Feathers, flyways and fast food

Original by Dr Margaret Rowe, 2002
Last revised by the Department of the Environment and Heritage, December 2004
ISBN 0 6425 4820 X

How are birds classified?

Biologists group living creatures using a system based on similarities and differences between them. The classification system includes a "family tree"showing how creatures are related to each other, and telling the story of evolution.

Birds belong to the animal kingdom

Within the animal kingdom they are grouped under Phylum Chordata in the Class Aves– the birds.

Within the Class Aves, birds are classified into smaller groups known as orders and families. Each bird has a scientific name: a genus and a species. Worldwide, it has been agreed that the genus is always written first and begins with an upper case letter. The species is written entirely in lower case letters. Both the genus and species are written in italic font.

As examples, a shorebird, the Red-necked Stint, a tern, the Little Tern, and a human are classified and named in the table below:

Classification of birds
  Red-necked Stint Little Tern Human
Kingdom Animal Animal Animal
Phylum Chordata Chordata Chordata
Class Aves Aves Mammalia
Order Charidriiformes Charidriiformes Primate
Family Scholopacidae Sternidae Hominidae
Genus & species Calidris ruficollis Sterna albifrons Homo sapiens
Common name Red-necked Stint Little Tern Human

Special features of birds

  1. Birds have feathers
  2. Birds have bills (beaks)
  3. Birds have no teeth
  4. Birds are endothermic ("warm blooded"– use energy obtained from their food to maintain a constant body temperature)
  5. Birds produce large eggs, with a rich food supply for the developing embryo
  6. Birds have highly developed senses, communication systems and some have elaborate navigation systems
  7. Birds have elaborate behaviour patterns associated with reproduction.

Where do birds fit in among the vertebrates (animals with backbones)?

Keys like the one here are used to help people decide what type of animal (or plant) they have found. Keys are not perfect–sometimes you can think of some exceptions!

Key to the vertebrates
1a Has scales on its skin, has gills, lays eggs in water, has no legs fish
1b The animal is not as in 1a go to 2
2a Has no scales on skin, adults have legs, lay eggs in water amphibian
2b Not as in 2a go to 3
3a Has scales on its skin, lays eggs on land, eggs have a leathery shell reptile
3b Not as in 3a go to 4
4a Has feathers, lays eggs with hard shells bird
4b Has fur (or bristles), females feed young on milk mammal

Some unusual examples:

  • What bird(s) have very unusual feathers that look more like fur?
  • What mammals have very little, or no fur?
  • What mammals lay eggs?

What are shorebirds?

Shorebirds, sometimes called waders, feed in shallow water or on wet sandy or muddy flats on coastal and inland wetlands. They are a group of families of birds that belong to the order Charadriiformes. Shorebirds include plovers, sandpipers, stints, curlew, knot, snipe, godwits and oystercatchers.

Terns are often included under the heading shorebirds. They are not waders but seabirds that feed by diving for fish. However, like shorebirds, they often rest in flocks (roost) on beaches and the shores of lakes.

Many species of shorebirds and terns are long-distance migrants. Most of the migratory shorebirds breed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, during the northern summer. They journey to the temperate regions of the southern hemisphere for the southern summer.