Bird anatomy

External anatomy (topography) of a typical bird: 1 Beak, 2 Head, 3 Iris, 4 Pupil, 5 Mantle, 6 Lesser coverts, 7 Scapulars, 8 Coverts, 9 Tertials, 10 Rump, 11 Primaries, 12 Vent, 13 Thigh, 14 Tibio-tarsal articulation, 15 Tarsus, 16 Feet, 17 Tibia, 18 Belly, 19 Flanks, 20 Breast, 21 Throat, 22 Wattle, 23 Eyestripe

Bird anatomy, or the physiological structure of birds' bodies, shows many unique adaptations, mostly aiding flight. Birds have a light skeletal system and light but powerful musculature which, along with circulatory and respiratory systems capable of very high metabolic rates and oxygen supply, permit the bird to fly. The development of a beak has led to evolution of a specially adapted digestive system. These anatomical specializations have earned birds their own class in the vertebrate phylum.

Skeletal system

Birds have many bones that are hollow (pneumatized) with criss-crossing struts or trusses for structural strength. The number of hollow bones varies among species, though large gliding and soaring birds tend to have the most. Respiratory air sacs often form air pockets within the semi-hollow bones of the bird's skeleton.[1] The bones of diving birds are often less hollow than those of non-diving species. Penguins, loons,[2] and puffins are without pneumatized bones entirely.[3][4] Flightless birds, such as ostriches and emus, have pneumatized femurs[5] and, in the case of the emu, pneumatized cervical vertebrae.[6]

Axial skeleton

The bird skeleton is highly adapted for flight. It is extremely lightweight but strong enough to withstand the stresses of taking off, flying, and landing. One key adaptation is the fusing of bones into single ossifications, such as the pygostyle. Because of this, birds usually have a smaller number of bones than other terrestrial vertebrates. Birds also lack teeth or even a true jaw, and instead have a beak, which is far more lightweight. The beaks of many baby birds have a projection called an egg tooth, which facilitates their exit from the amniotic egg, which falls off once it has done its job.

Vertebral column

The vertebral column is divided into five sections of vertebrae:

  • Cervical (11–25) (neck)
  • Trunk (dorsal or thoracic) vertebrae usually fused in the notarium.
  • Synsacrum (fused vertebrae of the back also fused to the hips/pelvis). This region is similar to the sacrum in mammals and is unique in the pigeon because it is a fusion of the sacral, lumbar, and caudal vertebra. It is attached to the pelvis and supports terrestrial locomotion of the pigeon's legs.
  • Caudal (5–10): This region is similar to the coccyx in mammals and helps control the movement of feathers during flight.
  • Pygostyle (tail): This region is made up of 4 to 7 fused vertebrae and is the point of feather attachment.
Highlighted in red is an intact keeled sternum of a dissected pigeon. In flying birds the sternum is enlarged for increased muscle attachment.
Air-sacs and their distribution

The neck of a bird is composed of 13–25 cervical vertebrae enabling birds to have increased flexibility. [7] A flexible neck allows many birds with immobile eyes to move their head more productively and center their sight on objects that are close or far in distance.[8] Most birds have about three times as many neck vertebrae than humans, which allows for increased stability during fast movements such as flying, landing, and taking-off.[9] The neck plays a role in head-bobbing which is present in at least 8 out of 27 orders of birds, including Columbiformes, Galliformes, and Gruiformes.[10] Head-bobbing is an optokinetic response which stabilizes a birds surroundings as they alternate between a thrust phase and a hold phase.[11] Head-bobbing is synchronous with the feet as the head moves in accordance with the rest of the body.[11] Data from various studies suggest that the main reason for head-bobbing in some birds is for the stabilization of their surroundings, although it is uncertain why some but not all bird orders show head-bob.[12]

Birds are the only vertebrates to have fused collarbones and a keeled breastbone.[7] The keeled sternum serves as an attachment site for the muscles used in flying or swimming.[7] Flightless birds, such as ostriches, lack a keeled sternum and have denser and heavier bones compared to birds that fly.[13] Swimming birds have a wide sternum, walking birds have a long sternum, and flying birds have a sternum that is nearly equal in width and height.[14]

The chest consists of the furcula (wishbone) and coracoid (collar bone), which, together with the scapula, form the pectoral girdle. The side of the chest is formed by the ribs, which meet at the sternum (mid-line of the chest).


Birds have uncinate processes on the ribs. These are hooked extensions of bone which help to strengthen the rib cage by overlapping with the rib behind them. This feature is also found in the tuatara (Sphenodon).


