University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

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Welcome to basic bird anatomy and topography

What is a bird?

A bird is a warm blooded animal which is covered with feathers, lays hard-shelled eggs, and has wings for the front limbs. It has a four-chambered heart like mammals, but unlike them, has no teeth and has a specialized flow-through respiratory system with air sacs connected to the lungs. The anatomy exhibits many adaptations for flight.

wing anatomy

Skeleton:

Bird skeletons show many adaptations for flight, the most important being the reduction in bone, including hollow bones, as a way to cut down on weight.

Feathers:

Feathers are unique to birds. They are very complicated structures which primarily serve to make the bird aerodynamic, as well as keep it warm and dry.

Please note: It is not legal for individuals to have native birds, eggs, nests, feathers, or any parts in their possesion without permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and their state Department of Natural Resources (except legally hunted birds). Museums, nature centers, schools, and other educational institutions may keep them.

Illustrations of skeleton and feathers after: Alfred M. Lucas & Peter R. Stettenheim. 1972. Avian Anatomy- Integument, pts. 1, 2. Agriculture Handbook 362. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Recommended for further reading:

Austin, Oliver L. 1961. Birds of the World; a survey of the twenty-seven orders and one hundred and fifty-five families. Illustrated by Arthur Singer. New York, Golden Press.

Erhlich, Paul L. 1988. The Birder's handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American Birds. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Advanced high school and college level:

Gill, Frank B. 1995. Ornithology. New York, W. H. Freeman.

Elementary level:

Zoo Books

For information and pictures of different kinds of birds, see the Link to bird biodiversity web pages.

Last updated 3 April 1998 by Janet Hinshaw.