Birds are a group of endothermic vertebrates, characterised by feathers, toothless beaked jaws, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, a high metabolic rate, a four-chambered heart, and a lightweight but strong skeleton. They rank as the class of tetrapods with the most living species, at approximately ten thousand, with more than half of these being passerines, sometimes known as perching birds or, less accurately, as songbirds.
The fossil record indicates that birds are the last surviving dinosaurs, having evolved from feathered ancestors within the theropod group of saurischian dinosaurs. True birds first appeared during the Cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago. DNA-based evidence finds that birds diversified dramatically around the time of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that killed off all other dinosaurs. Birds in South America survived this event and then migrated to other parts of the world via multiple land bridges while diversifying during periods of global cooling.Primitive bird-like dinosaurs that lie outside class Aves proper, in the broader group Avialae, have been found dating back to the mid-Jurassic period. Many of these early “stem-birds”, such as Archaeopteryx, were not yet capable of fully powered flight, and many retained primitive characteristics like toothy jaws in place of beaks, and long bony tails.
Birds have wings which are more or less developed depending on the species; the only known groups without wings are the extinct moas and elephant birds. Wings, which evolved from forelimbs, give most birds the ability to fly, although further speciation has led to some flightless birds, including ratites, penguins, and diverse endemic island species of birds. The digestive and respiratory systems of birds are also uniquely adapted for flight. Some bird species of aquatic environments, particularly the aforementioned flightless penguins, and also members of the duck family, have also evolved for swimming. Birds, specifically Darwin’s finches, played an important part in the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Many species of birds are economically important. Domesticated and undomesticated birds (poultry and game) are important sources of eggs, meat, and feathers. Songbirds, parrots, and other species are popular as pets. Guano (bird excrement) is harvested for use as a fertilizer. Birds prominently figure throughout human culture. About 120–130 species have become extinct due to human activity since the 17th century, and hundreds more before then. Human activity threatens about 1,200 bird species with extinction, though efforts are underway to protect them. Recreational birdwatching is an important part of the ecotourism industry.
Aves and a sister group, the clade Crocodilia, contain the only living representatives of the reptile clade Archosauria.
Gauthier identified four conflicting ways of defining the term “Aves”, which is a problem because the same biological name is being used four different ways. Gauthier proposed a solution, number 4 below, which is to reserve the term Aves only for the crown group, the last common ancestor of all living birds and all of its descendants. He assigned other names to the other groups.
The birds’ phylogenetic relationships to major living reptile groups.
Under the fourth definition Archaeopteryx is an avialan, and not a member of Aves. Gauthier’s proposals have been adopted by many researchers in the field of paleontology and bird evolution, though the exact definitions applied have been inconsistent. Avialae, initially proposed to replace the traditional fossil content of Aves, is often used synonymously with the vernacular term “bird” by these researchers.
Most researchers define Avialae as branch-based clade, though definitions vary. Many authors have used a definition similar to “all theropods closer to birds than to Deinonychus.” Avialae is also occasionally defined as an apomorphy-based clade (that is, one based on physical characteristics). Jacques Gauthier, who named Avialae in 1986, re-defined it in 2001 as all dinosaurs that possessed feathered wings used in flapping flight, and the birds that descended from them.