Birds are truly beautiful creatures. They are fascinating and all around us, roosting and nesting on our buildings and feeding in our gardens. We can travel to see them in exotic places, or just look out our window . . . they are easy to find and fun to observe. Birds are probably the most beloved group of wild animals on the planet. Their ubiquitous presence, colorful form, intelligent actions and cheeky mannerisms endear them to us all. They are easy to love.
There are roughly 300 billion birds of nearly 10,000 species that now inhabit the earth. This only a small fraction of the number of birds that have existed since the Age of Dinosaurs. While new species are occasionally discovered in remote areas, 150,000 species have been identified from fossil remains proving that most bird species are now extinct. Birds can be found on all major land masses from the poles to the tropics, as well as in or over all our seas, oceans and islands.
The most common or populous wild bird in the world is the Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) in Africa. The most common bird in the world is the domestic chicken which breeders have developed from the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus). Fear has been expressed that pure Red Jungle Fowl may now be extinct in the wild. The most widespread commonly seen wild bird is probably the European House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) which has been transported all over the world by European settlers. It can now be found on two-thirds of the land masses of the world including Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and India.
There are three ways of measuring size in birds . . . heaviest, tallest and wingspan length. To date the records are held, as follows:
- Heaviest - The extinct Dromornis stirtoni from Australia, also known as the Thunder Bird. This flightless giant lived between 8-6 million years ago and stood nearly 3m/10ft tall, weighing in at a massive 500kg/1100lb. Around same height as the Giant Moa of New Zealand (below), this huge bird weighed about twice as much.
- Tallest - Dinornis, the extinct Moas from the North and South Island of New Zealand were the tallest of the flightless birds in this Genera. Dinornis giganteus lived on the North Island of New Zealand and D. robustis on the South Island. They ranged in height to over 3m/10ft (with some statistics indicating up to 4m/13ft) and weighed about 250kg/550 lbs. By studying the cross-sections of fossils, scientists found that Moas took more than 10 years to reach adult size, in contrast to our modern birds, including ostriches, that tend to reach full size within a year.
- Longest Wingspan - Another extinct bird, this time from South America, has the record for largest flying bird and longest wingspan. The Giant Teratorn (Argentavis magnificens) had a wingspan of at least 6m/19.5ft and could possibly have been as large as 7.5m/25ft.
- Smallest - It is generally agreed that this record is held by the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helanae) from Cuba. This tiny bird is 5.7cm/2.25in and weighs less than 1/10 of an ounce. Shortest wings and body length are not really appropriate measurements because they are disproportionately affected by whether or not the bird is flightless and/or it's beak length. Another major contender for smallest bird is the Little Woodstar from South America. Both these tiny miracles of life fly very competently. The smallest flightless bird is the Inaccessible Island Rail (Atlantisia rogersi). Reaching a mere 12.5cm/5in in length and weighing 35g/1.45oz. This little beauty can only be found in the southern Atlantic Tristan da Cunha Islands.
- Bird Feathers - It must be a tedious job, but there are people who've taken the time to count the feathers on different species of birds. Who has the fewest feathers? That distinction goes to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) with 940. And the bird with the most . . . the Swan with about 20,000.
- How Long Do Birds Live? - Survival is tough business if you are a bird. Life brings many challenges from natural and man-made dangers. Unfortunately, banding studies show that most birds die in their first year of life. But here are some record lifespans: Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 23.25 years, Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 23.5 years, Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 18.33 years, Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 15.75 years and Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 15.75 years.
Other bird facts of interest:
- Fastest - This record goes to the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) whose diving speeds have been clocked at 200 mph! This is pretty fast in anyone's book . . . but remarkable when compared to the slow speed of a Hummingbird at 27mph. But doesn't that 27mph seem fast as the buzz by you on their way to the next flower or hummingbird feeder?
- Highest Flyer - While most birds fly a few hundred feet off the ground, migrating birds fly much higher to take advantage of favorable winds. While geese will fly over Mt. Everest at 29,000ft and South American condors (Vultur gryphus) range up to 20,000ft, the high flying record must go to the unfortunate vulture that collided with a jetliner over West Africa at a whopping 37,000ft!
- Migration - There is no doubt that birds are the most mobile creatures on earth. Many migrate from the northern to southern hemisphere each year. Most notable are the seabirds that spend long periods of time at sea, perhaps years, without landing and traveling from one side of the world to the other. But the Artic Tern (Sterna paradisea) is a real champ, migrating from far northern regions to the coast of Antartica each year, a 22,000 mile round trip.
If you enjoy birds then it is important to face how birds are threatened. Birds have been on the planet much longer than things man has created that cause their death. Millions of birds die each year from collisions with buildings, windows, radio/television/cell phone towers and lighthouses to name a few.
Man has also created hazards with devastating consequences by introducing animals and insects to different parts of the world. For example, while exact numbers are unknown, experts estimate that each year domestic and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks in North America each year. Land development removes needed habitat such as wetlands, forests, fields, beaches and other areas that birds depend on for food, especially on long migrations. Many species are now extinct and many more are threatened with extinction. We, who care about birds, need to do our part to protect them and preserve their habitats if they are to survive. No one wants to see a bird or other animal suffer bad consequences. What will we receive in return? . . . The ability to continue enjoying these fascinating and beautiful creatures.
So what can we do?
- Be active in your local Audubon or other environmental group.
- Be aware of the problems that birds have in your area and work with people who can make a difference.
- Education is a key activity. Learn as much as you can and share with others.
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Shari Carpenter is the owner of http://www.birdwatchin.com , a one-stop resource for people that love birdwatching, bird feeding and pet birds. http://www.birdwatchin.com covers a wide range of information, products and supplies, including the blog “Birdwatchin’ Buzz Today!" It is also the place to subscribe to “David's Wild Bird Club" Newsletter.