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Bird, animal with feathers and wings. Birds are the only animals with feathers, although some other animals, such as insects and bats, also have wings. Nearly all birds can fly, and even flightless birds, such as ostriches and penguins, evolved from flying ancestors.
Native to Africa, the ostrich, Struthio camelus, is the largest living species of bird, growing to a height of approximately 2.4 m (8 ft) and a weight of 150 kg (330 lb). Although flightless, the ostrich can run at speeds as high as 65 km/hr (40 mph). Highly adaptable, ostriches can be found living in mountainous areas, open savanna, or sandy desert plains. They have omnivorous feeding habits, eating grass, the foliage of trees and bushes, and any small invertebrate and vertebrate animals they can chase down.
This broad-tailed hummingbird, Selasphorus platycercus, hovers above a honeysuckle flower, creating its characteristic humming sound with its wings. The specialized skeletal structure of the hummingbird, shared only by its relative the swift, allows its wings to twist. Able to produce 22 to 78 of these wing movements per second, the bird can hover forward and backward while it drinks from a flower. Hummingbirds belong to the Trochilidae family of birds, which contains the smallest birds in the world.
Birds are members of a group of animals called vertebrates, which possess a spinal column or backbone. Other vertebrates are fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Many characteristics and behaviors of birds are distinct from all other animals, but there are some similarities. Like mammals, birds have four-chambered hearts and are warm-blooded—having a relatively constant body temperature that enables them to live in a wide variety of environments. Like reptiles, birds develop from embryos in eggs outside of the mother’s body.
Birds are found worldwide in many habitats. They can fly over some of the highest mountains on earth as well as both of the earth’s poles, dive through water to depths of more than 250 m (850 ft), and occupy habitats with the most extreme climates on the planet, including arctic tundra and the Sahara Desert. Certain kinds of seabirds are commonly seen over the open ocean thousands of kilometers from the nearest land, but all birds must come ashore to raise their young.
The bald eagle was designated as the national bird of the United States in 1782. Its name does not imply a lack of feathers, but instead is derived from the word piebald, meaning “marked with white.” The bald eagle reigns as the second-largest bird of prey in North America, after the California condor.
Cyanocitta cristata This common North American bird possesses a remarkable memory. The blue jay buries scores of acorns, remembering their exact location months later. It lives in wooded areas but forages in the open, eating seeds, fruits, and insects. Although its own cry is harsh, the blue jay can expertly mimic the calls of other birds.
Highly developed animals, birds are sensitive and responsive, colorful and graceful, with habits that excite interest and inquiry. People have long been fascinated by birds, in part because birds are found in great abundance and variety in the same habitats in which humans thrive. And like people, most species of birds are active during daylight hours. Humans find inspiration in birds’ capacity for flight and in their musical calls. Humans also find birds useful—their flesh and eggs for food, their feathers for warmth, and their companionship. Perhaps a key basis for our rapport with birds is the similarity of our sensory worlds: Both birds and humans rely more heavily on hearing and color vision than on smell. Birds are useful indicators of the quality of the environment, because the health of bird populations mirrors the health of our environment. The rapid decline in bird populations and the accelerating extinction rates of birds in the world’s forests, grasslands, wetlands, and islands are therefore reasons for great concern.
This Article is taken from Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006.
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