The typical cranial anatomy of a bird. Pmx= premaxilla, M= maxilla, D= dentary, V= vomer, Pal= palatine, Pt= Pterygoid, Lc= Lacrimal

The skull consists of five major bones: the frontal (top of head), parietal (back of head), premaxillary and nasal (top beak), and the mandible (bottom beak). The skull of a normal bird usually weighs about 1% of the bird's total body weight. The eye occupies a considerable amount of the skull and is surrounded by a sclerotic eye-ring, a ring of tiny bones. This characteristic is also seen in reptiles.

Broadly speaking, avian skulls consist of many small, non-overlapping bones. Paedomorphosis, maintenance of the ancestral state in adults, is thought to have facilitated the evolution of the avian skull. In essence, adult bird skulls will resemble the juvenile form of their theropod dinosaur ancestors.[15] As the avian lineage has progressed and has paedomorphosis has occurred, they have lost the postorbital bone behind the eye, the ectopterygoid at the back of the palate, and teeth.[16][17] The palate structures have also become greatly altered with changes, mostly reductions, seen in the ptyergoid, palatine, and jugal bones. A reduction in the adductor chambers has also occurred [17] These are all conditions seen in the juvenile form of their ancestors. The premaxillary bone has also hypertrophied to form the beak while the maxilla has become diminished, as suggested by both developmental [15] and paleontological [18] studies. This expansion into the beak has occurred in tandem with the loss of a functional hand and the developmental of a point at the front of the beak that resembles a "finger".[17] The premaxilla is also known to play a large role in feeding behaviours in fish.[19][20]

The structure of the avian skull has important implications for their feeding behaviours. Birds show independent movement of the skull bones known as cranial kinesis. Cranial kinesis in birds occurs in several forms, but all of the different varieties are all made possible by the anatomy of the skull. Animals with large, overlapping bones (including the ancestors of modern birds)[21] have akinetic (non-kinetic) skulls.[22] [23] For this reason it has been argued that the paedomorphic bird beak can be seen as an evolutionary innovation.[17]

Birds have a diapsid skull, as in reptiles, with a pre-lachrymal fossa (present in some reptiles). The skull has a single occipital condyle.[24]

Appendicular skeleton

The shoulder consists of the scapula (shoulder blade), coracoid, and humerus (upper arm). The humerus joins the radius and ulna (forearm) to form the elbow. The carpus and metacarpus form the "wrist" and "hand" of the bird, and the digits are fused together. The bones in the wing are extremely light so that the bird can fly more easily.

The hips consist of the pelvis, which includes three major bones: the ilium (top of the hip), ischium (sides of hip), and pubis (front of the hip). These are fused into one (the innominate bone). Innominate bones are evolutionary significant in that they allow birds to lay eggs. They meet at the acetabulum (hip socket) and articulate with the femur, which is the first bone of the hind limb.

The upper leg consists of the femur. At the knee joint, the femur connects to the tibiotarsus (shin) and fibula (side of lower leg). The tarsometatarsus forms the upper part of the foot, digits make up the toes. The leg bones of birds are the heaviest, contributing to a low center of gravity, which aids in flight. A bird's skeleton accounts for only about 5% of its total body weight.

They have a greatly elongate tetradiate pelvis, similar to some reptiles. The hind limb has an intra-tarsal joint found also in some reptiles. There is extensive fusion of the trunk vertebrae as well as fusion with the pectoral girdle.


Four types of bird feet
(right foot diagrams)

Birds' feet are classified as anisodactyl, zygodactyl, heterodactyl, syndactyl or pamprodactyl.[25] Anisodactyl is the most common arrangement of digits in birds, with three toes forward and one back. This is common in songbirds and other perching birds, as well as hunting birds like eagles, hawks, and falcons.

Syndactyly, as it occurs in birds, is like anisodactyly, except that the third and fourth toes (the outer and middle forward-pointing toes), or three toes, are fused together, as in the belted kingfisher Ceryle alcyon. This is characteristic of Coraciiformes (kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, etc.).

Zygodactyl (from Greek ζυγον, a yoke) feet have two toes facing forward (digits two and three) and two back (digits one and four). This arrangement is most common in arboreal species, particularly those that climb tree trunks or clamber through foliage. Zygodactyly occurs in the parrots, woodpeckers (including flickers), cuckoos (including roadrunners), and some owls. Zygodactyl tracks have been found dating to 120–110 Ma (early Cretaceous), 50 million years before the first identified zygodactyl fossils.[26]

Heterodactyly is like zygodactyly, except that digits three and four point forward and digits one and two point back. This is found only in trogons, while pamprodactyl is an arrangement in which all four toes may point forward, or birds may rotate the outer two toes backward. It is a characteristic of swifts (Apodidae).

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