Most people know a bird when they see one. It has feathers, wings and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with special songs and calls.
Taxonomically, birds are a “class” of vertebrates. Other classes include the bony fishes, the amphibians, the reptiles and the mammals.
Birds are subdivided into orders, including groups like the ducks, geese and swans; the pheasants, grouse, turkey and quail; the pigeons and doves; the owls; the hummingbirds; the woodpeckers; and the songbirds, or perching birds.
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 species have been recorded within our borders. There are about 10,000 species of birds in the world.
Birds are important to humans and nature
- Bird-watching and bird-feeding are rewarding activities that engage one-fifth of the population. It’s a $25 billion industry that involves tourism, birdbaths, birdseed, binoculars and more.
- As predators, birds control thousands of insect species—borers, beetles, caterpillars and more—many of which harm crops, gardens and trees or, like mosquitoes, transmit diseases.
- Raptors and owls prey on mice and other rodents that can be destructive to human interests.
- Game birds—turkey, quail, doves, ducks, geese and others—provide sport and food for humans and are part of the $22 billion hunting industry.
- As grain-eaters and herbivores, birds can be agricultural pests. Birds that eat fish can be problems at fish hatcheries.
- As poultry, domesticated birds provide income for farmers and food for our tables.
- Turkey vultures clean dead animals from our roads and from natural habitats.
- Humans cherish birds as pets. For millennia, falconry has used raptors for sport hunting. Pigeons deliver messages, and doves are released at weddings and other events.
- Soft, insulating body feathers are used in down coats, pillows and comforters.
- People used to make ink pens from the plumes of birds. Think of the many important books and historical documents that were written with feathers!
- Birds have inspired humans for millennia. They serve as religious and national symbols. They represent beauty, song, flight and hope, while others—such as owls and vultures—have borne fearful connotations.
- Drastic declines and extinctions caused by unregulated hunting of birds for meat and of egrets for plumes in women’s hats helped spur the conservation movement in the late 1800s.