Data now suggest that birds belong within the reptile clade, but they display a number of unique adaptations that set them apart. Unlike the reptiles, birds are endothermic, meaning they generate their own body heat through metabolic processes. The most distinctive characteristic of birds is their feathers, which are modified reptilian scales. Birds have several different types of feathers that are specialized for specific functions, like contour feathers that streamline the bird’s exterior and loosely structured down feathers that insulate Figure 15.44).
Feathers not only permitted the earliest birds to glide, and ultimately engage in flapping flight, but they insulated the bird’s body, assisting the maintenance of endothermy, even in cooler temperatures. Powering a flying animal requires economizing on the amount of weight carried. As body weight increases, the muscle output and energetic cost required for flying increase. Birds have made several modifications to reduce body weight, including hollow or pneumatic bones(Figure 15.44) with air spaces that may be connected to air sacs and cross-linked struts within their bones to provide structural reinforcement. Parts of the vertebral skeleton and braincase are fused to increase its strength while lightening its weight. Most species of bird only possess one ovary rather than two, and no living birds have teeth in their jaw, further reducing body mass.
Birds possess a system of air sacs branching from their primary airway that divert the path of air so that it passes unidirectionally through the lung, during both inspiration and expiration. Unlike mammalian lungs in which air flows in two directions as it is breathed in and out, air flows continuously through the bird’s lung to provide a more efficient system of gas exchange.