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Taxonomy of Birds: Parts Is Parts

by Robin Tuck
July 1997

One of the keys to organizing knowledge about birds is to determine what parts make up the bird, then lump together all the birds whose parts have common attributes. This has been done, resulting in the current bird classifications now in use, and makes up the study of Ornithology.

Our understanding of birds grows when we learn the names of these parts and the attributes that cause birds to be lumped together. All of us pretty much understand "what makes a bird a bird": with a few exceptions, they have feathers and can fly. As we follow the classification down from "Avis" to the individual species, the details that separate one bird from another become more specific. We use these specific differences to identify particular birds.

To get better at identifying birds we need to know bird parts and attribute names. When we say "it has rufous coverts," we don’t know anything if we aren’t sure what "coverts" are or what "rufous" means.

There are general names for the different bird parts that we should learn. The generalized bird drawing below (obtained from a birding page on the Internet at the Peterson Online web site) shows the major parts. Scan through these names and become familiar with them.

Most of the part names make sense from our knowledge of the words in other contexts, but some of them are new, such as "coverts" mentioned above. Be sure to examine exactly what part of the bird the name describes. I have seldom been more embarrassed than when using a bird part name incorrectly conversing with one of my expert birding friends.