Archive for the ‘Interesting Wild Bird Articles’ Category

World Record-holders: The Fastest Birds on the Planet

March 6, 2011

Photo credit: Mlahanas.de

Any middle-school child could tell you that the world’s fastest bird is the Peregrine Falcon, which has been clocked exceeding speeds of 200 mph (320 kph). In level flight, the pigeon-sized bird can reach speeds of 55 mph (90 kph). This world-record-setter uses its incredible speed to smack its prey, other birds, out of the air, often killing them instantly. But what is the fastest bird on land? In the water? And who’s ever heard of the Spine-tailed swift?

Fastest Horizontal Flier

The Spine-tailed Swift, also known as the Needle-tailed Swift or White-throated Needletail, holds the record for the fastest level flight. This medium-sized swift can be found during the winter in eastern Australia and in the summer in parts of China, India, and Russia. Able to reach cruising speeds of over 100 mph (170 kph), this bird feeds mostly on flying insects. Evidently these insects must be quite fast – but perhaps the swift just enjoys overtaking its prey much like a Ferrari zooms by an ice cream truck.

Fastest Runner

The fastest land bird, able to reach speeds of 45 mph (70 kph) is the ostrich. Native to central and southern Africa, these four sub-species of highly-specialized runners also hold the record for largest land bird, largest bird egg, and curiously, largest bird eye. Ostriches are flightless and have instead evolved to outrun predators. Africa is a land of large carnivores, and the ostrich can outrun almost all of them using its uniquely-shaped two-toed feet. Ostriches also have a powerful kick, and have been known to fatally wound big cats unlucky enough to be at the receiving end of a clawed strike worthy of David Beckham.

Fastest Swimmer

On land, the ostrich is king, and in the air the Peregrine rules, but the water belongs to the Gentoo Penguin, the world’s fastest swimming bird. Found on islands in the southern hemisphere such as the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Iles Kerguelen, these small penguins can reach speeds of 40 kph (25 mph). Distinguished from similar species such as the Adelie and Chinstrap Penguins by a white eye patch and orange bill, Gentoo Penguins can also dive over 300 feet (100 m) to reach crustaceans and fish.

Fastest to Reach Maturity

The common quail is not built for speed – on a good day, these birds can’t even outrun a housecat. In the air, quail are clumsy and bumbling, owing to their rotund shape. Quail are not even quick-witted, seemingly always in a panic. But when it comes to breeding, these birds are able to reproduce quicker than any other bird. Common quail reach sexual maturity at an astonishing 6 weeks. Even more incredible, these softball-sized birds can lay over 50 eggs in a single nest. It is a testament to the bird’s overall low survivability that the world is not overrun with these unique, albeit silly birds. Perhaps they can get some tips from that Peregrine…

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The Bird Skeleton: A Perfectly Structured Flying Machine

March 4, 2011

photo credit: stoc.xchng

We appreciate and revere birds for a variety of reasons. Aesthetically speaking, they appeal to our inner sense of beauty because they are gorgeous creatures with an amazing array of color, shape, and structure. Birds also impress us with their grand diversity of behavior, form, and function. But the one thing that all of us marvel at and dream about are bird’s magnificent flying ability. Beautiful color and diversity in form and function exists throughout the plant and animal kingdoms, but creatures that can fly are rare and of those relatively few species that are able to fly, none come close to being able to match a bird’s mastery of the aerial domain. We all know that a bird’s feathers are key to their fantastic flying abilities. But is that all? Not even close! There are a number of key characteristics that combine to give birds’ this special skill. In fact, you could say that their entire bodies are perfectly structured flying machines. So let’s look at this bold statement in more detail. First, for a flying machine to work properly, a lightweight structure is crucial.

One characteristic common to all birds is their bill, which has no exact parallel among other extant vertebrates, and its total lack of teeth. Most evolutionary biologists agree that the toothless avian bill is a clear case of weight reduction as an adaptation for flight. The gizzard, sometimes referred to a muscular stomach, evolved to compensate for the lack of teeth. The gizzard serves essentially the same function as teeth, to grind food into smaller bits and initiate the digestive process, but it is much, much lighter because it is just muscle tissue and does not require a heavy jawbone to support it as teeth do. This brings us to bones or rather the entire avian skeleton, which is completely modified to be very light and still strong enough for flight. The actual structure of bird bones varies to some degree, but all of them can be described as hollow, spongy, or strutted, or any combination of the three weight saving adaptations depending on which bone or even which species we are talking about. A bird’s skeleton is also made stronger by specific fusions, reductions, and/or enlargements in the bones of hands, feet, chest cavity, vertebrae, pelvis, and head. For instance, the hand and wrist bones are highly reduced and some are fused together to be light and strong, resulting in forelimbs that are entirely devoted to flying and serve essentially no other significant purpose. A bird’s tail vertebrae are reduced into a unique structure called the pygostyle, while the lower back vertebrae are fused together with a highly modified pelvis, again for lightweight and strength.

A bird’s ribs even have lateral projections that overlap and reinforce the chest cavity. This is not to mention the special wishbone, keeled sternum, or the array of adaptations in muscles, joints, internal organs, basic senses, physiology, or the possession of unique air sac structures, all of which contribute to making bird’s the spectacular flying machines that they are. But those are topics for another day.