Birds are truly beautiful creatures, they are also fascinating and all around us, roosting and nesting on our buildings and feeding in our gardens and refuse dumps, they are easy to find and fun to observe.
Birds are probably the most beloved group of wild animals on the planet. Their ubiquitous presence, colorful form, intelligent actions and cheeky mannerisms endear them to us all. Birds are easy to love. The existence of societies like the National Audubon Society of America with 550 000 members and the RSPB, originally of the UK, with over 1,000,000 members are a testament to how popular birds are.
Birds can be found on all major land masses from the poles to the tropics as well as in or over all our seas and oceans and their accompanying islands.
The total number of birds on the planet is very difficult to estimate because their populations fluctuate seasonally, but scientists have suggested that there may be between 100,000 and 200,000 million adult or near adult birds on the planet at any one time. Of these the most common or populous wild bird in the world is the Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) from south of the Sahara in Africa. These birds are so prolific that they are serious pests of grain and millions are killed at roost sites every year in a vain attempt to control their numbers.
The rarest bird in the world is much harder to estimate because though a large number of birds are rare, in most cases the exact number of birds left living for any given species is impossible to ascertain. Some species have been rare for a long time. These include the Sudanese Red Sea Cliff Swallow (Hirundo perdita) seen once in 1984 and the Orange-necked Partridge (Arborophila davidi) seen once in 1927. Other birds are known or believed to be extinct in the wild but still have some representatives living in captivity. A good example of this is the Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spiscii) hunted to the brink of extinction to satisfy the foolish demands of the pet trade.
Since the 1600s at least 115 species of bird are known to have gone extinct, mostly as a result of human interference of one sort or another. However, we humans are not all bad and sometimes the good guys win. Some prime examples of this are the Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) once down to 4 wild individuals, but now there are more than 300, and the Californian Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) which after the last wild male was caught in 1987 was down to 27 individuals all in captivity. By 1994 captive breeding had brought the population up to 75 with 9 in the wild.
The most common bird in the world is probably the Red Junglefowl(Gallus gallus) most regularly seen as the common domestic chicken and then called Gallus gallus domesticus, or in some places Gallus domesticus.
The most widespread and commonly seen wild bird in the world is probably the European House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) which has been transported all over the world by European settlers and can now be found on 2/3 of the land masses of the world including New Zealand, Australia, N. America, India and of course Europe.
The other contender is the Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) of Africa, whose population, while restricted to a part of Africa where it is considered a serious pest by farmers is estimated to be around 1.5 billion birds.
There are 3 possible ways of measuring largest in birds; heaviest, tallest and or longest wingspan, however, whatever way you choose, the records are all held by extinct species. The heaviest bird ever was probably the extinct Dromornis stirtoni from Australia. This flightless giant lived between 1 and 15 million years ago and probably stood nearly 3m/10ft tall and weighed in at a massive 500kg/1100lb. The tallest bird ever was, as far as we know, Dinornus maximus, a Giant Moa from New Zealand. This giant though only half as heavy as the Australian Dromornis stood an incredible 3.7m/12.1ft tall. Another extinct bird, this time from S. America, has the record for largest flying bird and longest wingspan. The Giant Teratorn (Argentavis magnificens) had a wingspan of at least 6M/19.5ft and could possibly have been as large as 7.5m/25ft.
As with insects, spiders, lizards and amphibians, living species are all smaller than their extinct ancestors. However they are still pretty impressive.
The largest living bird is without doubt the Ostrich (Struthio camelus). This ever popular bird stands a magnificent 2.74m (9ft) high and can weigh as much as 160kg (353lb).
The heaviest flying bird is the Kori Bustard of Africa (Ardeotis kori), a number of specimens have been scientifically recorded weighing 19kg (42lb) and heavier specimens have been reported but not confirmed. Close runner-ups are the Eurasian Bustard (Otis tarda) and the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) both of which have been recorded at 18kg or (40lb).
The title of 'Bird with the Longest Wings' also has several close contenders with the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) with a well recorded wingspan of 3m (10ft) and the Maribou Stork (Leptoptilus crumeniferous) with a know wing span 2.87 m (9ft6ins) and an unconfirmed report of a specimen with a 4.06 m (13ft 4ins) are undoubtedly the longest winged birds on land. However real record holders are birds that live at sea. The Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora has been regularly recorded with a wingspan of 3.5 m (11ft 6ins). However the Wandering Albatross, (Diomedia exulans) which has a similar average wingspan holds the scientific record for wing length. A male caught and measured by the Antarctic research ship USNS Eltanin in the Tasman sea in 1965 had a wingspan of 3.63m (11 ft 11 ins) and so holds the crown for having the longest officially recorded wings in a living bird. However, as with all these records, there are other unconfirmed reports of even larger specimens.
The smallest bird in the world is generally agreed to be the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) from Cuba which weighs a mere 1.6g or 0.056oz. Shortest wings and body length are not really appropriate measurements because they are disproportionately affected by whether or not the bird is flightless or not and its beak length respectively. Another major contender for smallest bird is the Little Woodstar (Acestrura bombus) from S. America. Both these tiny miracles of life fly very competently. The smallest flightless bird is the Inaccessible Island Rail (Altantisia rogersi). Reaching a mere 12.5cm/5inches in length and weighing 35g/1.45oz this little beauty can only be found in the southern Atlantic Tristan da Cunha Islands.
Quite a lot of information is known about birds and here are some more record breakers, but remember nature still has a lot of secrets she has kept hidden, the Pheasant Lothura haitinensis from Vietnam only became known to science in 1986 so only time will reveal the whole truth.