Birds - Types & Characteristics
Birds have accomplished one of Humanity's oldest dreams: to fly. These remarkable animals have highly specialized anatomy, fascinating behavior, and often enchanting colors.
There are around 10,000 species of birds on our planet, living on all continents. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the tiny hummingbird to the majestic, huge albatross.
On this page, we are going to take a closer look at birds, their key characteristics, and their different types, among other things. Keep reading to learn more about them!
8 Characteristics of Birds
- Feathers: Birds are the only animals that are covered with feathers. Feathers are useful to insulate the body, they are an essential part of birds’ ability to fly, and they are also used in courtship in various species.
- Beak: Birds do not have a mouth with teeth. Instead, they have a beak that they use for many different things: eat of course, but also manipulate things, build nests, attack, or defend themselves. Beaks come in many sizes and shapes, often related to the bird’s diet and/or lifestyle.
- Wings: Birds have two wings that they use to fly, even though some birds have lost the ability to fly. Like feathers, wings are sometimes used for display or courtship.
- Lightweight skeleton: Bones usually represent a significant portion of the body weight. Since birds have evolved to fly, their bones have also evolved to become more lightweight: they are hollow and filled with air.
- Endothermy: Just like mammals, birds are able to regulate their body temperature internally. This enables them to live in very varied environments and even migrate.
- Eggs: Birds lay eggs. Eggs are fertilized internally, and they are incubated by one parent or both parents. The incubation lasts until the chick is able to leave the nest. Eggs are perfectly waterproof.
- Bipedalism: Birds are bipedal, they stand – and/or perch on two hind legs.
- Migration: Many bird species are migratory, sometimes covering really impressive long distances between the regions where they breed and the regions where they spend the winter. Sometimes, migration also occurs depending on food availability.
The 40 Types of Birds
The class Aves contains 40 orders. In other words, there that no less than 40 types of birds that exist on our planet. These 40 orders are made of 248 families. Here is a list and brief description of all 40 orders, with examples and pictures:
They include most diurnal birds of prey. “Diurnal” means that they are active during day time. Eagles, hawks, vultures, kites, ospreys, and condors are part of this group, but not falcons.
This group is commonly called waterfowl, a group of birds adapted to living on the water, with webbed feet and waterproof feathers. Ducks, eiders, geese and swans are part of this group.
This is the group containing swifts and hummingbirds. They are one of the most diverse groups of birds, and they live on all continents except Antarctica.
This is the group of the kiwi bird. There are five species of kiwis, and they are all endemic to New Zealand. Kiwis are not able to fly and are well adapted to terrestrial life.
This group of birds is present in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the northwest Pacific (Melanesia). Hornbills and hoopoes are the most prominent members of this group.
This is a group of nocturnal birds including nighthawks, nightjars, and their relatives. They mostly feed on insects and are present on all continents except polar regions.
Cariamiformes are a group of flightless, predatory, terrestrial birds living in grasslands and open forests of South America, commonly called seriemas.
This group is composed of the 3 different species of cassowary, and the emu. They are flightless birds that live in Australia and the island of New Guinea.
Usually referred to as shorebirds, this order is very diverse and can be found all over the world. Many of these birds live near the seashore, some are seabirds, or live inland. Plovers, avocets, jacanas, sandpipers, gulls, and terns are part of this group.
This group comprises storks. They have long legs, long necks and long beaks. Storks have some of the largest wingspans of all land-living birds. They can be found in most parts of the world and in various habitats.
This is the order of mousebirds. They are relatively small birds with long, thin tails, living in Africa. They eat berries, fruits, and buds. There are only 6 species of mousebirds.
This is the group of pigeons and doves. They are present on all continents except Antarctica. Before its extinction, the dodo was also part of this order.
This order includes kingfishers, bee-eaters, motmots, rollers, and todies. Many of these birds are very colorful. They can be found all over the world except in polar regions.
This order is made of the cuckoos and the koel. Cuckoos are present on all continents except for Antarctica and they are known to steal the nest of other birds.
This is a small group just containing the kagu, a bird endemic to New Caledonia, and the sunbittern, living in tropical Central and South America.
This is the order made of falcons and caracaras. These birds are birds of prey that are active during the day (diurnal) and are well-adapted to hunting.
This order is where you will find the Gallinaceous birds, such as chickens, turkeys, quails, pheasants, and peacocks. They live on all continents except Antarctica, and are usually fast runners.
Gaviiformes is the group of loons. These are aquatic birds that dive to hunt fish, with very specialized anatomy that allows them to spend their life on the water.
Present all over the world except in Antarctica, the order Gruiformes is the group of rails, and cranes, among others. Birds in this group have a pretty varied morphology and their classification has long been a headache.
This order has only one species: the cuckoo-roller. It can reach 50 cm (20 in) in length and there are 3 subspecies living in Madagascar, Mayotte, and Comoros. It mostly inhabits forested areas.
This is a small order of only 3 species of mesites, which are flightless birds endemic to Madagascar. They can usually be found on the forest ground looking for insects.
This is an order endemic to Africa, comprising turacos and plantain eaters. These are colorful birds that are not very good fliers but good runners. In spite of their name (“musophaga” means banana/plantain eater), they hardly eat any bananas but they eat other fruits and insects.
This order includes only one family, itself having only one species: the hoatzin. Hoatzins are very unique birds living in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, in South America.
There is only one family in this order: Otididae, or bustards. Bustards are ground birds mostly found in Africa, but also in Eurasia. Their courtship displays are often spectacular.
