Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Birds: A Wonder of Wildlife


Pet Column for the week of October 9, 2006


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelyn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

Birds are unbelievable creatures who have tamed the skies, unlike any other animal on this planet. "Birds can be found in every single ecosystem on this planet except for the deep sea," reminds Dr. Julia Wittington, a wildlife and exotics veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill.

They are physiologically incredible creatures who have adapted to their homes in the sky, and yet make great companions and pets. Here are a few tidbits about these fascinating creatures.

The cartilaginous tube that connects the lungs of humans to the upper airway is called a trachea. Our tracheas are half circles of cartilage and a connecting muscle, giving them the ability to collapse. Birds have fully-ringed tracheas. The trachea is always open due to the need for rapid air transit from the lungs to the nose and sinuses. For this reason, a bird cannot be choked. Another difference is that birds have a very prominent sternum, called a keel, that functions to steer the bird like a rudder and it works as a bellow, similar to an accordion. When the accordion is expanded, air is sucked in through the musical instrument making the sound. A bird's breathing apparatus works similar, except the muscles around the sternum create the expansion effect.

Birds have lungs that are stiff and attached to the body wall, unlike mammal lungs which are pliable and relatively free floating. They have a breathing pathway that is comprised of air sacs and are oriented such that a bird is never exhaling without inhaling at the same time. Their air sacs actually permeate into their bones. This component helps them have more surface area to breathe. This also makes their bones lighter and easier for lift. However, it has the disadvantage of making them very vulnerable to fractures. Since the bones are continuous with the chest cavity, this means that breaking a bone has extremely grave consequences.

Birds have been used as neurological research cases because it has been proven that birds actually grow brain matter when learning a new song. This is unbelievable because neural tissue does not re-grow, or even continue to grow after a certain point, in mammalian development. If researchers could determine how birds are able to do this, we could possibly cure paralysis in human beings.

A bird has a very prominent eye socket that takes up most of its head. This is because vision is so important to the hunting and survival of birds. Birds have bony plates in their eyes to keep the eye architecture in place and protect from damage and vision loss. Many humans lose our vision as we grow older because the structure of our eye relaxes and we can not refract light appropriately. This bony plate protects the bird from just that.

Birds have glands called uropygial glands that secrete an oily substance. Birds are constantly using their beaks to spread this oil all over their body. This is referred to as preening. This oil not only makes them waterproof, and thus the old adage, "Like water off a ducks back," but it helps them regulate their body temperature as well.

Lastly, one adaptive behavior that birds have learned to do, while seemingly undignified, is to lick their own feces when they are young. This behavior although not highly revered by the civilized masses, is extremely beneficial in generating antibodies to all the disease-causing bacteria that a bird will come in contact with in his lifetime. After a bird has produced these antibodies it is protected for life.

Birds are a common sight whether you live in New York City, the Plains of Montana or the swamp in Florida. They are everywhere, and yet we often forget what unbelievable creatures they truly are.