Redwing amongst winter berries

Our Feathered Friends

Blue tit perched on a branch
Blue Tit. Image credit: John Howlett

With the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch taking place from the 29-31 January, we have chosen to celebrate our fine feathered friends with a special Nature Classroom all about British birds. We will be uncovering what it is to be a bird, unfurling an amazing world of feathers, and creating a key together for common garden birds. Get your eye in by trying some of our activities, then join the Big Garden Birdwatch and collect data on the birds of the UK (it’s easy to sign up – find the details on the RSPB website).

These activities support learning in the following areas:

Goldcrest
Goldcrest. Image credit: John Howlett
  • Identify and name a variety of common animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals
  • Recognise that living things can be grouped in a variety of ways
  • Describe how living things are classified into broad groups according to common observable characteristics and based on similarities and differences
  • Explore and use classification keys to help group, identify and name a variety of living things in their local and wider environment
  • Identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

What is a bird?

Robin on a blue post
Robin. Image credit: John Howlett

Think of a bird – what comes to mind? A robin? A pigeon? A chicken? They may be different colours and sizes, feed on different foods and live in different ways, but birds all share a set of features that we don’t see in other animals. We can use these features to help us define what a bird is. There are also features that birds share with other animals that we can use to work out where they fit in the tree of life.

Feathers

Feather close up, showing barbs branching off the central rachis. Image credit: Dwayne Madden CC BY 2.0

Birds are the only animals alive today to have feathers. Take a close look at a feather, and you can see that they are truly wonderful structures. Like the fur of mammals, feathers are made out of a protein called keratin. Along the length of the feather is a stiff support called the rachis from which branch the thinner, flexible barbs that make the vanes of the feather. These barbs are branched themselves, with tiny hooks called barbules holding them together. If you have a feather, you could try gently pulling apart the barbs, then running the gap between your thumb and finger to get the barbs to zip back up again like velcro.

White feather on a dark backdrop
Feather. Image credit: Geopungo CC BY 2.0

Some feather barbs don’t zip together – these feathers look fluffy and are purely to keep the bird warm (trapping their body heat as fur does in mammals), whereas the feathers that zip together have other jobs like flight. As they are on the outside, feathers are also important for camouflage and communication. You can find out more about animal colour with our Nature Classroom: Exploring Evolution through Colour

Siskin perched on bare branches
Siskin (c) Holly Occhipinti CC BY 2.0

Feathers come in an extraordinary range of colours. Just take a look at our garden birds and you can see reds, blues, yellows and greens as well as every shade of brown and grey you could imagine. If we look at feathers of different colours, you may notice that brown and grey feathers sometimes have a pattern to them – stripes, spots, dots… This is possible because of the way the pigment that makes these brown and grey colours (called melanin) is laid down as the feather grows.

Task: Create and colour your own feathers from paper

Download our Create Paper Feather sheet and make your own feather to explore feather patterns.

Flight

Flying fish specimen preserved in sprit
Flying Fish

Birds can fly. There are very few animals with backbones that can do true, flapping flight – only birds, bats, and the extinct pterosaurs. But what about flying lemurs? And flying squirrels? And flying fish? These animals don’t fly but glide. Flying lemurs (a doubly confusing name as they don’t fly and are not lemurs) and flying squirrels have skin stretched between their limbs that slows their descent helping them to glide from tree to tree rather than plummet to the ground. Flying fish glide above the ocean using wing-like front (or pectoral) fins. But what is the difference between this and true flight?

Flight feather
Flight feather. Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

Birds and bats (and flying insects) flap their wings to create lift. The shape of the wings are really important in this – we will come back to flight in a future Nature Classroom, but if you find a bird’s feather you can tell if it is a flight feather from the wing as the two vanes will be different widths, this asymmetric shape helping to create the all important wing shape.

Beak

Have you heard the saying ‘rare as hens’ teeth’? If you look at the birds feeding in your garden, you may notice that they don’t have any teeth. Their mouths are very different to ours, with a rigid bill or beak that they can use to pick up or capture food. Bird beaks are adapted to the type of food they eat – you can find out all about this with our Nature Classroom: Bird Beaks and Evolution.

Photograph of a blue tit carrying a caterpillar in its beak

Task: Watch the birds in your garden, school grounds or local green space. Can you see them feeding? What are they eating and how?

(Image credit: John Howlett)

Download our Bird Feeding Diary sheet to keep a record of what you have seen and when.

Dinosaurs

Cast of Archaeopteryx
Cast of Archaeopteryx. Can you see the feathers on the wings? And the bones running down the tail?

Yes, you read that correctly. Birds are dinosaurs. How do we know that? This is where looking at the skeleton can really help us to understand evolution. Scientists have know that birds are dinosaurs for a long time. Have you heard of the fossil called Archaeopteryx (pronouced ar-kee-op-tuh-riks)? This is the earliest fossil bird and it was found in a very fine-grained limestone in Germany that preserved the details of the feathers as well as the bones. Yes, Archaeopteryx had feathers. Not only did it have feathers, it had those asymmetric flight feathers, so we know it could fly.

So how do the fossils of Archaeopetryx point to birds being dinosaurs? Its skeleton was very like that of theropod dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Deinonychus. Archaeopteryx still had teeth, and had a dinosaur-like bony tail. But these closely-related dinosaurs also share features of the hips and shoulders, a flexible wrist with a special bone call the semi-lunate carpal, hollow bones, and the list goes on. We also now have many dinosaur fossils with feathers.

Which birds can you see?

Take a look out of your window and, with a bit of patience, you are likely to see a variety of different birds. In winter, there is less food available in the wild, so you are even more likely to see birds if you position a bird feeder where you can watch it from your window. The different species of birds we get in the garden can be quite easily identified by the way they look – their size, shape, colours and patterns in their feathers etc. Why not create your own classification key for the birds in your garden.

Pair of goldfinch specimens

Task: Use the species on your doorstep to develop your own classification key.

What is a key? This is something used by scientists to identify a living thing that they have found by answering a series of questions. Answer one question and it will take you onto the next, eventually leading to the name of the species you have seen.

Specimens of starling, goldfinch, blue tit, robin, blackbird and bullfinch

Here is a very simply key that you can follow to identify these six birds you might see in your garden:

Diagram of a simple classification key

Now you have a go, either using the birds in this example or some of the birds you have seen in your garden, through your window or in your local green space.

These keys are simple ones, but follow the same pattern as the keys that scientists use. The big difference is in how detailed the features that scientists use in their keys are – they take a lot of care to make them as accurate and specific as possible.

It is important to remember that a key like this is just used for identification – it does not tell us about how these types of birds are related to one another. For example, goldfinches and bullfinches are in the same family, but they have not been put close together on the key.

Birds in Winter

Winter is a great time to watch the birds in your garden. Food is in short supply, so put out some food for them and you could be treated to some wonderful garden visitors. Find out more about garden birds in winter and how to support them with our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds post.

If you go near a river or lake on your daily exercise, you can look out for water birds too, like these seen on and around the River Cam:

Are the birds we see in winter the same as the ones we see in summer? Some are, but some are likely to be winter visitors – birds that are escaping even colder and harsher conditions further north. You can find out more about our winter visitors on our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife:Winter Visitors post.

Here’s a redwing, one of the birds you might see feeding on berries in the UK over the winter months.

Redwing amongst winter berries
Redwing. Image credit: John Howlett

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