Birds: Traits, Types & Importance

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  • 1:08 General Traits
  • 3:41 Flight
  • 4:43 Breeding
  • 6:47 Diversity
  • 7:53 Ecological and…
  • 9:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Have you ever wanted to be a bird? Or thought about flying like a bird? In this lesson, we're going to learn about why birds are birds, how they fly, and why they're important to us both ecologically and economically.


Did you know there are about 10,000 species of birds? Some are very tiny, such as the bee hummingbird at two inches tall, and some are very large, such as ostriches, which are nine feet tall. Birds live on all seven continents. The most diversity among birds occurs in tropical regions. Birds belong to a class called Aves, the class of vertebrates all birds belong to. Many species of birds migrate great distances each year, roughly 12,000 miles. They are social creatures, communicating with visual signals, calls and songs. They often participate in social behaviors such as hunting. Sometimes, we will see a number of smaller birds flying after a larger bird. This is called mobbing, and the smaller birds are trying to get the larger bird to leave their nests alone. They share several characteristics with other classes of animals such as a skeletal backbone with a spinal column, a heart with four chambers and warm-bloodedness. What do you think it would be like to be a bird?

General Traits

What makes a bird a bird? There are five traits that make a bird a bird.

Feathers are an obvious trait. Feathers are found on every living species of bird. They are made of keratin, which also makes hair and nails in other creatures. There are a variety of types of feathers, each with its own function. Soft, downy feathers are essential to keeping birds warm. Contour feathers streamline the body to aid in flying. Flight feathers appear on wings and tail to give loft. Old feathers are molted, or shed, once or twice a year depending upon the species. Feathers help birds find mates. Many male birds, such as peacocks, have very colorful feathers, while the females tend to be more drab.

All birds have wings, but not all birds fly. The wings are shaped differently in different species to provide specific advantages. For example, the hawk or falcon has narrow, sharp-tipped wings for speed. Songbirds tend to have elliptical or oval-shaped wings that help them maneuver in tight spaces. Other birds that swim, such as penguins and puffins, have wings that look like flippers to help them 'fly' through the water.

Beaks or Bills
Beaks or bills are another characteristic of birds. These are made from bone and then covered with a very thin layer of keratin. Birds don't have real teeth but some have what is called tomia, which are the sharp ridges along the edges of their beaks. The shape of the beak indicates what that bird's general diet may be. For example, birds, like hawks and owls, that eat meat have sharp, hooked beaks that they use for ripping and tearing. Birds that eat seeds have very strong cone shaped beaks that help them break through shells. Waterfowl, like ducks and geese, have wide, flat beaks so they can strain their food out of the water.

Laying Eggs
All birds lay eggs. They may be brightly colored, and they may even have spots. Bird eggs have a hard shell made of calcium, which is a mineral used in building bone, and a layer of mucus that hardens as the egg is formed. Inside the egg, we find the yellow yolk and the egg white, which is called the albumin.

Adapted Skeleton
Bird skeletons are designed specifically to keep birds light so they can fly. This means their bones are hollow. Some of their bones are fused, or stuck together, which makes their skeleton more rigid than other creatures'. Birds that don't fly, don't need hollow bones. Penguins have heavy bones with marrow in the middle that help them to survive in their very cold environments. Ostriches have heavy, solid bones so they can run and kick to protect themselves.


Flight is the primary method of transportation for birds. Birds have developed several adaptations for flight. Their bodies are streamlined to reduce air resistance. The breastbone is shaped like a keel, or the bottom of a boat, which allows for the attachment of the large muscles necessary for flight. Many species, such as hawks, combine wing flapping flight with soaring flight, where the wings are held steady, since soaring requires less energy than flapping. Other species, such as hummingbirds, must flap continuously in order to hover. Because flying requires such large amounts of energy, birds have very high respiratory rates. Birds' body temperature is higher than other mammals, about 104°F or 40°C, which allows their muscles to work about 2.2 times faster. The shape and arrangement of the feathers are what allows birds to fly. Birds also have excellent eyesight and coordination. Approximately 60 species of birds do not fly.


Birds can pair up for one breeding season, such as robins, or sometimes for several seasons, which is called social monogamy. But only a few mate for life, such as bald eagles, which is called monogamy. Some species have one male who meets with many females, like chickens, called polygamy, or one female with many males, which is called polyandry, like some shorebirds, such as the Northern jacana.

Birds generally build nests in which they lay their eggs. There are a variety of types of nests, such as cups, domes, plates, beds, scrapes, mounds or burrows, all of which are shapes that are designed to protect the chicks. The albatross makes a scrape-type nest. It makes a slight impression in the ground in which to lay its eggs. Large birds, or those that live in colonies and can defend their nests, build more open-type nests. Most often, birds build their nests in hidden, sheltered places to ensure survival of their chicks. A few species, such as the Emperor Penguin, do not build nests at all.

In bird species that pair up, the bird parents will share the duties of incubation. Those species that are not monogamous rely on one parent who is responsible for all incubation duties. Incubation regulates the temperature within the egg for proper chick development. Incubation times vary from as short as ten days for a woodpecker and over 80 for an albatross.

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