Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bird Parts: An Introduction

As you know, here at Boom Chachalaca, we often focus on birding in itself, but love talking about the biology of birds as well.  It is my pleasure to introduce Ryan Ford, a close friend, birder, and veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania, who will be doing a series of short posts on some of the amazing anatomical and physiological adaptations of birds that help suit them for a life in the air.

~Luke Musher

Well hello all! I guess introductions are at hand.  I am Ryan Ford.  I’ve been a birder for a few years now and it’s mostly due to the direction of the wonderful Luke Musher, whom you’ve probably heard mentioned on this blog at some point.  The more I’ve birded the more I’ve come to realize that there are a great number of things that drive people to want to get out there and watch birds.  For some people it’s a simple pleasure of knowing what comes to the feeder and for others it goes to the extreme of competitions and twitching.  But a common feature amongst birders is what makes them choose birds.  Let’s think about it: birds can be colorful, they make pretty noises (well at least some do), they are easily accessible, there is both a great number and great diversity of species, and they play a major role in our world ecosystem.  I see a lot there to interest people with a wide sort of backgrounds.  Though, I’ve found, for me it isn’t so much the easily accessible parts of birds that are interesting.  For me it’s their insides that are exciting.
Inside this Red-breasted Nuthatch are a innumerable adaptations for flight that  are shared by all birds.  In future segments, Ryan Ford will discuss some of these amazing structural features of birds, and how they help birds, functionally, do the things they do.
A couple of months ago Luke and I were out on an excursion in southern New Jersey and I was regaling him with some stories from my first year in vet school.  For me birds are some of the most exciting animals in the world and they do a wonderful thing by deviating from the typical canine, feline, equine, and ruminant stuff I learn about most of the time.  I’m one of the few students in my class with a focus on avian medicine and I’m constantly trying to bring others over to the bird side of the force (get it? it’s a pun! Oh how I entertain myself).

Now what I realized during my talk with Luke was that, despite our infatuation with birds, the average birder may not truly appreciate what it takes to be a bird.  Many people become interested in birds due to the colors of their feathers, the musical notes to their songs, and to the wonderful diversity in size and shape.  All of these things draw us in and provide us with the entertainment of great soaring raptors, flashy warblers, and the wonderful challenge that is separating Empidonax flycatchers.  All of this is wonderful and it’s plenty to keep us occupied for the rest of our time watching birds.  However, for me, it’s what’s on the inside of birds that is really and truly stunning.  Birds have gone above and beyond when it comes to adapting their bodies for the ability to fly.  The pressure of becoming an airborne species has driven some of the most extreme modifications to the traditional animal model that the world has ever seen.  Birds are so radically different, even from their closest reptilian relatives, when it comes to what makes them go.  And these differences manifest themselves in every organ system.
Unlike birds, mammals, such as this Steller's sea lion, retain many of the homologies, or shared structural characteristics of their "reptillian" ancestors as can be seen in their digestive and respiratory systems.  Birds systems are unique, functionally minimizing and centralizing their weight, and increasing their metabolism.
What I would like to do with my contributions to this blog, is bring to light some of these differences so others can share my excitement over avian anatomy. Maybe I’ll even get people more excited about birdwatching because they might understand a deeper meaning behind why birds do the things they do.  In order to do that, I will be writing segments that deal with an individual body system and explaining what makes it so spectacular in birds.  And I’ll try to give you a few examples of the amazing extremes that are present in the avian world while I’m at it.
TTFN, cheers, and good birding!


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