges from 9,000 to around 10,000 individual species that belong to over 227 birds families. Birds come in all different colors and sizes from grey pigeons to colorful parrots and from large Ostriches to tiny Bee Hummingbirds.
There are different types of birds, for example, flightless birds such as the Emu, wading birds such as the Heron and swimming birds such as the Penguin. Below you will find some general information on birds and some different types of birds that live on our planet.
What is a bird?
A bird is a lightweight but amazingly resilient animal that evolved from lightly built dinosaurs during the Jurassic period, around 150 – 200 million years ago. Most paleontologists regard birds as the only clade of dinosaurs that survived the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event approximately 65.5 million years ago.
Birds are endothermic (warm blooded) vertebrates that have feathers to keep them warm and help them fly. All birds have a four chambered heart.
Birds walk on their two hind legs (bipedal) and their forelimbs have evolved into wings to enable them to fly or flippers to help them swim as in the case of Penguins. However, not all birds with wings can fly. The Ratite group is a diverse group of birds that are flightless and include birds such as the Ostrich, Emu and Kiwi.
All birds lay eggs which are externally incubated. Birds have horn sheathed bills or beaks that vary in shape and size. Some birds have four toes with three facing forward and one pointing to the back or in the case of Parrots, two pointing forward and two pointing backwards. Many birds have three toes or only two toes like the Ostrich. The body temperature of a bird ranges between 40 degrees Celsius and 44 degrees Celsius which is higher than most other warm blooded animals.
Birds make sounds by using a specialized voice box called a syrinx which is located in their necks. Different birds make different sounds. Some have short calls while others produce long songs which are tuneful. Some birds can even mimic human speech.
Birds have different types of claws. Birds of prey such as the Osprey, Falcon and Eagle have sharp, curved claws called talons that help them catch and carry prey. Birds who cling to vertical surfaces such as tree trunks have long curved claws like the Woodpecker. Birds like Ducks, Geese and Swans have webbed feet which they use like paddles for swimming.
All birds have feathers that they use to help them fly as well as for keeping the bird warm, camouflage and mating displays. Feathers evolved from reptilian scales and these still can be seen on the lower parts of birds such as their legs and feet. Feathers need to be replaced regularly through the process of molting which occurs every 1 – 2 years. There are 4 types of bird feathers:
- Contour feathers – these feathers are the largest feathers and cover the birds body closely making the bird more streamlined for flight. Contour feathers also give birds their coloring and shape and they are very important in that they give the birds their first level of defence against the sun, wind and rain.
- Down feathers – these feathers help to trap warm air next to the birds body as in Penguins who live and cold regions. Down feathers are soft and fluffy and smaller in size than contour feathers. Because they provide such warmth for the birds, they have been used to fill quilts and pillows to be used by humans.
- Wing feathers – these feathers help the bird to fly by giving it life through the air currents.
- Tail feathers – these feathers help the bird to control their flight and to change direction.
Other feathers that appear on birds are Semi plumes which appear half way between contour feathers and down feathers, Filoplumes which are small and are believed to have sensory functions, Bristles which are stiff hairs that appear around the eyes and mouth of some birds and function as protective hairs and Powder feathers which grow continuously and help keep the plumage clean.
Feathers determine the color of a bird. Feathers obtain their coloring through colored pigments in the Keratin of which the feathers are made and through carotenoids (any of a class of yellow to orange pigments) and Porphyrins pigments (which provide red, green and brown coloring). Birds obtain carotenoids through the food that they eat. For example, Flamingos get their brilliant pink coloring from the crustaceans they eat. The more they eat, the pinker they become. Some birds obtain their brilliant colors through tiny structures on the surface of their feathers which reflect only one wavelength of light. This occurrence of color through light is not only unique to birds, the Morpho Butterfly uses physical microstructure to reflect selective wavelengths to produce its stunning blue coloring. Feathers are water repellent due to the secrete oils which are produced by the birds preen glands. Birds are constantly applying the oil to their plumage to maintain their waterproof covering.
How do birds fly?
Most birds take off by flapping their wings to produce thrust and lift. While in flight, the flapping wings make circular and up and down movements with their wing tips pushing forwards on the up strokes. Some birds such as Geese run into the wind to generate enough lift to take off. The shape of a birds wings determines how they take off. For example, broad, rounded wings give the best lift and acceleration. Birds with long, thin wings such as a Swallow, only take off from high points, falling onto the air currents and allowing the air to carry them.
What types of birds are there?
A small amount of birds species cannot fly even though they have wings. Some flightless birds run or creep around the ground in search of food, while others have adapted to the water and use their wings to swim instead of fly. The worlds largest bird is a flightless bird, the Ostrich who lives in Africa. The Ostrich can measure 2.5 – 2.7 metres in height and can run as fast as a racehorse reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour.
