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Birds are among the most recognized, and charismatic of all creatures which draw our attention because of their two most obvious characteristics - flight and feathers. Despite their superficial similarities, birds which all belong to the Aves class, have a large number of specialized adaptations and are separated into 29 separate orders. The ability to fly is something that birds are specially adapted to do, even those species that lack the ability.  Adaptations that help birds take to the wing include:
  • Wings - size and shape defines the type of flight (soaring, flying or hovering)
  • Flight feathers - barbed design is durable allowing birds to reshape individual feathers
  • "Honeycombed" bones (not present in all birds) - dramatically lightens skeleton
  • Keeled sternum - this is where those enlarged pectoral (breast) muscles that power flight attach 
  • Beaks - teeth would be much heavier and have been replaced with keratin beaks

Beyond being a key identifying feature of birds, feathers are integral to the structure and survival of birds.  In addition to their functions in flight, feathers also play a role in insulating birds and are often important to mating displays.

Marine and Water Birds

Living and feeding on, near and in the water, birds are a major component of most marine and aquatic ecosystems.  Birds display an astonishing number of specialized adaptations to deal with the water, from great blue herons that stalk the shorelines to albatross that can wonder the skies for days to weeks at a time to penguins which are unable to fly in the air but "soar" through the water. From webbed feet to oiled feathers birds have adapted to live a life that depends both on the water and upon land. It is marine birds that migrate the greatest distances of all species with some long distance birds traveling from the north pole to the south pole and back each year!

Pelicans are a common sight anywhere fish aggregate. Populations have rebounded steadily since declines caused by the pesticide DDT.

Birds of Prey and Owls

Birds of prey and owls are the most accomplished predatory birds. Examples of birds of prey include hawks, falcons, vultures and eagles. Birds of prey have keen senses of sight, powerful legs, and sharp talons and beaks. The eyes of birds of prey have a high concentration of cone cells which leads to vision that may allow these birds to see with four times as much detail as humans. Birds of prey generally spot their prey with their acute vision and attack and kill their prey with their sharp talons.  

While owls have many similarities to birds of prey, their hunting is generally at night and they use their offset ears to pinpoint the location of prey. Specially adapted feathers allow owls to fly almost silently, while their oversized eyes are adapted for night vision. Owls are peculiar in that they don't build their own nests, instead they seek out hollows or nests used by other birds in years past and lay 2 to 7 eggs.  Their young tend to hatch at two day intervals meaning the oldest chick may be as much as two weeks older than the youngest.

With its distinctive ear tufts or "horns, the Great Horned Owl is the largest of the American owls.

Game Birds

This group is primarily composed of ground-dwelling species and includes many species that are considered valuable by people as sources of food.  Many of this group have been domesticated for food or hunted for sport and food.  With heavy bodies these birds are unable to fly great distances and generally nest on the ground. The powerful wing muscles of these birds are powerful, enabling these birds to quickly take to the air.  Birds are generally camouflaged so they blend in well with their surroundings. Clutch sizes are larger than most other birds with as many as twenty eggs in a clutch. 

A relatively tame resident of the northern boreal forests, the Spruce Grouse is a popular game bird.

Non-perching Land Birds

The world of birds extends far beyond the five categories listed here and most of the rest fall into this catch-all category.  The primary commonality among these species is that they are relatively unique with only a few species in any given order. From the tiny hummingbird to the comparatively gigantic ostrich, birds have specially adapted to a variety of lifestyles and ecological niches. 

(Learn more about non-passerine land birds!)

Passerines (Perching Land Birds)

By far the largest and most common order of birds, passerines are found in all types of terrestrial habitats.  They are frequently found perching in trees, shrubs or even brush, but some species - like swallows - spend much of their life in the air. Passerine or perching birds have specially adapted feet that wrap around branches and other structures such that these birds can stand on their perches for hours with minimal energy expenditures. Another distinguishing characteristics of this order is the well developed voicebox (known as a syrinx). Passerines are avid singers with the males generally using songs to proclaim territories or to attract mates. These perching birds are the type generally found in backyards and at bird feeders. Feeding on seeds, fruits and insects, passerine birds are common in most any woodland setting.  While some passerine land birds do remain in the same area all year, many are what's known as neo-tropical migrants, feeding and breeding in mid-latitudes during the summer months and migrating toward the equator when winter comes. 

Cedar waxwings feed primarily on berries, and flocks typically descend on an area and rapidly strip berry bushes.

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