This is the order of passerines, or perching birds. It is the largest group of birds with around 6500 species. It includes many well-known birds such as sparrows, crows, songbirds, tits, blue jays… and many others.
As its name suggests, this group includes pelicans, but also herons, shoebills, ibises, and spoonbills. They are medium-sized to large waterbirds that can be found all over the world.
This order contains only one family: the tropicbirds. They are quite large (around 1-meter / 3.3-ft wingspan), white seabirds, that plunge and dive into the sea to catch fish.
This is the group of flamingoes. There are 6 species, all living in shallow saline or brackish water. They are colorful birds with long legs and necks, filtering the water with their beak to find food.
Well-known representatives of this order are woodpeckers, toucans, and barbets. In total, there are 450 species in this order. They are arboreal birds that live on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.
This is the order of grebes. They are water birds, living in all continents except polar regions. They dive in order to catch their food, mostly fish, mollusks, or crustaceans.
This order comprises seabirds that can be found on all oceans and seas of the planet. It is made of 4 families with albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and storm petrels. The albatross is the bird with the largest wingspan in the world.
The members of this order are the parrots. There are more than 300 species of parrots and many as kept as pets all over the world. They are usually very colorful and are known for their ability to mimic sounds and sometimes human speech.
This group is the one of sandgrouses. They are medium-sized birds living in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. They are terrestrial and have short legs. The females are more colored than the males.
This order contains one family, Rheidae, and one species: the rhea. They are flightless ratite birds (long-legged, long-necked, large birds).They are native to South America and are often described as “the south American ostrich”.
Sphenisciformes are penguins. Penguins are flightless water birds, that live in the southern hemisphere, apart from one species living in the Galapagos Islands, just north of the Equator. Penguins are very good swimmers and they use this skill to hunt food – fish, krill, or other sea creatures.
This order contains more than 200 species of nocturnal birds of prey: owls. They can be observed on all continents except Antarctica, in a large variety of habitats. They are nocturnal predators, with high vision abilities in dim light.
This order comprises the ostriches. There are currently 2 living species of ostriches: the common ostrich and the Somali ostrich. Traditionally, this order contained all the ratites, but rheas, emus and kiwis ended up being classified in other groups.
This is an order of seabirds, found in most tropical and temperate oceanic coasts across the world. It includes frigatebirds, boobies, cormorants, gannets, shags, and darters.
This order contains 47 species belonging to a single family of birds: the tinamous. Tinamous are native to Central and South America, where they live in varied habitats, from grasslands to rainforests. They are able to fly but prefer to stay on the ground.
This is a group of beautiful, colorful tropical birds: trogons and quetzals. This order is made of only one family, Trogonidae, containing more than 40 species, present in most tropical and equatorial regions around the world.
Frequently Asked Questions About Birds
Birds fly by flapping their wings, using their powerful breast muscles. The shape and size of the wings and the flight feathers are perfect to catch the air and generate the necessary thrust. The shape of the wing is such that the air flows faster above the wing and slower under the wing, and this is what generates lift. An airplane’s wing works the same way.
Some birds fly at night, especially nocturnal birds such as owls and nightjars. Other birds fly at night during their long-distance migrations. Another possible reason for a bird to fly at night is if the bird has been disturbed and scared off by something, and flies to find another spot to spend the night.
The primary reasons for birds to migrate are resource availability and habitat and weather conditions in order to breed, raise their young, and of course, simply find food. Some species fly thousands of miles across countries and continents.
Birds do not have a mouth with teeth. Instead, they have a beak. As a result, birds do not chew their food, they swallow it whole.
Birds’ ancestors used to have teeth, but they lost them about 100 million years ago.
Bats are not birds, they are mammals. In fact, bats are the only mammals that have developed wings enabling them to sustain flight.
Dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds. More precisely, it is now established that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs called therapods. The Archaeopteryx is considered to be the first bird (because of its ability to fly) and an intermediate between dinosaurs and today’s birds.
Recent research suggests that living birds actually are modern-day dinosaurs, belonging to the therapod group.
Birds usually fly at low altitudes. During migration, however, they gain altitude and fly from 1500 m to 6000 m (5,000 ft to 20,000 ft). The highest-flying bird ever recorded is Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, flying at 11,300 m (37,000 ft)!
Yes, all birds lay eggs, it is one of their shared characteristics. Eggs are then incubated by one or both parents.
Birds sometimes fly in circles to take advantage of thermals. Thermals are masses of warmer air naturally raising. Birds can catch and use these raising air masses to fly and gain altitude without spending a lot of energy.
Another reason for birds to fly in circles is to take the time to carefully observe an area on the ground in search of food or water. Finally, another potential reason would be to confuse predators and make it harder for them to attack.
Like mammals, birds are endotherms. In other words, they are warm-blooded. They are able to produce their own heat and maintain a constant, high body temperature regardless of environmental conditions.
Recent research from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, estimates that there are at least 50 billion birds in the world.
Birds can fly during the rain, but most of the time, they choose to avoid it. Birds are waterproof thanks to the oil that they spread on their feathers while preening. As a result, rain doesn’t affect their ability to fly. However, during heavy rain, most birds will have more difficulty flying.
Apart from the water itself, low atmospheric pressure during storms also makes it more difficult for them to fly, as they need a denser air to fly properly.
Learn More About Bird Species
Links to articles packed with surprising facts and knowledge to further learn about amazing species of birds, so you know what you are looking at on your next wildlife trip!