The Emu is also a flightless bird and is the largest bird in Australia reaching 2 metres in height. Emus are also fast running birds at 35 miles per hour. The smallest flightless bird is the Island Rail bird which weighs only 35 grams and is the size of a small tomato. It lives on an inaccessible island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Penguins are flightless birds that are adapted to swimming. They have plump, streamlined bodies, short legs, webbed feet and their wings are flattened to form flippers. Penguins stand upright and waddle around on land, however, they are excellent swimmers who are able to perform deep sea dives when hunting for fish and krill. They can swim as fast as 9 miles per hour.
Some species of birds only come out at night to hunt and feed. These birds have special adaptions for their nocturnal lives. Owls are probably the best known night birds, with around 150 species, they are found in most parts of the world. During the day, Owls roost in tree tops or other habitats where they are difficult to spot as their feathers are colored to blend in with their backgrounds, particularly trees, branches and twigs.
Owls are often heard more than they are seen. Owls have large, forward facing eyes that enable them to determine distances accurately when flying and hunting prey. Prey includes insects and small rodents which are eaten whole.
Other night birds include the Nightjar which has around 70 different species. Nightjars are found in the warmer parts of the world except New Zealand and Southern America. The Oilbird is another night bird which comes from South America and lives in caves during the daytime.
Around half of all bird species are song birds. These include Sparrows, Thrushes, Warblers, Swallows and Crows. Male song birds sing complex songs when courting or defending their territory. Song birds, who are also called Perching Birds, have grasping feet with 4 toes in which 3 point forward and a larger toe points backwards. Most song birds belong to the Passerine family which is the largest order of birds. This family of birds vary greatly in size, color, behaviour and habitat.
This group is a diverse and the fiercest group of birds known as raptors. It includes small birds to some of the largest birds in the world.
This group of raptors includes Eagles, Kestrels, Vultures, Condors, Hawks and Secretary Birds. Many raptors are predatory, some are scavengers. Most birds of prey have muscular legs, sharp talons and sharp, hooked beaks. Many have large eyes and hunt by sight.
Wading birds show a variety in size, beak shape and leg length.
They breed on land, however, their habitats are always close to a water source such as lakes, rivers, ponds and wetlands.
Wading birds include Curlews, Herons, Plovers and Terns.
Water birds include Ducks, Geese and Swans. These type of birds have broad bodies, webbed feet and flattened beaks. In many species, the males are brightly colored and the females are a dull, mottled coloring. This is because males show off their brightly colored feathers to attract mates during breeding season. Young water birds are able to feed themselves shortly after hatching. There are around 100 species of ducks around the world except for the Antarctic regions.
Ducks feed on fish, shellfish, seeds and leaves. Ducks have been domesticated for over 2,000 years for meat and eggs. Swans may live up to 35 years in the wild and they pair for life.
Most Swans are white in color, however, there are black swans such as the Australian Black Swan (Cygnus atratus). The Black-necked swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) is the smallest species of swan and has just a black neck and head and is native to South America. Geese are not generally capable of flight. Geese are smaller than swans and feed mainly on leaves and blades of grass.
Sea birds include Gulls, Puffins, Shearwaters and Kittiwakes. Sea birds have waterproof feathers and webbed feet. Most spend their time catching fish from the ocean with their sharp beaks.
Some sea birds will nest in burrows such as the Puffin, while others nest on high cliff ledges where they will lay their eggs during breeding seasons. There are 48 species of Gulls which can be found on shores and islands throughout the world.
The largest gull is the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) which grows to 79 centimetres in length. The smallest gull is the Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) which only measures 28 centimetres. Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, Rissa brevirostris) spend much more time at sea than most other gulls, only coming into land during breeding season. Kittiwakes have very short legs and rarely walk on land. The Manx Shearwater is a sea bird that travels widely across oceans for weeks on each feeding trip. They can cover up to 500 kilometres each day.
Game birds include Wild Turkeys, Partridges, Pheasants, Qualls and Wild Guinea Fowl. Game birds are mostly large, plumb birds who spend most of their time on the ground.
They are called ‘Game Birds’ because they were and still are in some regions, hunted for their tasty meat.
Tropical birds are found in tropical climates such as Rainforests. The Tropical bird group includes Parrots, Cockatoos, Keas, Lorikeets and Corellos. Parrots are among the most lively, inquisitive and intelligent birds in the world. They have beautifully colored feathers, large heads, big beady eyes and a large, strong, hard beak which can crush the hardest shells. Parrots are capable of making many calls and they can mimic sounds such as human voices.
One of the largest members of the Parrot family is the Scarlet Macaw which can grow to measure 85 centimetres in length. The only flightless parrot is the Kakapo or Owl Parrot which lives in New Zealand and is now extremely rare. Cockatoos have a distinctive crest of feathers on the heads which they raise when alarmed or excited. New Zealand Keas are named after their piercing calls.
A-Z List of Birds
Here is a list of the most popular birds featured on this website: