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Birds, are a class of vertebrate animals characterized by bipedalism, wing pattern and toothless beaks. They are the only current representatives of theropod dinosaurs, while all other groups of dinosaurs described as “non-avian” are extinct.
While there are, as of 2020, 10,930 bird species recorded (more than half of which are passerines), very different in both ecology and behaviour, each of them has a common set of obvious features that allow them to be grouped together, in particular horny scales and feathers, a toothless jaw enveloped by a horny sheath forming a beak, a short bony tail, forelimbs transformed into wings (functional or not, this characteristic being particularly rare in vertebrates) and hind limbs that are normally used alone for progression on the ground or in the water. In addition, they are all oviparous, i.e. they lay eggs surrounded by a thin hard shell, and they are all permanent homeotherms.
The anatomy and physiology of the majority of birds tend to favour their flight as much as possible: weight reduction (spinal column characterised by the high number of vertebrae fused into a single, very solid piece of bone, the synsacrum; absence of a bladder, functional right ovary, skin devoid of integumentary glands except for the uropygeal gland, lightening of the skeleton by pneumatic bones, reduction of ventral and dorsal musculature).
The aerodynamic body and a strong pectoral musculature are also favourable factors for flying. Finally, a very active metabolism favoured by an energetic food and an efficient respiratory system thanks to the presence of air bags allow them to produce the high and durable power required for flight. Speciation of terrestrial avifauna has however given rise to some birds unfit to fly (Struthioniformes, penguins, etc.).
Cosmopolitan, the birds populate all environments, from the Antarctic ice caps to equatorial forests and deserts. This distribution has been made possible thanks to varied anatomical, physiological and behavioural adaptations (in particular the migratory phenomenon). This phenotypic plasticity is also found in the size range from the Elena Hummingbird measuring 5 cm to the African Ostrich which can reach 2.75 m in height.
Birds and mammals include some of the species that perform best in animal intelligence tests, with parrots and corvids having the ability to use tools. All these characteristics are studied by ornithologists.
The evolutionary history of birds makes these small animals, which appeared in the Middle Jurassic, the direct descendants of winged, feathered dinosaurs. Hence their grouping in the dinosaur clade. Current cladistic analyses link them to the saurischian dinosaurs, among them to the set of theropods (bipedal carnivores) and, among the many sub-clades that make it up, to the Maniraptora group. Within the Maniraptorians, all the birds are gathered in the clade of the Avialae, which forms, with its two brother groups, the Troodontidae and the Dromaeosauridae, the group of the Paraves (the “almost birds”). The rapid miniaturisation of this line of feathered dinosaurs, in about fifty million years, is probably linked to the accelerated evolution of anatomical innovations (formation of wings and complex plumage, fusion of the clavicles into furcula, development of the sternum into a wishbone essential for beaten flight, redistribution of body mass) which enabled them to colonise new habitats in trees, sources of food and shelter from predators.