When you step outside in spring, one of the first things you will hear (depending on where you live) are birds singing. Every year starting around this time, migrating birds show up to claim their territories and find a partner for the season, while birds that overwintered at your feeders begin to disperse. The song of a robin and the sight of graceful white swans is something the whole Yukon looks forward to each year. Birds are a part of our life, a part of the passing of the seasons, creatures that have lived here forever.
But how long have birds been here, really?
Native American legends tell of great Thunderbirds, the first birds to be created by the ‘Earth-maker’, or ‘Great Spirit’. The giant Thunderbirds could make themselves invisible and travelled through the heavens. Each wing-beat sounded as a clap of thunder in the skies. Occasionally, Thunderbirds would lose a feather, and these feathers would become other birds. The largest feathers would become eagles, while the smallest bits of down turned into hummingbirds and such.
There are many legends about the ‘first birds’. There have also been many scientific discoveries.
According to a 2008 National Geographic article, birds came into being about one hundred million years ago.
“Fossil records suggest that modern birds originated 60 million years ago, after the end of the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago when dinosaurs died off. But molecular studies suggest that the genetic divergences between many lineages of birds occurred during the Cretaceous period. Now a new study based on molecular evidence suggests that avian ancestors were flapping their wings some 40 million years earlier than thought.” (Sara Goudarzi, February 8, 2008: National Geographic News)
You can read the article here. Other websites with newer information claim birds first appeared in the Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago.
It’s a nearly incomprehensible amount of time, and with so many pieces missing in the great ‘prehistoric evolution’ puzzle, it is difficult to say exactly when birds first came to be.
For a long time, it was commonly believed that Archaeopteryx was the first ‘bird’ to evolve from feathered dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx could be found in southern Germany 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic Period. It is described as ranging in size between a European Magpie and a Raven, measuring about 1.6feet long. It is thought to have had broad wings, sharp teeth, three clawed fingers, and a long bony tail. The discovery of Archaeopteryx occurred two years after Charles Darwin released his publication ‘On the Origin of Species’, acting as an important source of evidence towards the confirmation of evolution, and the origin of birds. You can read more about Archaeopteryx here. In later years, discoveries of new avialan dinosaurs such as Anchiornis, Xiaotingia, and Aurornis replaced Archaeopteryx as the world’s earliest birds, while more information indicated Archaeopteryx to be just another form of feathered dinosaur – not a bird at all. Aurornis xui is possibly the most primitive, and earliest avialan found to date.
Despite prehistoric world disaster, dinosaurs did not go completely extinct. Birds evolved from them and survived; we see them around us every day. Some birds living in the modern world still keep that reptilian/dinosaur appearance, reminding us that a group of dinosaurs live and breath among us even now. In our backyard my family keeps a flock of little dinosaurs with wonderful personalities and pretty names, who fertilize the garden and provide us with breakfast every morning. You may know them as chickens.
There are other birds you can find in the various corners of the earth today that bear a great resemblance to their prehistoric ancestors, including Emus, Ostriches, and the African Shoebill (a bird I personally find scary!). One of the most primitive birds living today are Hoatzins, which are found in South America. You can watch a short video about these impressive birds here.
You may want to check out another link here, which goes to the American Museum of Natural History website’s ‘Birds are Dinosaurs’ section. There is a lot of great written and interactive information there!
Birds are precious to us, and yet are one of the many things we often take for granted. They are remarkable animals – dinosaurs that survived. Legends come to life. Unfortunately, the rate of birds declining today and the number of species that have and are going extinct is very high.
What will happen to our birds? They survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, but what will the future bring?
Though it seems like birds have always been here and they always will be, I will never take them for granted. They are enchanting animals who bring tidings of the changing seasons and happiness to those who behold them. I will always enjoy every moment I find myself near them.